Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Errol Spence Dilemma

Jermain Taylor. Andre Berto. Paul Williams. Adrien Broner. These fighters have a number of commonalities. All were managed and/or advised by influential power broker Al Haymon. They received a big push by premium cable prior to winning their first titles. Initially, all four had relatively inexperienced head trainers in pro boxing (Pat Burns, Tony Morgan, George Peterson and Mike Stafford, respectively). And all didn't fully live up to their respective hype. This isn't to say that they were failures in boxing. All had their moments, but, to be candid, more was expected from them. None met their initial expectations.

Williams lost in his first defense to unheralded Carlos Quintana. Berto couldn't overcome Victor Ortiz's power punching. Broner bit off more than he could chew at welterweight against Marcos Maidana and from my vantage point Taylor shouldn't have even won his title (I had him losing both fights to Bernard Hopkins and dropping a decision in his next fight to Winky Wright.) He would soon lose to Kelly Pavlik. 

This recent history is instructive because Haymon now represents another fighter, Errol Spence, who is on the cusp of stardom in the sport. And important questions need to be asked, especially when considering the shortcomings of the fighters listed above: Has Spence been developed enough? Is he ready to win a belt and even if so, is he prepared to have a dominant title run? 

Spence, 26, is 20-0 and has 17 knockouts in the welterweight division. In his last outing, he thoroughly dominated former 140-lb. titleholder Chris Algieri in the first big headlining slot of his career. He is next scheduled to fight in an IBF eliminator, likely against light-hitting Leonard Bundu, a 41-year-old who didn't win a single second against Keith Thurman in 2014. Should Spence beat Bundu, he's in line to fight for Kell Brook's title. 

There's a lot to like about Spence. A southpaw, he has a devastating right hook to the body and is an impressive power puncher. He works off his jab beautifully. His poise in the ring far belies his professional experience. A 2012 Olympian for the United States, he was viewed as having the best pro style from that team and to this point he has passed his initial tests with flying colors. 

However, all of the fighters above looked like elite talents prior to their first title runs. Taylor had one of the best jabs in the sport and a punishing right hand. Berto was an imposing boxer-puncher. Williams had a unique combination of size, reach and punch volume. Broner's mixture of punch placement, athleticism and defense drew comparisons to Floyd Mayweather. Yet, once they become titleholders, many of these plusses faded away in the ring. Taylor proved to be gun shy in the late rounds and had endurance issues. Berto stopped boxing and loaded up on big shots. Williams never seemed to have a Plan B in the ring and was perplexed by movement. Broner's punch volume dropped significantly against better opposition and his defense proved to be far more porous than previously thought. 

At this point, it's instructive to remember that Haymon has a manager's background in boxing and not that of a promoter. His job is to get his fighters title shots and seven-figure paydays. Whereas, good promoters look at their boxers just a little differently. Their goal is to maximize assets. They want their signed fighters to be as good as possible for as long as possible. Often paying their boxers significant minimum fees, they want to see returns on their investments. In order to create the most eyeballs for their product, they need their top fighters to keep winning against a high level of opposition, and to look good in the process. 

There's always a push-pull between promoters and managers. A respected manager, like Cameron Dunkin, understands the long game of boxing development. He has the experience to know that there's nothing more important than carefully cultivating his fighters' development. Working with experienced outfits such as Top Rank, Dunkin appreciates the often laborious process of growing his fighters to the point where they can get the best out of their abilities. That doesn't mean that a Dunkin will always agree with a Bob Arum per se, but they've had a very productive working relationship. 

Haymon has cut out the role of the promoter. He has a band of promoters that he uses for specific fights (Lou DiBella, Leon Margules, etc.) but very few of his top fighters have long-term promotional agreements. And while I'm sure that DiBella and many others with strong industry knowledge are consulted on the development of Haymon's fighters, the lack of a strong, experienced promoter who has veto power over a manager can harm a fighter's career path. No promoter has final say over Haymon. No one other than Haymon can put the brakes on a prospect that isn't quite ready for the bright lights. Even a step down, there are no Bruce Tramplers, Brad Goodmans (both from Top Rank) or Robert Diazes (from Golden Boy), all expert matchmakers, working with Haymon. These matchmakers are responsible at their respective companies for ensuring that their fighters see a mixture of styles during their development. 

Spence could very well fight Brook without ever having faced even a moderate puncher in the ring. Shouldn't Haymon want to know if his young gun can take a shot? Wouldn't that information be very important in steering Spence's subsequent career? 

