Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Opinions and Observations: Spence-Peterson

Errol Spence wastes nothing in the ring. All punches are purposeful. Movement is contained. Even his body language remains consistent. Observing his facial expressions, it would be difficult to determine if he were winning or losing. Despite the considerable punishment he administers – and make no mistake – it is considerable, there's a serenity in his ring performances. Nothing seems to rattle him or get his blood to boil. 

On Saturday I watched what was close to a perfect performance. Spence featured all of his signature attributes in his dismantling of welterweight contender Lamont Peterson. The body punching with his straight left and right hook was destructive. His combinations had pinpoint accuracy. Spence's footwork was flawless. His left uppercuts were punishing. Even in the third and fourth rounds where Spence took two good left hooks and a straight right hand, he absorbed the blows without any indication of panic; he proceeded like nothing of note had occurred and continued to dominate the fight. In the fifth round, Spence connected with a sublime three-punch combination (left uppercut, right hook, left hook) that sent Peterson to the canvas. By the end of seventh round, Peterson would have nothing left to offer. 

Courtesy of Amanda Westcott/Showtime

After leaving Barclays Center, I immediately flashed back to last May in Sheffield, where Spence stopped hometown champion Kell Brook, a fight that was certainly more difficult than Saturday's was. Spence lost give-or-take half of the opening eight rounds of the bout, yet he continued to fight without any hint of consternation, alarm or desperation. Did Brook have faster hands? Sure. Was he a better athlete? Quite possibly. But Spence wasn't fazed by whatever Brook had to offer. Spence maintained his steady composure and as the fight continued, more and more of his power shots started to land. Eventually, Brook would yield. 

Spence is at peace in the ring. Perhaps not since prime James Toney has a fighter seemed so comfortable in the pocket, plying his trade. There's a Zen-like tranquility to Spence as he goes about his business, dishing out hurt and power punches. This isn't to suggest that he's robotic or one-dimensional. Spence is a fine athlete and a multi-faceted fighter. But it's his unflappability, his unexcitability that separates him from his peers; it's his defining characteristic and it extends far beyond "poise". 

Spence's chief rivals have by now revealed themselves in the ring. Terence Crawford is something of a sadist, delighting in slicing up an opponent with ruthlessness. Keith Thurman wants to assert his athletic and intellectual superiority. Shawn Porter wins with brute force and pressure. Danny Garcia patiently waits to ferret out a mistake. These characteristics help lead to victories but they can also be turned into weaknesses. Brook stood up to Porter's bullying and was victorious. Crawford can be lured into a slugfest. Danny can be outworked. Thurman often relies too much on movement at the expense of winning rounds. 

But what does Spence give opponents? What are his mistakes? Yes, he can be hit and he might not have the best reflexes in the sport but to this point he seems to be able to take a good punch without relinquishing his game plan. And he also makes the right adjustments. Peterson did get a few solid shots in but after the fourth round, Peterson's hook was no longer in play. Brook had early success with his jab but eventually Spence's right hook and straight left neutralized it. Ultimately it's going to take a special fighter to disrupt Spence and to this point, two top-ten welterweights haven't even begun to crack Errol's unique code.  

After Saturday's fight, promoter Lou DiBella was asked if Spence had the ability to become a boxing superstar. DiBella noted that over 12,000 showed up to Brooklyn and it wasn't as if Spence was a local draw. In short, boxing fans understand that Spence is the goods. DiBella's answer reminded me of conversations that I had with a number of Brook's fans in Sheffield after that fight. Despite rabid support for their local hero, to a man, all whom I spoke with left Brook-Spence with a deeply held respect for Spence. They understood that Brook had been beaten by a supreme talent.

DiBella also pointed out that there's not one way to build a star in boxing. He illustrated Sugar Ray Leonard's prominence in the sport as an example of a fighter who galvanized the public without tawdriness or infamy. DiBella (who was the promoter of record for Saturday's event but doesn't have a long-term contract with Spence) believed that Spence's sublime ring performances would create a significant demand among fight fans. Furthermore, if Spence can continue his mastery against top opponents, full-fledged stardom was certainly possible. 

Similar to all boxing promoters, Lou is not immune from hyperbole – it’s part of his job description – but I believe that he's correct in his baseline assumptions regarding Spence. Although American boxing in its present manifestation may not be big enough to yield a superstar of Leonard's caliber, Spence's underlying talent and his run of knockouts could become infectious. Peterson was barely competitive in the ring on Saturday yet I'd wager that very few fight fans left the arena disappointed. They had witnessed a special performance by a top fighter in peak form. I'm certain that they'd spend money to see Spence again. 

In the ring, Spence remains an enigma for opponents. Displaying no real weaknesses, either physically, technically or emotionally, he'll keep opposing trainers up for nights on end hoping to find some fleeting tactic that could lead to disrupting his in-ring serenity. 

Courtesy of Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Spence, not given to over-intellectualizing boxing, may not fully grasp how his ring demeanor provides him with a significant edge over opponents. But in his press conference he referenced calmness as something that he and trainer Derrick James focused on in training camp, which almost seems unfair to others in the sport. That would be similar to Tommy Hearns claiming that he needed to work on his right hand more because it wasn't powerful enough. Calm is what Spence does. His tranquility is one of his chief competitive advantages in the ring and even if he's not aware of how unique this attribute really is, serenity under the fiercest of combat conditions is a giant separator among fighters, an intangible that can help defeat opponents who seemingly have physical and technical advantages over him. 

It remains to be seen who emerges from the current welterweight division, with Spence, Crawford and Thurman being the leading candidates (not necessarily in that order), but safe to say, that victor answers the question of who will be the biggest American fighter after Mayweather. Spence, Crawford and Thurman are all undefeated, in their physical primes, have significant punching power, and give hope to American fight fans that boxing will remain in good hands for another generation. The three are fresh blood and can help transfuse a sport that often shies away from its core principle of determining supremacy. 

Spence might crack a wry smile at the Mayweather line. With his low-key humor and slow Texas drawl, he'd skillfully deflect such a comparison. But despite his easy-going demeanor, he takes his craft very seriously and knows that he's among a grouping of special fighters. But unlike so many in the sport, he doesn't fear risk. He wants the big fights and is ready to prove himself. He's not in boxing for its trappings; he's there to win.  

Long-term prognostication in boxing is a fool's errand and the sport doesn't lend itself to conjecture beyond an immediate set of opponents. Injuries, judges, complacency, stylistic match-ups, boxing politics and life changes can all play a role in determining where a fighter may one day end up. But right now, Spence is in the pocket, a place where he's comfortable in his own skin, where he can apply his pastoral artistry, and where opponents don't often hear the final bell. For Spence, the ring represents his garden of tranquility but his opponents don't share those placid sentiments. Facing Spence is a hell they would rather soon forget.

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

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