In his first gut-check moment, Errol Spence Jr. wills himself to victory vs. gritty Shawn Porter

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Erroll Spence Jr. reacts in the ring after defeating Shawn Porter (not pictured) in their IBF & WBC welterweight championship fight at Staples Center on Sept. 28, 2019 in Los Angeles. Spence, Jr won by decision. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Erroll Spence Jr. reacts in the ring after defeating Shawn Porter (not pictured) in their IBF & WBC welterweight championship fight at Staples Center on Sept. 28, 2019 in Los Angeles. Spence, Jr won by decision. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — On his toughest night, when he was pushed to the limit by his most challenging opponent, Errol Spence Jr.’s class shone through. He won a fight for the ages Saturday at Staples Center, winning a split decision in a pitched battle with Shawn Porter that will be talked about and debated for decades.

The unbeaten soft-spoken kid from Texas had been compared to the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard from his earliest days as a pro, and on Saturday when he faced a gut-check moment against the gamest and grittiest opponent he’ll ever see, he delivered with his greatest performance that was reminiscent of Leonard at his finest.

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Spence raised his game when it mattered most. He dropped Porter with a picture-perfect left cross in the 11th when the outcome of the fight was still in doubt. Spence led on two of the three official cards after 10, but Porter still had a chance to battle his way back.

But Spence blistered Porter with that left in the 11th and, for all intents and purposes, guaranteed himself the victory in their welterweight title unification fight.

The scores will be debated. There were plenty of Spence fans grumbling at Larry Hazzard Jr.’s 115-112 score for Porter which included eight of the first 10 rounds for Porter. And there were plenty who were mystified at the 116-111 scores in favor of Spence turned in by Ray Danseco and Steve Weisfeld.

Yahoo Sports had it six rounds apiece, but had Spence winning 114-113 because of the 11th round knockdown.

“Shawn Porter is a rough and awkward fighter,” Spence said. “I didn’t get off what I wanted to. He’s a true champion. He made it tough.”

That is an understatement. This fight was a battle of wills, and the conventional wisdom going into the bout was that no one wanted it more than Porter. Porter fought like the football player he once was, racing out of his corner each round like a linebacker blitzing off the edge and creating violent confrontations with Spence.

He forced Spence to fight his fight, in tight at close range where it was toughness and tenacity more than skill that ruled the day. Spence was frequently unable to create space and use his length and reach to his advantage, but he showed the versatility that had many predicting greatness for him for so long. He went viciously to the body and the results were evident during the championship rounds.

“I don’t think I played Shawn’s game plan [because] I said the whole tour and the whole training camp I was trying to get the knockout, and that’s what I was trying to do,” Spence said.

Porter couldn’t find that extra gear in the last two rounds. He is a champion in every sense of the word and fought courageously over the final six minutes, but was unable to push the intensity even higher when he needed a big fight to win or get a draw.

In large part, it was because those sledgehammers to the midsection he was taking from Spence were taking a toll. More than half of the punches Spence landed in the fight — 113 of 221 — were to the body.

Even a tough guy like Porter can only take so many of those before he begins to lose a bit of steam.

“He’s a strong kid,” said Porter, who in each of his previous 33 bouts was the strongest man in the ring. “We both came in to do the job. I think I had a little more than what he expected, but he handled it.”

Errol Spence Jr. (R) lands a punch against Shawn Porter during the WBC & IBF World Welterweight Championship boxing match Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Errol Spence Jr. (R) lands a punch against Shawn Porter during the WBC & IBF World Welterweight Championship boxing match Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

In a very real sense, Spence willed himself to victory. He knew he wasn’t going to be able to rely on his quickness and his boxing ability like he had in his previous fight, a one-sided victory over Mikey Garcia.

He was going to have to bite down on the mouthpiece, take a deep breath and fight Porter because Porter wouldn’t allow it to be any other type of fight.

“Ain’t nobody ever going to go after him like I went after him,” Porter said in a massive understatement.

But Spence pulled it out by being better at Porter’s game. He showed the diversity, the ability to win in different ways, that characterizes the greats.

His future is unclear, though the PBC had Danny Garcia go into the ring to challenge him. Spence was hoping to land a bout with WBA champion Manny Pacquiao, while most boxing fans would prefer to see him fight WBO champion Terence Crawford in what would be an epic match.

He mentioned Crawford as a potential opponent, but dismissed him as the next opponent.

“The last time Crawford fought on pay-per-view, he did 100,000 buys,” Spence said. “They don’t promote him like they should.”

A Spence-Crawford fight would be a Leonard-Hearns bout for the modern age. This one was more like Leonard’s 1980 fight with Roberto Duran. Duran forced Leonard to fight his fight and pulled out a decision in a classic battle.

There were plenty of similarities to this one, except that Spence was able to win fighting a style that seemed to favor Porter.

That’s the mark of a superstar, and there’s no doubt Spence ascended to the next level.

He fought a gritty opponent who was on top of his game and still prevailed.

“We were going for the best night of our lives,” Porter said. “I still feel fantastic. I felt fantastic the whole way. We came up short and it didn’t end the way we expected.”

It didn’t go the way many expected, but the greatness of Errol Spence Jr. is in his diversity.

He showed Saturday that, just like Leonard, the man he’s been compared to for years, there is nothing he can’t do inside that ring.

He’s a special talent who is only getting better.

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