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Errol Spence vs. Terence Crawford: Why it needs to happen and why it might not

Errol Spence Jr Terence Crawford

By Joseph Hirsch (author of My Tired Shadow and other novels) – Boxing fans are a fickle bunch. If you don’t believe me, go back through the historical record and check. Yes, these days people love “The Bronx Bull” Jake Lamotta, and recognize that even as flawed as he was (or was depicted in Raging Bull) the man was a great boxer whose medium-crouch style made him a higher volume, more compact Jack Dempsey.

In his heyday, though, Lamotta was lustily booed and considered a Mafia stooge (as if he had much choice in throwing his fight with Billy Fox), even after he came clean and bravely testified about his role in the underworld in the famous Kefauver Commission Hearings.

Ezzard Charles (a personal favorite of mine and a Cincinnati native) still lives in the shadow of more prominent champions from his era, but he has a strong cult of fans around him and historians who rate him very high. In his own day, however, the “Cincinnati Cobra” (by way of Georgia) had the temerity and misfortune to beat Joe “the Brown Bomber” Louis.

He was just doing his job, but to paraphrase the late, great heavyweight “Jersey” Joe Walcott, If you were going to beat Joe Louis, you might as well beat up Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln, and Charles was never really forgiven by a lot of people for beating Louis.

What makes the boxing public even more unforgiving these days is that elite fighters don’t fight as much as they used to, so that the last performance, even if it’s the first loss in one’s career, carries a kind of sting that baseball players or basketball players don’t endure, since their sample size of games is 162 per year and 82 per year, respectively. Sure, back in the days where guys fought with one eye (Harry Greb) or even with tuberculosis (Joe Gans) a headliner could box thirty or even forty times per year, but that was when boxing was virtually America’s pastime (baseball was a bit more popular) and the live gate was the lifeblood of the industry.

Top flight boxers are treated more like filmmakers in Hollywood, where you’re only as good as your last time out (and it better have been a blockbuster).

It’s a stigma almost exclusive to boxing (UFC doesn’t have this) in a post-Mayweather world where the only thing that seems to matter is being able to maintain and burnish that “0” and feather one’s nest with a belt and make the minimum number of defenses necessary to keep it.

To put this in the context of the current boxing scene: in the runup to Mikey Garcia’s mega-fight with welterweight Errol Spence (the only boxer maybe more poker-faced than Miguel Cotto) the consensus among fans was that the fight was going to be win-win for Mikey and lose-lose for Spence. A good big man, after all, is supposed to beat a good small man.

Provided Mikey showed heart, grit, and determination during those twelve rounds, who could hold anything against the man for trying to climb a mountain and falling off the sheer rockface?

The problem with this, of course, is that Mikey Garcia didn’t go out on his shield, and that’s partly because Errol Spence elected to put on a clinic rather than administering a beatdown.

This, in a way, is part of Spence’s genius, his style of being “passive-aggressive” as he calls it. Errol Spence usually tends to fight with a gear in reserve, boxing from a distance while keeping his defense airtight. The only other elite fighter as well-rounded as Spence is “the Monster” Naoya Inoue.

Spence cracks hard and delivers knockouts, but it’s usually as a result of responding to his opponent’s desire to up their own aggression. It’s at that point that Spence matches and exceeds their ferocity and puts them in their place. He has this in common with Saul “Canelo” Alvarez who said that his opponent dictates how he fights. It isn’t just a matter of counterpunching, but seeing and raising whatever the opponent offers, and only doubling down when the situation calls for it. Terence Crawford, as good as he is, takes massive chances and leaves himself open in a way that Errol Spence just doesn’t do. To extend the metaphor, Spence sticks to poker and blackjack, and while “Bud” can play both of those games, his taste for the risk of roulette sometimes overcomes his better judgement and sound gambling instincts. Bud is prone to going “all in,” with sometimes wide hooks, although he was a bit more circumspect in his methodical dissection of Jose Benavidez Jr.

Spence’s passive-aggression is, in its way, a variation on the “pact” as legendary trainer and colorful sports personality Teddy Atlas called it. Only instead of two boxers agreeing to take it easy on each other for the paycheck, Spence plants a seed of doubt in his opponent’s mind with steady pressure and extends in essence this bargain: Look, I’m going to beat you in a boxing match. If you want to step it up and try to take me out, I’m going to beat you down and probably take you out.

Spence’s type of aggression is a much better form of “effective aggression” (as it’s scored) than the constant swarming or pressure of someone who must remain on the front foot, cutting the ring and pressing the action. Errol Spence has the paradoxical ability to pressure fighters from the outside, though his inside game is fierce and his close-quarters arsenal is excellent (again, if you’re the kind of boxing fan who likes to watch with a trainer’s eye and pick apart a performance to sift for mistakes, Spence does not give you much to work with).

If the opponent accepts the “handshake” from Spence, they’ve beaten themselves as much as they’ve been beaten by him, which is more psychologically unmanning than just being knocked out. Clinics in which the loser survives twelve rounds (see Calzaghe-Lacy; Hopkins-Pavlik, for instance) are many times worse than KO or TKO losses and they’re harder to recover from mentally.

Pound-for-pound rankings are mythical and mostly done for and by the fans, as Pauli Malignaggi once pointed out- but if it wasn’t all hypothetical and wasn’t just an excuse for barroom arguments and online flame wars- if there was a way to shrink heavyweights like Anthony Joshua to 147 lbs. and to grow a former strawweight like Hekkie Budler, to 147 so that all fighters competed on an even plain, Errol Spence still would have beaten Mikey Garcia in their fight.

