Calling Errol Spence Jr., a.k.a The Truth, a prospect has become a lie.
PBC’s September 12 card in Toronto, headlined by Montreal fighter Adonis Stevenson, was designed to be the coming-out party for the WBC light heavyweight champ in Canada’s biggest market, a tune-up fight packaged as a party. The promoters pulled out some of the stops they could: Razor Ruddock was summoned from boxing’s long purgatory of retirement to get lit up by a boxer the likes of whom Ruddock would have eaten for dinner in his prime, and some other local fighters were peppered throughout the preliminaries. And they served Stevenson a sacrificial lamb upon whom to display his wholly uncanny-for-a-38-year-old power to fulfill the fight’s billing as the “#KOinTO.” Stevenson quickly obliged.
With the combined age of Stevenson and Ruddock standing at 88, the real real star of the show was Errol Spence Jr., whose performance has been seared into my mind ever since.
Matched up against a sturdy fighter with a record, a chin, and some dance moves, Spence made Chris Van Heerden look far worse than he probably is. Van Heerden, who moved to California from South Africa to chase his ring dreams, had never been down before. With an awkward and somewhat lanky southpaw stance, Van Heerden has climbed the ranks with his jab and a generous helping of heart. But his jab, and every other part of his game, was outclassed by Spence’s. Spence has a throughly beautiful right jab which he used to peck at Van Heerden’s left eye in the first round, almost immediately causing it to swell.
Spence has built a reputation as a body puncher, but that just speaks to the fact that body punching is more difficult; and nothing looks difficult for Spence in the ring. Sitting ringside, I was struck by how calm Spence looked the entire fight. I never saw his mouth open, never noticed a single expression on his face outside of a quiet focus. The only time I caught him break his concentration was for a split-second nod to Antonio Tarver, who was doing commentary for the fight at ringside.
The kind of body-punching Spence is capable of is rare. It requires a combination of solid footwork, defensive acuity, and a patience that most boxers simply don’t have. Spence ate some of Van Heerden’s punches early, but as the fight progressed he adjusted his defense perfectly so he could work inside and not get caught.
Van Heerden had never been down before in his career, and he would have gone the distance with most, but Spence’s body work proved fatal. A jab into the midsection finally weakened the South African challenger in the 7th round, buckling him over and leaving him open for a left hook to the ear that sent him to a knee. When he gained his unsteady legs, Spence mowed him back down with a vicious shotgun uppercut to the gut.
Full marks to Van Heerden, who despite being gravely hurt—guilty of wishful thinking, he mistook the 7th round 10-second warning as the bell and turned his back on Spence—he never capitulated until the referee Allan Huggins mercifully stopped the bout early in the 8th when Van Heerden had no response to a Spence barrage along the ropes.
After the fight, Spence declared himself ready for anyone in the top ten at welterweight. Given Haymon’s predilection to give his top fighters maybe one solid opponent every three fights or so, it’s hard to figure where Spence might fit in the coming 12 months. Spence may very well challenge for a title now—he reportedly gave both Broner and Mayweather trouble in sparring sessions—but I doubt he’ll be given a shot in the immediate future.
That isn’t to say he can’t get into a few good fights in the meantime, even within the PBC stable. Welterweight is the deepest and most interesting division in boxing, even with its two superstars fading slowly into irrelevance. Haymon knows this too, knows that the humble and incredibly talented Spence is very marketable and should be able to fill the vacuum caused by Mayweather’s sunset. And at 25 years old, there’s no reason to hold him back any further, he will only develop a fan base by fighting boxers perceived as his equal.
While I can’t see him fighting Porter, Thurman, Garcia, or Khan in the next year, I also think it’s a mistake to pair him with a Josesito Lopez.
Intriguing to this corner in this regard would be matchups Robert Guerrero and Andre Berto, two veteran guys who would both pose the biggest challenge in Spence’s career. An unlikely but very interesting fight would be to match both of Haymon’s welter prospects in Sammy Vasquez and Spence together in their next fight, with the winner fighting either Guerrero or Berto, and then stepping them up that way.
Spence has given the boxing world every indication that he’s ready, and has validated the hype as one of the best young boxers coming up the ranks. The comparisons to Sugar Ray Leonard—superb quickness and athleticism mixed with star power—appear at this point to be completely apt. Spence is another reason that boxing can be thought of as a performing art, the sweet science. He’s on the brink of a masterpiece.
In November, another 26-year-old phenom will challenge for the middleweight title in a mega-fight, it’s time for Spence to emerge from his prospect status and into the spotlight.