Errol Spence Jr.: The growing legend of boxing’s disturbingly calm boogeyman

DALLAS — It’s Wednesday afternoon and the van for Team Spence pulls up to a luxury apartment complex. The sleepy-eyed IBF welterweight champion pulls up the rear as his father, Errol Spence Sr., and longtime trainer, Derrick James, approach the vehicle with red satin jackets with the worlds “Strap Season” adorned across the back. The phrase is a statement that Errol Spence Jr. is after all of the major world titles at 147 pounds. 

As they file into the van, Spence plops down on the leather seat next to me in a green sweat suit and a pair of Nikes. The van pulls off in route to the AT&T Stadium, where the final press conference before Spence defends his title against Mikey Garcia on March 16 is taking place. His eyes wander and it’s difficult to tell whether he’s excited, exhausted or indifferent. Small talk ensues and, for the most part, Spence’s expression remains the same. His drawl is slow and measured as he rarely raises his voice. There’s concern that my voice recorder will pick up more of the whirling A/C unit in the vehicle than the conversation. That is until the topic of when he realized how hard he could punch is brought up. 

“It was a tournament, and I think it was my third fight,” he says as a mischievous smile slowly stretches across his face. “I hit a dude in the chin and when he fell, I could hear him yelling that he couldn’t feel his legs. From that point on, I was trying to knock everybody out.

“For me, that is the ultimate goal. You get done early and take very little punishment. That’s what fans and people want.” 

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Although kind, Spence takes some pleasure in hurting people. It’s not a sadistic kind of pleasure but one that is rooted in the idea that he’s better than the man standing across from him. It has worked for 24 professional fights — 21 of which have ended with his opponent incapacitated by his debilitating power. 

Spence will look to give the people what they want when he fights in front of his hometown crowd in his first pay-per-view on Saturday against a fellow unbeaten in Garcia. 

It’s common knowledge that Texas is football country, and young boys who grow up in the Lone Star State long to put their athletic talents on display at Jerry World. That goes for Spence, who relocated from Long Island, N.Y., as a 2-year-old. But he always thought he’d be doing so running the pigskin for the Dallas Cowboys. He never dreamed he’d be doing so as a fighter. 

“We used to go to the barber shop to watch Lennox Lewis fight,” Spence recalls of his first memories being exposed to boxing as early as 5 years old. “It would be a big gathering, but while everybody else would be rooting for Evander Holyfield or Mike Tyson, my dad was going for Lennox because he was part Jamaican.”

Despite his father’s obsession with boxing, Spence simply wasn’t interested in partaking in the sweet science. After all, he was just a kid in a big football state where the heroes were Cowboys greats like Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. Spence wanted nothing more than to follow in their footsteps. 

“I never even though about being a boxer because I always wanted to be a football player,” he says. “It never really crossed my mind until my dad took me to the gym. And even then, it took me another year before I became really interested in it.”

Although Spence was a pretty good athlete, his father wanted to keep him active during the offseason. Entering his teenage years, the elder Spence decided to take his son and a few of his friends to the boxing gym to see what they had. 

“It was hot,” he recalls of his first memories inside a Texas boxing gym with a few of his friends at 15 years of age. “It was like a Rocky movie. No air conditioning, and it was real bummy looking. My friends didn’t last long. I wanted to quit, but my dad wouldn’t let me.”

Spence picked up the sport quickly and became obsessed with Roy Jones Jr., who was a human highlight reel in the early 2000s. Spence sought to emulate Jones but quickly realized that what Jones was doing wasn’t conducive to a young talent who was still learning his way around the boxing ring. 

“I tried to fight like Roy at first,” he says with a laugh. “With some people, I could do it, but at other times it was an epic fail. He did a lot of stuff wrong, but his athletic ability made him one of one. You can’t copy Roy, and I found that hard way.”

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Spence took his lumps, but the challenge of beating another individual in a one-on-one fight was one that he willfully accepted. Football was left fading in his rearview window. Soon enough, Spence was winning tournaments and putting on scintillating displays of power inside the squared circle. He won the U.S. National Golden Gloves in 2009 and three consecutive national amateur welterweight championships from 2009 to 2011. But even with those wins, he was still learning. 

“I was beating guys up, but a couple of pros beat me up real bad, but I think that was because I would get fatigued,” he says. “I would be good for a few rounds, and then I’d get beaten from pillar to post after that. But that demonstrated my character because I would keep coming back after getting beat.”

Looking to emulate his idol in Jones, Spence tried out for the Olympic team. But just like Jones — and other American professional greats — Spence faltered under controversial circumstances as he dropped a decision to Andrey Zamkovoy in the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Olympics. 

Although he didn’t medal in the Olympics, Spence knew that eyes were on him. And with a full commitment to boxing, Spence decided to turn pro on Nov. 9, 2012. 

“I had no plans at all if boxing didn’t work out,” he says as his hand rubs the top of his head. His stare suggests that he’s dead serious that it was boxing or nothing. “I used to listen to motivational speaker Eric Thomas a lot, and he said that you aren’t putting your all in Plan A if you are working on Plan B. That became my mindset. I had to put my everything into boxing.”

And he did.

