Watching Men Fight During a Pandemic

Published in TexasMonthly.com


Errol Spence Jr. sauntered into the ring in the middle of AT&T Stadium Saturday night with his nickname, “The Truth,” written in pink across his chest. The unified welterweight world champion and one of the world’s best boxers looked calm, with sleepy eyes and a wide smile that reveals deep dimples on both his cheeks. Between his easygoing appearance and Dallas drawl, it can be easy to forget that Spence is one of the most dangerous fighters in the world.

His opponent, Danny Garcia, waited in the ring. Garcia is from Philadelphia, renowned for its tough boxers. A former world champion, Garcia, like Spence, is quiet. It’s Garcia’s dad, Ángel, who supplies the braggadocio. It was Ángel Garcia who said his son being the underdog didn’t matter, and that if his son landed a flush punch, Spence would be knocked out.

Two days before fight night, Governor Greg Abbott announced reduced business occupancy limits in North Texas as a result of COVID-19 hospitalization rates. Now as they awaited the opening bell, Spence and Garcia stood face to face. They heard the referee’s final instructions. They were the only people inside the ring who weren’t wearing face masks.

Tension filled the stadium. The anticipation just before a prizefight is unlike any other in sports. On Saturday night, the announced crowd of 16,102 people fell silent and held their collective breath, knowing that what was about to begin could come to a sudden and violent end at any moment—the way it almost ended for Spence, some fourteen months earlier.

Though he doesn’t remember it, that’s the night Spence almost died. The night when Spence crashed his white Ferrari in front of a Dallas sports bar called Knockout, the vehicle flipping several times. During one of those somersaults across the median, Spence was thrown from the car, where a friend who’d been driving behind him found him lying on the street.

Spence doesn’t remember the few weeks he spent in the hospital. How his trainer, Derrick James, saw him and felt relief that Spence was alive, even if it meant his boxing career was over. Spence doesn’t remember how his face looked, scraped with large patches of pink replacing spots of missing skin. His lips and eyes swollen. His teeth knocked out.

He remembers being home about three weeks after the crash. He remembers thinking it was a miracle he survived. That he had suffered no serious damage. That the accident and subsequent DWI charge were the most unsubtle of signs that he needed to rededicate himself to what he did best—fight.

And right before the opening bell rang, that’s what he waited to do. Spence hugged his father. Then, he half-hugged his trainer, who offered one last bit of instruction before the punches became real. Before he’d find out whether that car crash had any lingering effects. Before finding out just how much he’d lost when he gambled his life thinking that if no man can beat him, then perhaps that meant he was invincible.

In the late nineteenth century, when prizefighting was illegal in most of the United States, boxing found a home in Texas. The state’s wide-open spaces and proximity to Mexico made it an attractive place to organize fights—even during periods when the sport was outlawed.

The first attempt to regulate boxing in Texas came in 1889. Lawmakers lumped boxing together with other blood sports like dogfighting, bullfighting, bearbaiting, and bullbaiting (in the latter two, a bull or a bear would be tied to a post and gamblers would wager on dogs set loose to attack them), permitting such contests as long as promoters paid a $500 tax. Two years later, the law swung in the opposite direction and Texas banned prizefighting. “From and after the passage of this act,” House Bill 24 read, “any person or persons engaging in any fight between man and man, or between man and bull, or between man and any other animal …shall be deemed guilty of a felony.” But because Texas hadn’t repealed the previous statute, the sport remained in legal limbo.

Governor Charles A. Culberson settled the confusion in 1895. Backed by preachers and reformers who saw combat sports as proof of social decadence, Culberson called a special legislative session to ban prizefighting. It just so happened that this banishment closely followed the announcement, by one of the governor’s political enemies, of a plan to host the world heavyweight title fight in Dallas. The intended site for “Gentleman” Jim Corbett versus Robert Fitzsimmons was near where Fair Park is today, but that scheme unraveled as soon as Texas outlawed prizefighting.

Chased by Texas Rangers out of Dallas and then out of El Paso, the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight took place across the Rio Grande in Mexico. The Texas Rangers, unable to stop what was happening in Coahuila, stood on the Texas side of the border and watched the fight. Boxing remained illegal in Texas for the next forty years.

Then, in the thirties, as Texans suffered through the Great Depression, lawmakers warmed to prizefighting as a potential source for job creation and tax revenue. Eight months after Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson spoke of “hunger that has already led to despair and desperation” in her 1933 inaugural address, boxing was once again legal in Texas. Before long, promoters spoke of bringing the sport’s biggest names to fight in the state.

