Errol Spence Jr. | A Jab A Day Keeps The Naysayers At Bay and the Doctors Well Paid

by Ian Williams

More than any other athletic endeavor, combat sports hug their histories tightly and display them regularly. They are old, all of them, from boxing to MMA, to, yes, pro wrestling, the oldest sports on the planet outside the humble footrace. Just by participating, a fighter taps into something far greater than him or herself. Something intangible and ancient, with rituals, expected conduct, and a legacy of violence stretching back ages.

The greats linger, wraithlike, in grainy footage thrown up in televised intros before events. No other sport does this in the way boxing does. Ali will always be there, taunting and rhyming. Tyson’s muttered threat to eat Lennox Lewis’ babies—after comparing himself to Sonny Liston—still echoes. Hagler vs. Leonard, Pacquiao vs. Mayweather, whichever match it was which first stirred your blood, it’s always there on repeat. It is, as maligned as the word is, steeped in tradition. Being a boxer, or at least a good one, means being a certain kind of person: tough, mean, a shit-talker from even tougher, meaner streets whose flame burns bright, lingers, then gutters and goes out.

Enter Errol Spence Jr, the young IBF welterweight champion and three time national amateur champion. If he has a calling card, it’s the way he measures his opponent perfectly with his right jab before coming in with a heavy blow with his preferred left. His right is always there, half extended, sometimes outright holding the other guy at bay. Then a thud and an exhale as a body blow pushes the air out of whoever he’s on the way to beating. It’s not advanced calculus. It’s the simplest thing in the world: jab to measure, rapid combination, repeat. But he’s such a perfect mix of speed and power that nobody’s been able to stop it from happening. Some boxers, like Chris Van Heerden, try to outlast him, hoping he wears down after all those punches. Spence never does.

He keeps beating people. 25 wins, 21 KOs. The early knock on him, one which increasingly sounds like sour grapes, was that he didn’t fight anyone good. That criticism is still going, as Roy Jones Jr. showed in an extended questioning of Spence’s credentials on Fight Hub TV. But Mikey Garcia is no ringer, nor is Kell Brook, or Alejandro Barrera. This is a deserved world champion who’s chewed through every challenge tossed at him, and if the other great welterweight of the 2010s, Terence Crawford, is still to come, it doesn’t diminish that what he’s been given, he’s handled. Easily, at that. Already considered one of the best boxers in the world, at the still-young age of 29, he aims to be one of the best ever, the best ever, and he knows exactly what that means.

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“I feel that that’s what every athlete strives for, is for their legacy,” Spence says when asked about where he might fit into boxing’s long history. “I mean, I want to be mentioned with guys like Ali, and Ray Leonard, and Roy Jones, and Mayweather. I want to be the pinnacle of the sport. I want to become an icon and a huge name, not only in boxing, but in sports, period,” Spence reiterates. “I want to be mentioned with those all-time greats, and have a great career, and a hundred years from now people will say, ‘Errol Spence was a great fighter, he fought everybody and unified the titles, and eventually became undisputed champion of the world, and moved up a weight class and did the same thing.’”

On the phone, Spence says this in a measured, practiced tone. The words have all the swagger, but there’s none of the stereotypical spitting fire which people of a certain vintage might expect. This is doubly true when a big fight is coming, and Spence has a huge one coming: September 28th at Staples Center in Los Angeles, against WBC welterweight champion, Shawn Porter.

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In fact, if you go through footage of Spence, what comes across in interviews is that he seems like a really nice guy. Even when there’s taunting, it all feels so good-natured and easy that you just kind of want to hang out with him—your friends taunt you at the air hockey table, and what’s a little jawing between friends? That’s even when he’s sat next to Porter, as he was at a Fox Sports interview after the fight was announced. The respect between the two was at least as palpable as setting up the rivalry.

“I’ve been on Shawn Porter since I was an amateur,” Spence replies when asked about their relationship. “I’ve known him for a long time. Even his dad coached me in a few international camps when I was an amateur, and things like that, so I’ve known him for a while, but it’s a mutual respect. A lot of it goes out the window as soon as the fight’s made and it’s announced. I’m not about to trash talk and disrespect my opponent—they don’t disrespect me. I know boxing’s got a bad stigma with that, but that’s not what I’m about.”

That’s not what I’m about. When asked about the trash-talking stereotype, Spence simply says that some guys “try to be other people” and politely declines to elaborate on who he might be talking about.

This gets to the root of why Spence feels so important. Boxing has traditions, stereotypes, and characters, but they change every so often. What Spence feels like is an impending epochal shift. He’s neither boring—watch one of his fights and you’ll see how true this is—nor flamboyant. He threads a needle for the boxing public perfectly, compelling but not overbearing, and he does so at a time that boxing feels like it’s about to become big again, as UFC fatigue begins to rear its head, and more boxing is on free television than in years past.

What Spence is is normal. Not, again, in the boring way, but in the way most people are. During the interview, he is never more animated than when he talks about his family life. He has two daughters who he adores and who keep him grounded; his family life was the subject of a feature in the publication, The Undefeated, in which his daughters toddle after him at the gym.

“My kids help me a lot. Especially when you’re at the top of your sport, a lot of times, you don’t know who really likes you for you or who really loves you for you, but at the end of the day, I know my kids like me for me and love me for me, and they really give me the comfort that I need, especially when I’m in training camp, so I keep them around in training camp. A lot of guys, you know, they go away from their kids or their family and just be secluded. But with me, I like to be around my kids when I’m training. It’s kind of like comfort for me.”

Living this dichotomy, of wanting to be one of those boxing legends in the footage of the future while just being a normal guy, doesn’t seem to be irreconcilable. Rather, it’s the entire point. He’s doing it to be one of the men looming over history a century from now, but he has to be normal to get there, with Porter next and the much talked about possibility of a fight with Manny Pacquiao in the medium-term future. Through all the mostly expected answers about boxing and the enthusing about his family, that’s the main thing which comes through: Errol Spence Jr is exceptional because he is so grounded.

“A lot of people are like, ‘What do you do if you’re not boxing?’ I just do regular things, hang out with my family and friends, and things like that,” he laughs. “That’s how I keep it—right in the middle. Never too high, never too low, right in the middle.”