This isn't to say that Haymon has failed to develop any of his fighters. Keith Thurman certainly surpassed expectations on his way to becoming a titleholder. More than a few influential boxing writers laughed at Haymon when he initially put Thurman on HBO yet Thurman to this point has thrived in his career and demonstrated significant star power. Danny Garcia faced a number of credible fighters before his first title shot. Sammy Vasquez has been moved very well as he climbs the ladder in the welterweight division. Robert Easter Jr. is moving up the lightweight ranks pretty quickly but is taking on good opposition. 

However, the developmental track records of others in the Haymon stable have been spottier. Gary Russell Jr. was thrown into a title shot against Vasyl Lomachenko without having any tough opponents earlier in his career. Deontay Wilder and Rau'shee Warren have the same story. 

Developing fighters is an art not a science. One really never knows when a fighter is prepared to face the best in the sport. Andre Ward fought a very weak slate of opposition prior to taking on Mikkel Kessler. However, Ward dominated that fight and has proved to be one of the best in the sport. Kell Brook's development was poor and yet he successfully dispatched Shawn Porter to win a title (it's still unclear if Brook will be hurt by his poor opposition). Kelly Pavlik wasn't a heralded prospect but when the time came to fight hard-hitting Edison Miranda, he prevailed and had a decent run at middleweight. 

There are often intangible factors that separate good fighters from great ones. It could be work-ethic, self-belief, intelligence or ring IQ. These attributes might not manifest until they are needed in the ring against good opposition. In addition, a fighter's team can help a young fighter pull out a victory over a tough foe. I'm sure that having Dan Birmingham in his corner has helped Thurman's poise and confidence in the ring. 

Derrick James, Spence's trainer, is another relatively inexperienced professional coach at the top levels of the sport. That is not necessarily a negative for Spence. Virgil Hunter didn't have a professional pedigree prior to Andre Ward. Angel Garcia has proven to be a very adept cornerman. And all trainers have to start somewhere. However, are they the exceptions? What else has Morgan, Burns and Peterson done as professional trainers? Mike Stafford seems to have a budding stable of impressive fighters but he hasn't yet gotten any of them to the truly elite level. Even going back to Pavlik, Jack Loew seemed completely outclassed by Bernard Hopkins and his team and had a woefully underprepared corner against Sergio Martinez (their cutman may have lost them the fight). We haven't heard much from Loew recently, have we?

Who knows if Spence (and his team) possesses the intangibles to rise to the top level? But even more fundamentally, do we even know enough about Spence's defense or recuperative powers?  Spence may yet become one of the top talents in the sport. He could be a truly special. However, from my vantage point, not enough has been done in his development to start answering some of these questions. Perhaps he's the next Ward and his greatness will fully manifest against other top foes. But there's a weigh station full of fighters in Spence's stable that failed to make a similar leap. Were they fully prepared to win and defend a title? Had they faced enough duress in their development? Were their teams professional enough to run strong training camps and make incisive decisions in the corner? 

Most likely, Haymon will get Spence his title shot within the year. He wants his fighter to start making real money. And all boxers want the title and its accompanying remunerations. But with over a decade in the sport, Haymon has yet to develop a strong record at building elite fighters. He's great at getting title shots, working the sanctioning bodies and putting his best on TV but that next step has more often than not eluded him in the sport. Perhaps this isn't his main concern. When Spence gets his million dollar check, he won't be too concerned with whether he faced the right opponents on his way up. 

Spence's scenario is a real dilemma in the sport. His prime is now. 26-year-olds win titles all the time. He isn't too raw for world-level fighters. I'm sure that many boxing enthusiasts would like to see him pushed to the top rungs of the welterweight division. However, for those most interested in greatness in the ring, will Spence's weak opposition hurt him as he starts to face better fighters? Would he be better off getting two or three more bouts before his title shot? Does he still need to mature in the ring? 

Unfortunately, there's no right answer. Great fighters come from all backgrounds and levels of experience. Some had shiny amateur careers. Many had shaky outings early in their development. Others needed to lose before they learned what it took to become elite. A few had a straight line to greatness once they laced up their gloves. There's no one resume for greatness. Nobody knows with 100% certainly when to pull the trigger on a prized young prospect. But in this instance, it would be more comforting to know that the people holding the gun were noted marksmen.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter, SN Boxing on Facebook

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