Sunday, September 29, 2019

Opinions and Observations: Spence-Porter

Errol Spence fought every minute of Saturday's welterweight unification bout as if he expected to knock out Shawn Porter. With every shot thrown with maximum effort, taking punches to land his own, and abandoning the considerable boxing skills he displayed against Mikey Garcia earlier this year, Spence anticipated that Porter would wilt down the stretch. Yet Porter kept coming. Taking hellacious body shots that would make lesser fighters yield, Porter wouldn't be denied. He pressed the action relentlessly and landed his fair share of impressive power shots in close quarters. Even after being dropped in the 11th round from an unexpected rear-hand hook, Porter refused to back down.

Overall it was a fantastic fight with both boxers displaying their championship mettle. In the end Spence was declared the victor via split decision with scores of 116-111, 116-111 and 112-115. To my eyes he was the deserved winner (I scored it for him 115-112), but the margin between victory and defeat was paper thin.  

Photo Courtesy of Ryan Hafey

What puzzled me about Spence's performance was his lack of adaptation in the ring. Spence had ample opportunity to change the flow of the fight, perhaps making it easier on himself with his height and reach advantages, but he was determined to beat Porter at his own game. When there were spots to clinch and reset the action, he seldom decided to do so. In addition, Spence's right hand (especially his jab) was rarely a factor. Ultimately, the scores validated the effectiveness of Spence's performance, but I believe that he underestimated just how good Porter can be at infighting. 

Make no mistake; Porter fought to the best of his capabilities. Unlike some of his recent bouts, he didn't take breaks. He never was caught in between styles. He followed the game plan to the letter. Porter flashed surprising hand speed throughout the fight. He landed several of his best power punches from unusual angles. Using his feet expertly, he consistently broke the pocket and was able to get into areas where he could do the most damage. 

It's an open question as to whether Saturday's performance raised or lowered Spence's stock. On the plus side, he was able to win a dogfight, a type of bout that he had never had to endure as a pro. He showed a great chin and didn't seem to be hurt by Porter's best punches. Spence also displayed a ruthlessness that the best in boxing possess. Under intense pressure, he didn't fold. His conditioning was excellent and he maintained his strength and power throughout the fight. Despite Porter's constant aggression, Spence was the one who scored the knockdown in the championship rounds. 

However, there are some interesting questions to ask about Spence and his trainer, Derrick James. Why were there so few adjustments in the fight? If you believe that they underestimated Porter to a degree (and I do), why did they? It shouldn't have been surprising that Porter wanted to make it a dogfight. Perhaps it's a question of seeing a fighter on tape versus experiencing it in the ring. It's one thing to anticipate pressure, it's another to FEEL it. But there were adjustments that James and Spence could have made to alleviate some of that pressure, and they didn't make any.

Despite these criticisms, I don't believe that Spence demonstrated any fatal flaws in the fight. Whatever was lacking in his performance on Saturday are the types of attributes that can be corrected for future fights. Spence shouldn't abandon his jab. He also must rely more on his legs. Even though Porter had the quicker feet, there were many instances in the fight where Spence accepted the action in close quarters; he invited the pressure instead of maneuvering around the ring. 

Perhaps most importantly I hope that Spence and James have now realized that on the world level there are few gimme fights. Spence, whom many have regarded as one of the faces of boxing, has a big target on his head. Determined foes will fight hard for that scalp. It's not always a question of skills or talent. Those who are unwilling to go quietly will battle to the bitter end. Spence and James need to come into fights with a "Plan B"; the best fighters sometimes have to win in unexpected ways, whether it's Ray Leonard walking down Tommy Hearns or Floyd Mayweather outgunning Marcos Maidana in a shootout. It would behoove Spence and James to arrive at this realization.

Over the years Shawn Porter has faced significant criticism on account of his rugged style. Segments of boxing fans have been turned off by the supposed unaesthetic nature of his fights (his fights are ugly!). Now there is a lot to unpack regarding these critiques, but I think it mostly boils down to a portion of boxing fans not appreciating the art of infighting, or at least that type of infighting by an African American fighter. 

There are inherited biases in the sport, and that will be news to absolutely no one who follows boxing. Some fans, pundits and those in the industry don't enjoy fighters from the smaller weight classes. Others are nationalistic in their rooting interests. Fans often prefer one style to another. But for some reason Mexican and Hispanic fighters are allowed to fight toe-to-toe in the trenches and are applauded for it, but those from other races or ethnic backgrounds aren't afforded the same latitude; their considerable talents are often dismissed. 