But the legend of Errol Spence didn’t happen in front of the eyes of boxing fans. Instead, it was built on the lore of what took place behind closed doors during sparring sessions with boxing’s best. He allegedly dropped a then-unbeaten Adrien Broner during one session while famously being the man who gave Floyd Mayweather a wicked black eye during another. 

Spence still won’t gloat over those sessions where he gave today’s biggest stars all they could handle. But he will admit that he wasn’t sparring with the likes of Broner, Mayweather and others just to give them good work. He was there to prove that he was better than them. 

Soon enough, the folklore of Spence’s sparring sessions began to materialize in the professional ranks. He plowed through opponents with devastating results as the knockouts piled up. By 2015 it was no longer a matter of “if” he’d reach the pound-for-pound rankings, but when. Brutal exhibitions of power were put on display against the likes of Samuel Vargas, Chris van Heerden and former world champion Chris Algieri. But it wasn’t until Spence traveled to Sheffield, England, to challenge Kell Brook for the IBF welterweight title that the casual fan was put on notice. 

Nearly 33 minutes of savage power punching resulted in Spence smashing Brook’s orbital bone and yanking away the title in overwhelming fashion. He had arrived, and a crowded 147-pound division could no longer ignore him. 

Spence isn’t a character who is interested in marketing himself outside of the ring. His mellow demeanor and Texas drawl aren’t in line with some of the colorful personalities that make up boxing’s most watched. There is no cloud of controversy that hovers above Spence’s head. He’s simply an exceptional talent, and he wishes that was good enough to make him a star. 

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“You have to overcome the stereotype that comes with being a black athlete,” Spence says as he leans forward in his seat. If there’s a topic that gets a rise out of him, it’s this one. “There’s a stigma that you have to talk trash, be brash and spend all of your money to get attention as a black fighter. It sucks when guys like Canelo (Alvarez) can simply be great fighters and people love them for it. I don’t have to be mean or cocky. People say that I don’t look and act like a fighter. What does that mean? What am I supposed to act like? That makes it hard for me.”

While there are some who are trying to fill the void that Floyd Mayweather left upon his retirement by talking their way to the top, Spence is uninterested. Instead, he’s happy that he’ll be fighting in his first pay-per-view after only six years as a professional while fighters like former champion Keith Thurman — whom Spence admits he doesn’t care for — have yet to have the opportunity. 

“I’m not going to go out of my way to talk trash,” he says. “I can but I won’t go out of my way to be something I’m not. I don’t need to do that to become a superstar. I think I’m doing a pretty good job now with this being my first PPV in my sixth year as a pro.”

Ah, the pay-per-view. This is the good part. 

Although the 147-pound division is ripe with talent, nobody was going out of their way to call out Spence. Outside of a fight with fellow pound-for-pound fighter Terence Crawford, who fights for a rival promotion, there are few who stepped up to the challenge of facing Spence. 

It would take an unbeaten fighter in a weight class that was two divisions lighter who would begin knocking loudly at the door. 

Mikey Garcia (39-0, 30 KOs) made it abundantly clear in 2018 that he wanted a piece of boxing’s boogeyman. And after Garcia rolled through Adrien Broner and Robert Easter, two fighters whom Spence regards as friends, the knocking became too loud for Spence to ignore.

“When he first called me out, I didn’t think anything of it,” Spence says. “But then my management came to me and suggested we could do this at Cowboy Stadium. And that was always a dream to me that I couldn’t pass up.” 

Garcia will climb up two weight classes to challenge Spence in a fight that is big enough to be broadcast on pay-per-view. There was no trash talking or antics to take the fight to this level. Simply a mutual respect between two of boxing’s best, with the winner having a legitimate argument in being recognized as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the business. 

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Spence recognizes that he’s in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position as the bigger man in this fight. If he destroys Garcia, critics will suggest that the weight played a huge factor. If it’s a nip and tuck bout, they’ll question whether Spence was that good to begin with. 

But like the 2012 Olympics, Spence knows that people will be watching. And if he can use the budding popularity of Garcia to springboard him into bigger and better fights, so be it. 

Spence exits the van at AT&T Stadium and takes a look up at the massive video board that hovers above the 50-yard line. In a few short days, his image will be spread across that screen and beamed into homes across the country. The 29-year-old father of two little girls is well aware of what’s at stake on Saturday night. His demeanor changes as he takes to the stage for the final press conference. To this point, the two sides have kept things respectful with minimal trash talking. But Spence has grown weary of his opponent’s passive aggressiveness and makes it clear that the idea of respect will be tossed out of the window once that bell rings. 

“I know I’m the best fighter in the world, and I’m going to show it Saturday night,” Spence says. “I’m going to punish him and make him wish he took his brother’s advice to not take this fight.”

As mentioned earlier, it’s “strap season,” and the man called “The Truth” is seeking to find his glory on Saturday night in front of his hometown. Garcia is merely a stepping stone to greatness for Spence, who promises that what he will do to Garcia won’t be for the faint of heart. The calmness of how he explains what will happen to Garcia is delivered in a similar fashion to how he enjoyed telling the story of hitting a man so hard that he lost feeling in his legs. 

Spence takes great pride in his ability to hurt people, and the fact that he’s so relaxed is probably the most frightening thing about him. 

Boxers, beware. The boogeyman is coming.

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