One of the premier matchups of 2017 takes place in Sheffield, England on Saturday between welterweight titlist Kell Brook (36-1, 25 KOs) and undefeated American Olympian Errol Spence, Jr. (21-0, 18 KOs). For Brook, Saturday's fight marks a homecoming for the Sheffield native and a chance to cement his status as one of the top welterweights in boxing. A win for Spence would formally announce his presence as one of the true rising stars in the sport. Both fighters possess a litany of knockout weapons and sterling boxing technique.
When last in a boxing ring, Brook suffered a massive beatdown in a middleweight fight against Gennady Golovkin. Although Brook had some success early in that fight, Golovkin's power and pressure were too much for him. He wound up suffering a broken orbital bone and didn't make it out of the fifth round. In a surprise to many, Brook insisting on dropping back two divisions to defend his welterweight crown even though he had struggled with the 147-lb. limit in the past.
Spence has faced limited opposition in his rise to a title shot. He knocked out his two best opponents with ease (Leonard Bundu and Chris Algieri) and lost no more than a couple of rounds in his developmental fights. Despite being relatively untested in his professional career, Spence enters Saturday's fight brimming with confidence.
Brook-Spence will be a proving ground in determining which fighter is truly an elite fighter in the sport. Brook will have the edges in the home-field advantage and big-fight experience while Spence possesses the better knockout weapons and a blistering body attack. Below are the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article.
1. Brook's recovery and return to 147 lbs.
After a lengthy recuperation period, Brook will enter Saturday's fight having been out of the ring for almost nine months. Pictures that have circulated throughout his training camp appear to show the champion in fine physical form; however, experienced boxing observers know that still photos provide only a limited amount of information.
Yes, it's certainly possible that Brook will make weight without a hitch but many important questions should be raised. How intense was Brook's sparring during camp? Was training devoted primarily to cutting weight or is he in peak fighting form? Is his body still comfortable at 147? And perhaps most importantly, how good is his eye? Can he still see punches like he once did? Is there lingering scar tissue that could open up during the fight?
We don't know the answers to these questions at this point but they are central in determining a winner for Saturday's fight. The difference between a healthy Brook and one fighting at a diminished capacity could be a significant factor in who earns the victory.
2. Spence's chin
We know very little about Spence's chin. Anyone who isn't in Spence's camp that claims to know if he can take a punch is being untruthful. Spence's ledger of opponents is devoid of even a moderate puncher. He didn't even face a trial horse or gatekeeper on his way up that could flash a little leather.
At this point, we don't know if Spence's chin is a liability or an asset. It's imperative for Brook to find out about Spence's whiskers on Saturday, and as soon as he can. Brook's game plan should center on landing big shots early to test his younger foe. If Spence seems to take shots well, Brook can segue into a "Plan A." However, if Spence doesn't respond well to Brook's power punches then Kell has to attack with a more aggressive "Plan B." It's incumbent for a fighter to test his opponent's potential weaknesses and if Brook starts out the fight as a jabber, he'll let a potential opportunity for victory fall by the wayside.
3. Don't let Spence get comfortable
Although Spence has international amateur experience and even fought in the U.K. during the 2012 Olympics, he's never experienced a big-fight atmosphere like the one that he will encounter on Saturday. With 30,000 fans rooting against him and fighting six time zones away from home, Spence could certainly be apprehensive early in the bout.
Brook must seize his advantage in the opening rounds. He should let his hands go immediately from the opening bell and even blitz Spence in the first couple of frames. He shouldn't provide Spence with the opportunity to get settled in the ring. Brook needs to dictate the pace and apply pressure. This approach might unsettle Spence and/or leave him vulnerable in the early rounds before he gains his footing. Going for an early KO might be the smart play for Brook. Of course it's a gamble, but it's one that's worth taking.
4. Spence's body shots
Spence is one of the best body punchers in the sport. Going downstairs with jabs, straight lefts, right hooks and uppercuts, Spence breaks down opponents with thudding blows. Even though body work is typically a part of Spence's M.O. in the ring, against Brook, body shots may be the paramount key to a victory.
Brook has had weight struggles in the past and one of the best ways to diminish a fighter who might not be in peak condition is going to the body. Perhaps Spence may need to sacrifice a few rounds early in the fight in order to land a handful of his best body shots. Those punches will soften Brook up for later in the fight and make him less active. Spence should go to Brook's body mercilessly. He may not match Brook's hand speed or punch volume but committed body punching will reduce Brook's advantages and create a more even playing field for later in the fight.
Brook has had two difficult distance fights in his career – the first Carson Jones bout and the Shawn Porter match. Those two fights illustrated potential strengths and weaknesses. Brook was hurt badly in the Jones bout, hanging on to survive in the final round to secure the victory. An optimist would say that Brook successfully navigated around getting hurt. He knew how to tie up and buy time. He was successful in avoiding a finishing blow from Jones. A pessimist might claim that Brook was vulnerable late in the fight. Brook's defense deteriorated as the match continued and he started to throw increasing numbers of arm punches.
Against Porter, Brook was far more poised. Facing a bullrush throughout most of the 12 rounds, Brook held his ground well and did a fantastic job of neutralizing Porter at many moments in the fight. Porter applied ferocious pressure and had his moments but Brook was able to remain composed and was the more effective puncher throughout the majority of the match.
Spence has never had to go 12 rounds. In fact, he's only been 10 rounds once and that was an easy decision victory against Ronald Cruz. Spence hasn't been pressed at the world level and like his chin, we don't know how he'll hold up throughout 36 minutes of combat.
It's tough to say who will have the advantage in the later rounds on Saturday. On one hand, Brook will be propped up by the crowd and has the experience of persevering through tough fights. However, it's also possible that Brook can lose focus and effectiveness as he fatigues. As for Spence, this is the great unknown. Perhaps he rises to the occasion, or maybe he'lll wilt under pressure. However, unless this fight ends in a quick knockout (which is a possibility), expect conditioning to play a major role. It's an open question as to which boxer has the edge in this department.
I think that Brook-Spence will be one of the best fights on 2017. I'm expecting a shootout. Brook will come out guns blazing and will tag Spence with jabs, straight right hands and uppercuts early in the fight. Spence will get rocked early and will look vulnerable. A few uppercuts to the body will start to put Brook at bay and the match will eventually settle into a war of attrition, with both fighters landing eye-catching shots and taking turns reclaiming momentum in the bout.
Ultimately, I think that Spence hangs on to survive in the first few rounds – he may even need to get off the canvas – but eventually his body attack will start to pay dividends. In the middle rounds, as the action takes place in center of the ring, Spence's body shots will have their desired effect; Brook's energy level will begin to flag. Brook will continue to throw and land but the sting in his shots will dissipate. As the fight progresses into the back third, Spence will up his attack and continue his body assault. Eventually, a left to the body sends Brook to the canvas, and he won't be able to beat the count.