The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “phenom” as “A person of phenomenal ability or promise.” The Oxford dictionary more or less employs the same terminology: “A person who is outstandingly talented or admired, especially an up-and-comer.”
Meet welterweight contender Errol “The Truth” Spence Jr., boxing’s phenom of the moment. Fight fans who have seen him in action are willing, even eager, to surrender their hearts because it is human nature to identify an object of affection and to quickly give in to the blissful feeling that comes whenever the individual in question gives any hint of actually being special.
Should Spence (21-0, 18 KOs) win impressively, and especially by knockout, in his bid to dethrone IBF champion Kell Brook (36-1, 25 KOs) on Saturday, a fight (televised in the U.S. via Showtime Championship Boxing at 5:15 p.m. EDT) that will draw 30,000 devoted Brook fans at Bramall Lane Football Ground in Brook’s hometown of Sheffield, England, look for the early, tell-tale signs of infatuation to expand into a form of hysteria. Maybe Spence, the 27-year-old southpaw whose potential has been endorsed by no less a luminary than Sugar Ray Leonard, has the right stuff to eventually ascend to Leonard’s exalted level of prominence. But the road to legendary status is never as smooth or as inevitable as it sometimes seems, as some onetime phenoms can attest.
For now, though, enjoy the giddy thrill ride while you can because stark, sobering reality is often just around the corner. New heroes, and even those of long standing, can find their most ardent backers turning a cold shoulder if they fail to keep living up to those lofty and perhaps unreasonable expectations. Until the chill arrives, though, our unrelenting quest to recognize and reward greatness remains a cornerstone of the human condition. If our heroes succeed in the ring or on the field, then, somehow, so do we. The demand for sustained excellence from our favorite performers is such that those who provide us with vicarious thrills are not allowed to fail, or even to disappoint.
In the 1920s, the two biggest sports stars in an America that was ripe for the emergence of athletic heroes were Babe Ruth, the Yankees slugger who popularized the home run, and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who wreaked the same sort of havoc with his pulverizing left hook as the Bambino did with his sweet power stroke. Paul Gallico, one of the most prominent sports writers of the era, depicted Dempsey not so much as a mortal man but as a mythic figure hardly hewn of mere flesh and blood. And why shouldn’t that have been the case? The public demanded it, and Gallico’s flowery prose fed the same insatiable need that characterized Ruth as a god instead of a pudgy man-child with a rare gift for launching baseballs a very long way. Gallico described Dempsey thusly:
Jack Dempsey was a picture book fighter. By all the sons of Mars, he looked the part. He had dark eyes, blue-black hair, and the most beautifully proportioned body ever seen in the ring. He had the wide but sharply sloping shoulders of the puncher, a slim waist, and fine, symmetrical legs. His weaving, shuffling style of approach was drama in itself and suggested the stalking of a jungle animal. He had a smoldering truculence on his face and hatred in his eyes.
Dempsey, who was 87 when he passed away on May 31, 1983, was fortunate in that the trappings of Roaring ’20s-style adoration still clung to him to the very end. And that was more or less the happy lot for other highly gifted practitioners of the pugilistic arts who also were blessed with various strains of a charismatic personality. Americans – so accustomed to be first and foremost, in just about everything – worshiped at the altar of those who stepped comfortably into Dempsey’s outsized footprints: Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Leonard and a select few others.
But the 1960s ushered in the age of the anti-hero, and creeping cynicism. Where John Wayne once rode tall in the saddle, forever a bastion of truth and honor, Clint Eastwood strode forth as the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry. The line that so easily separated the good guys from the bad guys in World War II became blurred during the Vietnam conflict. For every Ali devotee who viewed him as a champion of social change as well as of boxing, there was a dissident who dismissed him as a draft-dodger and a loudmouth punk. The divide became less pronounced as Ali became an increasingly sympathetic figure as he aged, to the point where the nation and world mourned when “The Greatest” passed away, at 74, on June 3, 2016. In a manner of speaking, Tyson for a time was Ali-like in that he was the most popular, and most detested, fighter on the planet, commanding the attention of those who were eager to pay to see him win or lose.