Photo Courtesy of Ryan Hafey

In a related, but slightly different bias, a significant segment of boxing fandom rejects infighters as a class, decrying these fighters' "lack of skills." I can't even tell you how many times I had to defend Orlando Salido from those who would mock or dismiss his style in the ring. There's a "purist" snobbery from certain boxing fans, and it can be from all races or ethnicities. To them, boxing is mostly about hitting and not getting hit, the sweet science, etc. 

Porter was a decorated U.S. amateur boxer and has considerable ring craft. Yet to many his pro style is somehow "beneath" that of the elite in the sport. Yes, not everyone has to like a certain fighter or style, but the snobbery aspect of what a boxer "should look like" is often appalling. Boxing can be a rough, rough sport. Past African American champions like Hagler, Pryor and Holyfield mastered the art of inside fighting. Generations later these fighters have been placed on pedestals by boxing fans. But has the ugliness of some of their fights been forgotten? Why are their rugged ring styles fondly remembered and yet Porter's is often dismissed? 

I think another bias is of a generational nature. For boxing fans beyond a certain age, infighting was common in the sport and considered a basic requirement for all fighters, irrespective of a boxer's preferred style. But in the last 30 years the biggest stars in boxing, whether it was de la Hoya, Jones, Mayweather or Pacquiao, rarely chose to fight in the trenches. As a result, whole generations of fight fans haven't associated greatness or superstardom with inside fighting. 

There are few current top fighters who excel at infighting. As a result, newer boxer fans have seldom seen just how successful that style can be at the elite level. I understand that infighting is not in vogue at the moment or that it might not be someone's cup of tea. But to reject infighting as a legitimate avenue for boxing greatness seems wrongheaded to me, and ignores crucial aspects of the history of the sport.


Spence-Porter was a thrilling fight that demonstrated the talent level of two of the best welterweights in the world. A number of boxing fans voiced indifference toward the bout when it was announced because Porter was not Terence Crawford, the perceived greatest threat and rival to Spence at 147. Don't get me wrong; I certainly would love to see Spence-Crawford and I hope it happens next. But I've never been one to dismiss a unification bout. 

Fights are won in the ring not in our conjectures among friends and colleagues. Yes, Spence was victorious on Saturday, as almost all thought he would be. But in the aftermath of the fight, it was Porter, the challenger, the "loser," who most impressed. He pushed Spence to the absolute brink. And even though Porter had won two championship belts in the past, Saturday's fight etched his name in the consciousness of boxing fans for a generation to come. 

Let's not forget that creating indelible memories, as Spence-Porter did, is paramount to the health of prizefighting. It's what makes fans come back; it grows the sport. Spence-Porter was legitimately a great fight. We have no idea how Spence-Crawford will play out in the ring. It's certainly an important fight and an attractive one, but it's unknown whether it will outstrip Saturday's action. 

Parlor games and mythical matchmaking are not a replacement for the enjoyment we receive when watching two high-level fighters give it their all in the ring. These games can certainly enhance the sport. They give us something to talk about during down times in the boxing calendar. But ultimately, they are just games. Saturday was the real deal, not a chat post or a tweet, and a wonderful reminder that nothing is guaranteed in the sport. Victories aren't on paper or settled by a collection of prognosticators chopping it up on a lazy Sunday.

Finally, I'd like to make a quick note about the judging from Saturday's fight. Before the final scores were announced, I was curious to see how the judges would evaluate Spence's body punching. Body shots are often harder to score for judges because the officials can be blocked by the action based on their vantage point. It certainly is easier to make an accurate visual account of what head shots successfully landed. 

Considering these factors, I applaud judges Steve Weisfeld and Ray Denseco for their 116-111 scorecards for Errol Spence. Not only did they give Spence commensurate credit for his body attack, but they were also able to distinguish the relative success of Porter's aggression; sometimes it was effective and other times it wasn't. Porter certainly had a case for winning the fight, but to my eyes, too often the guy coming forward gets the victory from the judges. Remember, "coming forward" is not a scoring criterion; effective aggression is. 

We certainly spend enough time criticizing officials in the sport (often justifiably so), but we should also acknowledge displays of professionalism to the highest degree. Spence-Porter was not an easy fight to score or officiate, but in aggregate, the officials – judges and ref – performed ably. And that is all we can ask.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.  

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