The pressure is on for Errol Spence, the bigger man and heavy favorite vs. Mikey Garcia

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
FRISCO, TX - JUNE 16:  Errol Spence Jr. reacts after knocking out Carlos Ocampo in the first round of a IBF Welterweight Championship bout at The Ford Center at The Star on June 16, 2018 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Errol Spence Jr. celebrates after knocking out Carlos Ocampo in the first round on June 16, 2018 in Frisco, Texas. (Getty Images)

Errol Spence has been compared to Sugar Ray Leonard almost from the day that Spence, the IBF welterweight champion, turned professional in late 2012.

Brilliant, megawatt smile. Punching power in both hands. Speed. Lateral movement. An eagerness to challenge himself.

Those phrases all described Leonard, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1976 and then won world championships in five weight classes as a pro while scoring victories over boxing legends like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Wilfred Benitez.

But they also describe Spence, who has won all 24 of his professional fights, including 21 by knockout heading into his pay-per-view bout on Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, against Mikey Garcia.

Leonard, though, was a star from the day he turned professional. He was the biggest name on perhaps the greatest Olympic team ever, which got gold medals from Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, Howard Davis Jr., Leo Randolph and Leonard.

He was in 7UP commercials before he turned pro, and made his pro debut on network TV.

Errol Spence can make a statement in his first superfight

It’s been a far different journey for Spence, who failed to medal in the London 2012 Olympics and despite a wealth of talent in the welterweight division, hadn’t landed that superfight until Garcia said he saw something in his game and challenged him.

The roles are slightly reversed in the Leonard-Spence comparison. There were many who were concerned for Leonard’s safety in 1987 when he came out of retirement and moved from welterweight to middleweight to challenge Hagler.

This time around, though, Spence is the bigger man and the heavy favorite. And while much of the talk has been on the risk that Garcia is taking in moving up from lightweight to challenge Spence for welterweight supremacy, don’t be fooled: There is no lack of pressure on Spence.

Leonard lost to Duran in 1980 in a pitched battle for the welterweight title in Montreal. And while it is true that Duran was a former lightweight champion, he’d been competing at welterweight for two years by the time he met Leonard.

Garcia has never fought at welterweight and just twice at super lightweight. Of his 39 fights, he’s weighed under 130 pounds in 33 of them. Spence has never weighed lower than 146¼ in any of his 24 bouts.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 16: Errol Spence and Mikey Garcia face off during the Errol Spence v Mikey Garcia Press Conference at Microsoft Theater on February 16, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
Errol Spence has a four-inch height and reach advantage over Mikey Garcia. (Getty Images)

Therein lies the pressure on Spence. Losing to a man so much smaller would dull the shine considerably. Spence, though, doesn’t see it that way.

“This is an opportunity,” Spence said. “Mikey Garcia is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. He’s proven himself time and time again and he’s always out there looking to fight the best. So for me to fight a guy like that, that’s a chance for me to make a statement.”

Spence’s biggest fights so far were his title-winning stoppage of Kell Brook in 2017 and his 2018 defense against Lamont Peterson. If there is a knock on him, it’s that he hasn’t faced much elite opposition.

He’ll get that in Garcia, who is 39-0 with 30 knockouts and has been the epitome of a pro. Garcia has no discernible weaknesses and has never really been in danger of losing any of his bouts.

Spence laughed it off the first time he heard that Garcia called him out, but when Garcia did it again after beating Robert Easter Jr. in July, it became more serious.

Pacquiao, Thurman could be next for Spence

Just as in 1980, when in addition to Hearns, Leonard, Duran and Benitez, there was a deep pool of welterweights that also included Milton McCrory and Pipino Cuevas, there is a strong pool of 147-pounders active today.

The problem is that Spence hasn’t been able to get his hands on any of them. WBO champion Terence Crawford is the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the Yahoo Sports Top 10, but he’s with Top Rank and they’re at odds with the Premier Boxing Champions, where Spence fights.

Because of the promotional and network conflicts, a Spence-Crawford fight, as great as it might be, isn’t going to happen any time soon. Doubt that if you will, but look at what happened at heavyweight. In December, WBC champion Deontay Wilder, who is with the PBC, fought to a draw in an exciting battle with lineal champion Tyson Fury.

Earlier this year, a rematch seemed inevitable and the sides were closing in on a deal for a May 18 fight. Fury signed out-of-the-blue with Top Rank in February, and within days, Top Rank announced Fury would seek to fight another opponent before doing a rematch. It had made an offer to Wilder, and when Wilder didn’t immediately accept, Top Rank shut down talk of the immediate rematch.

That history would suggest that it wouldn’t be wise to hold one’s breath waiting for Spence-Crawford. The PBC has most of the other elite welterweights, including WBA champions Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman, WBC champion Shawn Porter and former champion Danny Garcia. None of them, though, has ever been close to a match with Spence.

Spence trainer Derrick James hopes the bout will lift Spence’s profile enough that it forces the hands of the other welterweights. A bout with Pacquiao or Thurman next would make sense if Spence wins, particularly if he does so impressively.

“People get excited by the big fights and this one kind of reminds of some of those in the ‘80s we got to see,” James said. “Ray [Leonard], Tommy [Hearns], Duran, Hagler, they all fought each other. I think that’s the kind of fight this one is and hopefully, this one will be the start of something like it was in the ‘80s with those guys.”

Spence is on board with that and, like any big star, he knows that when the lights go on and the spotlight’s the most intense is when it’s his time to shine.

“Winning is important, but it’s also about making a statement with your performance,” Spence said. “I want to put on the kind of performance where after, people go, ‘OK, everything I’ve heard about this guy is true. He can fight.’”

And if he manages to get past Garcia, a lot more people are going to be aware of what the boxing cognoscenti have long known: Spence is one of the great fighters in the game today.

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