Just two and a half years ago, the PBC pettifogging machine announced a welterweight tournament, of sorts, that promised to bring some elusive clarity to one of the most talent-rich divisions in boxing. It never really happened. Shawn Porter, Danny Garcia, and Keith Thurman have all faced each other in a mini-round-robin memorable for each fight lacking memorability and for each fight going the distance. Into that mix dashes Errol Spence Jr., looking for his first notable win at 147 pounds since he stopped Kell Brook in 2017. This is not exactly the Four Kings, of course, but it will have to suffice—otherwise, what to do with all those press releases? (On the welterweight sidelines sits Terence Crawford, waiting to face his next underwhelming opponent, insisting that big fights are meaningless, and bragging—preemptively—about his Hall-of-Fame status.)
When Spence and Porter square off Saturday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, they will at least unify two of the myriad title belts floating randomly around the boxing orbit like so much space debris. Initially slated for Showtime, Spence‒Porter wound up on pay-per-view instead, where 300,000 or so buys will be held up by the usual suspects as evidence of the current rampaging cultural importance of prizefighting. There will be more auctioneers on that broadcast than there are characters in the average Thomas Pynchon novel, and all of them will bray about the history-making event that will cost a mere seventy dollars to witness. It will not be that, of course, or anything close to it, but Spence‒Porter promises to be an intriguing clash of styles and the rare instance of consequential matchmaking.
As the consensus “future of boxing,” Spence, 25-0 (21), has been the subject of a dozen obligatory breathless profiles written by HTML claqueurs who derive their insight mostly from publicity materials and forum boards. At twenty-nine, Spence has two signature wins: an impressive KO of talented Kell Brook in England, and a shutout over Mikey Garcia, whose pound-for-pound standing was dictated by networks (HBO, Showtime, various PBC skins) and perpetuated, like chain letters, by credulous and clueless alike. Garcia had a fairly unaccomplished run at lightweight before he agreed to co-star in a “superfight” of feverish imaginations stoked by the boxing fantasy-celebrity industrial complex. It was an aesthetic dud and left the rare skeptical observer questioning why Spence seemed so reluctant to mix it up with an ex-featherweight who was outclassed from the moment he scribbled his name on the contract.
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A two-fisted southpaw who combines a thumping jab with a thudding body attack, Spence, De Soto, Texas, may have abandoned his killer instinct against Garcia (out of respect for his imaginary pound-for-pound rating, no doubt), but will likely open up more often against the onrushing Porter. If Spence wants to reboot his reputation as a welterweight triggerman, Porter may be a willing if rambunctious target.
Now a hardened veteran of thirty-one, Shawn Porter has every intangible of a world-class fighter: heart, conditioning, endurance, chin, tenacity. What he lacks, above all, is style. With his rugby approach, his errant elbows, and his tendency to butt, Porter is an ordeal for anyone who answers the bell against him. In his last two fights, however, Porter has added a little haphazard boxing into his repertoire—with mixed results. His change-up strategy confused Danny Garcia enough for Porter to notch a close decision last year, but against Yordenis Ugas, Porter was lucky to limp away with a “W.” Why Porter, 30-2-1 (17), would try to match Ugas at his own game is a mystery. One thing is certain: playing shake-a-leg with Spence is going to end badly for Porter.
Because Spence works exclusively behind his jab—which sets up his offense, scores points, doubles as defense, and disrupts the rhythm of his opponent—it will be hard for Porter to exploit openings boxing from a distance. On the outside, Porter, Las Vegas, Nevada, has snappy reflexes and nimble feet, but he is surprisingly uncoordinated when he attacks from long range. By itself, mobility is not an attribute likely to win fights, and Porter will eventually find himself in the danger zone: within punching range of a man with an 84-percent KO rate. Porter might build up a points lead early, but, eventually, his forward progress will be stalled by a ramrod jab and, as the rounds go by, his herky-jerky perimeter game will unravel against a counterpuncher with power. Even so, Porter may have his best chance of winning by smothering Spence in close, something he may realize after his struggles with Ugas. “If he can’t handle the roughness, then you will find out real soon,” Porter told the New York Post. “We’ll be rough, we’ll be hard, we’ll be rugged, we’ll keep the pressure on him, and we all know pressure bursts pipes.”
As a spoiler, Porter manages to keep scorecards close from bell to bell by combining ragged aggression—of both the effective and ineffective variety—and mauling to offset a disadvantage in skill. He will have to redouble his muddling against Spence if he hopes to make this fight close or, perhaps, even last the distance. Where Spence is most vulnerable is when he follows his opponent around the ring without working and when he covers up against flurries. He also tends to drop his right occasionally after jabbing to the body. This is where Porter, who likes to throw a counter right, can, theoretically at least, capitalize. Although Spence sometimes looks mechanical in the ring, he is also precise and composed, two qualities that will serve him well against the disorderly Porter. A fighter can compensate for his technical flaws to a certain extent with sheer aggression, but against world-class opposition, he will likely leave one too many openings. Not only is Spence accurate, but he is also a fair counterpuncher, and his fierce commitment to battering rib cages forces opponents to concentrate on defense at the expense of just about everything else.
In addition to his ungainly style, Porter also has another unique specialty: a knack for inconclusiveness. Except for his unanimous decision over Garcia, Porter has never clearly beaten a world-class fighter (no, Adrien Broner does not count); similarly, he has never clearly lost to one either. But Porter has earned respect for his willingness to fight just about anybody. If all fighters shared his outlook, boxing would be more than just homemade ratings, shoulder programming, Instagram babble, network shilling, and mismatch after mismatch. Unfortunately, Porter is one of only a handful of pros with a genuine thirst for competition. He is also aware that a loss to a top opponent is not an automatic ticket to Palookaville. After all, the oversaturated market of the last few years has given recycling a supercharged boost. Even Alfredo Angulo, who has resembled the mummified Imhotep (Boris Karloff) for years, recently headlined a nationally televised card. Rod Salka will soon be on ESPN and DAZN will seemingly greenlight anyone willing to wear a pair of Everlasts. (Although the DAZN lineup for the rest of 2019 is a pleasant surprise.) Porter has faced more quality welterweights over the last few years than anybody and has yet to embarrass himself in the ring. Yes, “Winning Ugly” should be stitched across his trunks, but what Porter does so awkwardly he does against his celebrated peers, and not against the hapless, the helpless, the hopeless.
In the end, Spence should have enough weaponry to outgun Porter over twelve desultory rounds. If Spence can convincingly defeat Porter (for some reason, decisive wins are few and far between for PBC welterweights, except, of course, for Manny Pacquiao), he will go a long way in closing the gap between his inflated standing and his accomplishments. It may not be a “FOMO” moment, exactly, but it will be enough to qualify as a moment of authenticity during the age of grand(iose) illusions.