Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Season of Spence

Even as far back as the Olympics, it was clear that Errol Spence Jr. possessed the poise, power punching and intelligence to succeed at the next level. Although he exited the 2012 Games without a medal, his showing during the tournament heralded a new U.S. talent, one who could become a major factor in the upper levels of professional boxing.

Turning pro at the end of 2012, Spence continued to build on his amateur success in his early fights; he destroyed virtually every foe that he encountered. Even his putative gatekeeper opponents, such as Chris Van Heerden, Chris Algieri and Leonard Bundu, weren't able to provide even token resistance. It was hard not to get excited about his potential. 

In a perfect world, Spence would've had more development fights prior to his first title shot. He hadn't encountered a decent puncher or an opponent with significant athletic gifts during his development. However, he was so dominant against the fighters he did face that one could understand why his team may have skipped a step in favor of landing a championship opportunity. Nevertheless, they were still taking a big risk heading to a title shot without Spence beating a proper slate of trial horses. 

Courtesy of Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Last May, Spence was thrown into the proverbial fire against welterweight titlist Kell Brook. Although he was facing a proud and talented champion in his hometown soccer stadium, Spence wasn't overawed by the moment. Spence started the fight methodically and purposefully. And while Brook's superior hand speed led to some early-round victories, Spence was executing his game plan, punishing the body and sacrificing punch volume to land significant power shots. Despite being down in the fight, Spence, and his steadfast trainer, Derrick James, didn't deviate from the plan.  

By the fight's second half, Spence's approach was bearing fruit. Whereas Brook got the best of many of the exchanges early in the fight, by the seventh and eighth rounds, Spence was landing with far greater frequency and with often punishing results; he was now battering Brook in the ring. He scored a knockdown in the 10th and withstood a final flurry by Brook in one of the more riveting rounds of the year. In the 11th, Brook had had enough. A broken orbital bone caused him to yield; Spence was now a world champion. 

In Sheffield that night, I left the arena with nothing but superlatives for Spence. Not only did he win a belt on foreign soil in a hostile atmosphere, but he beat a very good version of Brook, easily one of the top-two or three welterweights in the world. Furthermore, he needed to come from behind to achieve victory, a tall order for any fighter, let alone one with such paltry world-class experience. Spence never experienced a gut-check fight during his development, yet, when the time came he overcame his first battle with adversity with aplomb.  

After the fight, I talked with a number of English boxing enthusiasts at the hotel bar. Even though almost all proudly supported Brook, Spence had earned their respect. Spence made a lot of new fans that night, in Sheffield and in boxing outposts around the world.  

Fresh off the biggest moment of his career, it would have been natural for Spence to make a hometown defense in his next fight, a way to build on the momentum of his destruction of Brook. America is light on homegrown boxing stars and Spence is one of the few candidates in this country to become one. He's pleasing to watch in the ring, a good interview and packs boulders in both of his hands. Yet, for whatever reason, Spence would wind up sitting out the rest of 2017, which was certainly an opportunity squandered. 

On January 20th, Spence finally makes his return to the ring, against Lamont Peterson at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Peterson, a capable top-ten welterweight, certainly presents a credible first defense for Spence. Although Peterson can run a little hot-and-cold, when he's on, he's a difficult proposition for any fighter. 

Courtesy of Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Peterson won't enter the ring with capitulation on his mind. He's not inclined to be a passive participant in a Spence coronation. With the exception of a knockout loss to Lucas Matthysse, Peterson has given every opponent a tough go of it. Similar to Spence, Peterson hasn't enjoyed his lengthy periods out of the ring. And he's never been a favored fighter in the PBC universe. He fights with a chip on his shoulder and a realization that the present is his time to make his bones in the ring. 

Spence stands on the precipice of creating a truly memorable 2018. Should he get past Peterson, potential opponents such as unified titlist Keith Thurman, or past champions such as Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia, could provide additional opportunities for great fights. If Spence continues to win against top opponents such as these, he could emerge as a bona fide attraction in boxing. 

Looking down the road even a little farther, Terence Crawford, the former undisputed junior welterweight champion, and one of the top-two fighters on most pound-for-pound lists, will be moving up to welterweight in 2018. Should Crawford obtain a belt at 147 (Jeff Horn, come on down!), a potential superfight could emerge between Spence and Crawford in early 2019. Now, it's certainly true that Spence's manager, Al Haymon, and Crawford's promoter, Bob Arum, don't always play well together, but there'd be a boatload of money for that fight and neither side is opposed to greenbacks. 

A lot of this is speculative. Spence has never faced someone with the athletic gifts of Thurman. He hasn't had to deal with the type of constant pressure that Porter applies or a fighter with Crawford's versatility. Spence will be challenged every step of the way should he endeavor to face the best at 147. 

In short, it's an exciting time to be a fan or an observer of Spence. And although Spence has the potential to lose to Peterson, Thurman or Porter, very few fighters have the package of physical attributes in the ring and the types of intangibles like poise, a high ring IQ and self-confidence that could lead to a sustained run of success in the top levels of boxing. 

Refreshingly, Spence doesn't seem to be plagued by self-satisfaction. Unlike many modern fighters, Spence doesn't appear to be happy with low six-figure purses or periods of inactivity. He wants challenges and the glory that comes with being the best. Sadly, far too many of Spence's boxing brethren lack his sense of urgency.

Spence-Peterson should present boxing fans with a memorable battle, featuring devastating inside combat, skills, athleticism and lots of power punches. Spence will soon learn that at this level of boxing, every fight can be a threat. Should Spence make it through January's fight with a victory, he could be on a rapid road to true superstardom. But the winds are strong at high altitude and Spence wouldn't be the first fighter to be negatively affected by rarefied air. However, he has a good support team around him and the urge to really make something of himself. 2018 will be Spence's proving ground. And if he ends the year beating multiple threats in the welterweight division, the boxing world could be his oyster. Stay tuned.  

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

No comments:

Post a Comment