And now? The best and most popular fighters all are of foreign lineage, leaving United States representatives largely missing from a fraying American empire that has slipped into remission for a variety of reasons. Those presently at the top of the boxing food chain, at least from a box-office standpoint, are a red-haired Mexican (Canelo Alvarez), big-punching Kazakh (Gennady Golovkin), multi-skilled Ukrainian (Vasyl Lomachenko) and massive Englishman (Anthony Joshua). The two most accomplished U.S. fighters, Andre Ward and Terence Crawford, aren’t exactly minnows in the global pond, but neither are they whales; Ward’s narrow victory over unified light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev generated a tepid 150,000 pay-per-view buys, and Crawford, the super lightweight champion from Omaha, Neb., whose talent is immense and indisputable, can “walk around Times Square at noon and not be recognized. Back in the day, Hagler, Hearns, Leonard and Duran couldn’t walk down the street anywhere in this country without being mobbed,” said one boxing insider who asked not to be identified, even though Crawford headlined a card at Madison Square Garden just last weekend.
That puts Spence, the DeSoto, Texas, resident by way of his birthplace of Long Island, N.Y., in the position of having not only to defeat the formidable Brook, but to somehow take to himself the specter of the Sugar Rays, Robinson and Leonard, as well as other great fighters whose larger-than-life images might never have evolved had they come along in this day and age where all the magnifying glasses seem to have disappeared. Not only that, but Spence must demonstrate as often and as emphatically as possible that he is not another bearer of false hope, as was the case with such overhyped, underwhelming pretenders as Ricardo Williams, Victor Ortiz and Francisco Bojado. Even Zab Judah, who won four world titles in two weight classes, might be classified as a bit of a letdown to those who saw him at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials and dared to imagine the Brooklyn native as a superstar-in-the-making. But Judah lost to David Diaz at those Trials, failed to make the Olympic team and, despite having participated in 18 world title bouts as a pro, is just 11-7 in those contests, and 1-5 in his last six. Canastota, N.Y., and induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame does not appear to await.
If you’re expecting Spence to come up with snappy one-liners, trite poems or vows to eat Kell Brook’s children, forget it. Not his style.
“This is my time, my era,” he said in the measured tones of someone who has looked into the future and likes the view, but is not about to shout out his destiny from rooftops. “You just have to have that `it’ factor, and I think I have it.”
Promoter Lou DiBella has seen enough of Spence, who is an increasingly important member of Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions stable, to appreciate what the young Texan brings to the table. Asked if Spence has the goods to become a superstar in today’s climate, DiBella leans to the affirmative, but with a note of caution.
“What’s a `superstar’ in boxing right now? What does that mean?” the head of DiBella Entertainment said, making the point that the parameters for such a designation have changed. “Now, if he beats Brook convincingly with what he’s already done so far, I’d say yes. He has the talent. But as far as charisma, he’s not necessarily the loudest kid with the best sound bites. That said, he’s a very compelling, nice-looking young man with a quiet confidence, a quiet killer instinct and an approachable, friendly demeanor. It’s an appealing package.”
Like Spence himself, the sport of boxing in many ways is at a crossroads as it attempts to build on what thus far has been a very encouraging 2017. Spence-Brook is a tasty addition to the menu, as was Joshua-Wladimir Klitschko and the Sept. 17 pairing of Golovkin-Alvarez will be. But the proposed fight that is generating more buzz than any other is the freak show that would pit 40-year-old Floyd Mayweather Jr. and UFC standout Conor McGregor, which is roughly akin to entering Trigger, with Roy Rogers up, in the 1948 Kentucky Derby against eventual Triple Crown winner Citation.
America, and maybe other strongholds of the sweet science around the globe, could soon have a bigger crush on a hot, gifted kid like Errol Spence Jr. He is in a real fight, a difficult fight, and if he aces the test only good things can come of it. But still, even an A-plus grade in Sheffield can’t change the fact that Spence, and those with comparative skill sets and laser-focus who are on the scene now or someday will be, appear to have been born several decades too late to be as appreciated as their forebears once were.
If Jack Dempsey, the “Manassas Mauler,” were fighting today and in his prime, he wouldn’t be characterized as a near-mythic folk hero by a latter-day Paul Gallico, because that person would now be covering the NFL or NBA. Dempsey would be a cruiserweight, probably fighting off U.S. TV and challenging for an alphabet title against a Polish guy with an unpronounceable name in Gdansk. He’d be fortunate to have the result of his bout listed in agate in most American newspapers.
More’s the pity that the affection boxing diehards still wish to confer upon those who might deserve it can’t always reach intended targets as readily as in the past.
Photo credit: Ryan Greene/Premier Boxing Champions
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