A similar mix of opportunism and desperation is behind boxing promoters’ decisions to bring the sport’s biggest fights to Texas in 2020. As COVID-19 infection rates surged across the country in recent months, Texas has become the last state that regularly hosts major boxing events where mass gatherings are still permitted and promoters can add ticket sales to the revenue a fight like Spence versus Garcia generates. The Showtime pay-per-view bout between Gervonta Davis and Leo Santa Cruz took place at the Alamodome, in San Antonio, on Halloween, and the venue will host Mexican star Saul “Canelo” Álvarez’s first and only fight of 2020 later this month. Surely, the fact that Errol Spence was raised in DeSoto played a role in the choice of AT&T Stadium as venue for Saturday’s fight, but in all likelihood the determining factor was the chance to squeeze every last dime of ticket sales from the event, pandemic health risks be damned.

What will happen when Garcia punches Spence in the face?

That was the question ringing in boxing fans’ minds as soon as the fight began.

There have been boxers who survived car and even plane crashes and returned to the ring, more or less the same fighter they were before their accidents. Then again, there have also been boxers who got knocked out once and were never the same. The question of how Spence’s trauma might affect his performance against Garcia generated suspense for the bout.

Once the fight began, however, Spence made it clear that whatever effects his crash may have had on him, he was the same dominant fighter as he’s been throughout his undefeated pro career. With his pink gloves, he jabbed and punched at Garcia’s body. By the end of the third round, Garcia looked lost, trying to figure out how to combat Spence. A natural counterpuncher, Garcia is most effective when he pounces on his opponent’s mistakes: when they swing, miss, and fall off-balance; or when they swing and connect, but stay there to get punched in return. Spence did little of that. Between rounds, Ángel Garcia implored his son to stay off the ropes and stop letting Spence push him around. “Back him the fuck off,” the father told his son. The son tried but couldn’t come through.

Midway through the fight, Garcia’s left eye had become swollen and bruised. Spence repeatedly backed Garcia into the ropes and beat on his body. When Garcia managed to land punches, they weren’t enough to deter Spence, who was relentless. He kept attacking, bouncing on his feet, making a world-class opponent like Garcia look out of his league. When the bell rang at the end of the twelfth and final round, no one doubted that Spence had won.

Even today, there’s a sense of lawlessness to boxing in Texas. The state has built a reputation for judges who favor local fighters on their scorecards. That’s why, before Saturday’s fight, Ángel Garcia made sure that none of the three judges for the fight would be Texan. In the end, it didn’t matter that the judges traveled from Nevada, North Carolina, and New Jersey—Spence was dominant and no one questioned his victory by unanimous decision.

For the third time in his last four fights, Spence fought at home. Of the 16,000-plus fans in the stadium, most were there to cheer for the champ from DeSoto. The attendance would’ve been many times that if not for the pandemic.

It’s an odd thing to watch men fight during times like these. To think that it could have all gone wrong for Spence. That he, like millions of people around the world, was reminded in the past year of how fragile life can be. For Spence, it was the crash. For everyone, it is COVID-19. When we watch two athletes who’ve spent their lives training themselves to suppress their fear so they can fight in a ring, it’s hard not to wonder if we’ve also grown numb to our fear of the pandemic—and how that will ultimately hurt us.

In less than two weeks, Canelo, the biggest draw in North American boxing, will fight in San Antonio. His bout will take place a short drive from where thousands of cars lined up to get food relief about a month into the pandemic. When Álvarez steps into the ring, fans will be at the Alamodome to watch.

Boxing fans understand the grave stakes of the sport and the moral rot inherent in paying two people to fight for others’ entertainment. There’s an implicit awareness that this can end in tragedy. It’d be naive to think that isn’t part of pugilism’s appeal, naive to think that prizefighting is the cause of a troubled society, rather than one of its symptoms.

Prizefighting—or boxing, or pugilism, or the sweet science, or whatever label one applies to mask the sport’s brutality and amoral nature—has never existed in a vacuum. Wherever boxing thrives, there are social conditions that give it life. In Texas, where almost 14,000 new coronavirus cases are being recorded every day, elected leaders have chosen the health of the state’s businesses over that of its residents. Once those priorities became clear, boxing’s biggest fights showed up at Texas’s front door.

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