Can Errol Spence Jr. Put American Boxing Back In The Ring?

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As chaos erupts around him, Errol Spence Jr. simply smiles and saunters into the boxing ring. It is his homecoming — the first time he’ll defend his title in the Dallas area — and he has everything to lose. A defeat at the hands of Carlos Ocampo, a largely unknown Mexican boxer regarded highly enough to make him a mandatory opponent, would cost Spence millions and a spot among the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world. And yet, with everything on the line and seemingly everyone in the crowd of more than 12,600 screaming in anticipation, Spence appears calm, as always.

A highly decorated amateur and 2012 Olympian, Spence has thrown his hat into the ring with the world’s best boxers. His success is the sport’s success, helping secure its future in the United States — while putting to bed the tired notion that boxing is dead. Beyond the 683,000 who watched the Ocampo fight on Showtime in June, Spence’s appeal is visceral, even in football-mad Dallas: Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and several other players were among the sold-out crowd.

Spence, 28, honed his skills at Vivero Boxing Gym, a converted automotive garage in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Gene Vivero, the gym’s owner, “knew [Spence] was an athlete” the first time he saw him. And though Spence’s athleticism allowed him to pick up boxing’s subtleties, not all athletes are boxers. “Sometimes when they get punched in the nose, they go play soccer,” Vivero says of the many kids who trickle in and out of his space. Spence kept coming back.

Spence did grow up playing Texas’ No. 1 sport, lining up at running back and idolizing the Cowboys’ Emmitt Smith. But his slight build didn’t make him a great gridiron fit, and he took to boxing swiftly. Spence remembers Vivero as an old-school gym: “hot … no air conditioning, no nothing.” The high temperatures and humidity of North Texas can make training unbearable. But perhaps it’s Spence’s familiarity with the uncomfortable, rooted in Vivero’s gym, that makes him so calm, composed and, most of all, confident in the ring.

He was only an amateur when a heckler at the Texas Golden Gloves tournament first nicknamed Spence “The Truth.” As Spence earned multiple national championships and watched documentaries and fights of boxing greats, his dream became increasingly realistic and seeped into all aspects of his life. “I want to be the best at what I do and be mentioned with those greats. I mean, it’s only right,” Spence says.

Fighting in the 147-pound welterweight division, which has historically boasted some of the sport’s best, Spence aims high. “He has a pinpoint jab, solid power, good balance, a crippling body attack [and] hand speed, and he throws his punches in combination,” says award-winning boxing writer and historian Carlos Acevedo. Those attributes are only augmented by Spence’s southpaw stance. And yet, as talented an offensive boxer as Spence is, Acevedo points to the left-handed fighter’s needed improvement on defense. “He tends to drop his hands when on the attack, and head movement seems to be an afterthought.”

These deficiencies have yet to cost Spence — whose record stands at 24–0, with 21 knockouts — likely because there are few boxers in the world who can exploit them. Unfortunately for Ocampo, he is not among them.

As the fight began inside the Ford Center at the Star, Spence and Ocampo appeared cautious. In the first minute, they each threw a few pawing jabs and feints to the body, attempting to figure a proper distance between them. As they did, the previously raucous crowd settled.

Despite being the clear underdog, Ocampo, unintimidated, landed a few solid punches to Spence’s ribs. With less than 30 seconds left in the first round, it even appeared Ocampo’s left hook momentarily stung Spence. And then, with three seconds remaining, it happened — so suddenly it wasn’t clear until the replay why Ocampo was writhing in pain, his face contorted as he struggled to breathe.

Spence had ended the fight in the first round with a perfectly placed punch to the liver — among the most painful of locations. And as Ocampo remained floored minutes past the 10-second count, Spence smiled and celebrated while the arena again roared. Spence had reduced Ocampo to a placeholder, a name added to the résumé of his quest for greatness.

The knockout also announced Spence’s place among a small group who will lead the future of boxing in the United States, just as Floyd Mayweather leaves the ring. If he can garner mainstream attention, Spence may appeal to the wider public in the same way “Sugar” Ray Leonard did. While Spence might lack Leonard’s megawatt smile, his quiet charisma and confidence have won over Bible Belt fans in the Dallas area — suggesting a wider marketability. Of course, it all depends on how he fares in the ring. It’s increasingly clear that Spence’s chief rival as the face of American boxing is Terence Crawford (33–0), who dominated a world champion in June. Before either of them stakes any definitive claim to greatness, he will have to face the other.

After the fight, as the crowd is still yelling its approval, Spence says this wouldn’t be his last time fighting at home. Someday, he wants to fight at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, which seats north of 100,000 — perhaps against Crawford. “You fight there, and you know you’ve made it. You sell out that, you’re an iconic figure,” says Spence. “If I can do that, then I made it to the pinnacle of the sport.” Audacious? Sure. But it’s how The Truth rolls.

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