He wasn’t just bigger; he was much better, and used his rangefinders, timing, and defense to simultaneously pick Mikey apart for much of the fight and discourage him with a steady diet of jabs and a fusillade of straights. He also has an uncanny knack for knowing when to switch downstairs and cease headhunting.

That settled, where does Errol Spence go from here, and where does he fit in to the top 10?

My personal tendency is to favor unifiers over single strap holders (road warrior phenom Oleksandr Usyk or Terence Crawford) but it is incredibly hard, maybe impossible, for Errol Spence to unify welterweight, that most glamorous of glamour divisions (aside from maybe heavyweight).

Promoter Bob Arum, who recently re-signed superstar ambidextrous Terence Crawford (who I view as the lovechild of Tommy Hearns and Sonny Liston) is usually at loggerheads with Errol Spence’s promoter, Al Haymon. In a somewhat recent interview Bob Arum claimed to sports journo Dan Rafael that he wasn’t sure Al Haymon even existed. Yes, it was a joke, but it was also a dismissive dig at Haymon’s supposed reclusive nature, and from Haymon’s perspective it is probably not easy to do business with someone who contends you don’t even exist.

Yes, if there’s enough money on the table Arum and Haymon will put aside whatever animus they have for each other, but that would have to be something astronomical like Mayweather-Pacquiao 2 (please no), which would transcend boxing. It would be a megaevent and would also probably produce a lackluster stinker, even worse than the first fight. Pacquiao and Mayweather are both older than they once were, and, as Bernard Hopkins’ last bout against puncher Joe Smith Jr. proved, Father Time catches up to everyone eventually, even Executioner/Aliens.

Crawford-Spence is much more exciting from a fan perspective, but the “circus” aspect used to sell fights with multicity junkets and trash-talking assuredly would be absent from any runup promotion done by Terence “Bud” Crawford and Errol “the Truth” Spence.

Both men hail from the old school, prefer to let their fists do their talking for them, and tend not toward embarrassing theatrics like dancing, throwing money, or disrespecting interviewers. Only their in-ring performances go viral, which is great for hardcore fight fans, but unfortunately might not resonate quite as much with a wider public.

Years ago, when Floyd Mayweather exchanged words with the ageing HBO commentator Larry Merchant in the aftermath of the Mayweather-Ortiz headbutt-hug debacle, Merchant was quick to point out that his grandchildren told him that he was trending on twitter just behind Justin Bieber, to which Merchant could only muster a couple questions: “Who is Justin Bieber and what is twitter?”

The emergence of social media and the metastasizing of the twenty-four hour news cycle to everything from twitter beefs to Instagram updates means that boxing brings in much more money when the fighters’ personalities transcend the sport. Typically, and regrettably, a big personality and a medium-sized punch can get one a lot further than a big punch alone.

Which brings us back to main conundrums of boxing that are keeping the best fights from getting made, and barring Errol Spence from a no-brainer fight that should (in a perfect world) get easily signed and either solidify him as the pound-for-pound King of Fistiana or put those notions to rest and let someone else sit on the throne:

Boxers are locked in a catch-22 regarding what fans (excepting some hardcore fans) expect from them: Talk a lot of trash, create a heelish character to get the public riled, and you have a lot of people who despise you, who throw up their hands and claim in exasperation that “this is what kills boxing.”

Do the opposite, shake your opponent’s hand and sit respectfully across from him in a head-to-head interview (Max Kellerman handles these on our side of the Pond, while Johnny Nelson conducts these in England) and you’re considered boring, cultivating a budding bromance with someone you’re supposed to be knocking out.

If you’re still reading this, put it in park for a moment and head over YouTube to watch this interview with retired cruiserweight Tony Bellew in the aftermath of his loss to the aforementioned Usyk.

It’s one of the most candid, poignant moments I’ve seen from a boxer not named Mike Tyson, as Bellew plainly bears his soul and says, in essence, “I am not a trash talker by nature, but I had to don this personality to make a living for myself and my family.”

It’s time, I think, to not only stop giving someone like Adrian Broner chances, but also attention. Yes, I’m from Cincinnati and I’m still saying that, but Broner is no Ezzard Charles.

I think it’s time for the adults in the room, time for the men, to get their chance at the table, and maybe for both boxing fans and the boxing business to start rewarding maturity.

It’s definitely not time for another sideshow or time killer like Connor McGregor (0-1) vs. Floyd Mayweather (50-0). And even though Manny Pacquiao is a hall-of-fame caliber record-breaker and great ambassador for the sport, he is almost undoubtedly in the same spot of his career where Muhammad Ali found himself when fighting against the likes of former sparring partner Larry Holmes or the ill-fated Trevor Berbick.

No, Pacquiao isn’t exhibiting that level of wear and tear that the “Greatest” was displaying in the twilight of his career, but yes he is mainly coasting on name recognition and what one Ali handler candidly called “the drop,” which in casino-speak means the ability to lure people into Vegas for Fight Night so that they can leave lots of money at the tables.

I don’t want to see Pacquiao-Crawford or Pacquiao-Spence, but the Powers-that-Be know damn well I’d get around to buying the fight after complaining about it and venting spleen online for a couple hours.
That said, I’d rather pay for Spence-Crawford.

But the fights that should happen don’t always happen.

And even when they do, sometimes it’s years too late for it to even matter.

There’s a fine line between marinating a dish and letting a fruit rot on the vine, and aside from Anthony Joshua vs. Deontay Wilder, my boxing brains tells me that this is the fight that I most want to see before it’s too late, while my gut instinct is also telling me that the window of opportunity is closing with each day that passes.

I hope I’m wrong.


Joseph Hirsch is a freelance sports journalist. His novel about an ex-boxer, My Tired Shadow, is available here

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