We ask much of our best fighters, despite being conditioned to having our requests ignored. Yet when those requests are answered—which is more frequently than the hardest cynics among us care to note—we walk back our enthusiasm, stripping some prominent fights of the allure that made us lament their absence. Why? Because, conditioned again, we fear disappointment, because we equate criticism with insight, because we need something to do.
Sometimes, though, this dismantling feels justified. It did last year when lightweight Mikey Garcia, 39-0 (30), concretized months of talk and signed to face Errol “The Truth” Spence. Spence is no worse than the world’s second-best welterweight; the fight will take place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (Spence’s adopted home state), under the promotional banner that has guided Spence’s career. At the time, Spence–Garcia felt absurd for reasons anyone taking the time to read this can appreciate. Worse, it felt cynical: a sacrificial formality intended to make a pay-per-view fighter of the PBC’s finest fighting achievement. Spence, 24-0 (21), once laughed at the notion of fighting Garcia, and many of us laughed right along with him.
With the fight mere days away, however, it feels less absurd than ever. In one sense, that shift is easy enough to explain. The size discrepancy between the fighters, once evoked to inflate the greatness of Garcia’s challenge, has diminished in light of Garcia’s fitness (it’s worth noting, too, that a fighter unconcerned with the demands of the scale will appear fresher than one who is). A predictable shift, that, moving from the meager appeal of a high-profile mismatch to the intrigue of spirited competition. This fight comes at a premium, after all.
There are, however, better reasons than simple optics to think Garcia causes problems for Spence. Manny Pacquiao, Keith Thurman, and Shawn Porter have all fought since Spence–Garcia was announced, and each has shown the welterweight division to be less than the bastion of talent it appeared to be when Al Haymon signed and preserved that talent through one mismatch after another. Should Garcia carry the weight effectively, and he has looked sharp in his added bulk, he may very well be a top-five welterweight. (True, Spence and Terence Crawford have long felt like the class of the division and, for that reason, a fight between them is coveted as the only way to crown the division’s champion.)
Moreover, Garcia has targeted the more beatable of the welterweight alphas. Lamont Peterson, nowhere the talent Garcia is, baited Spence into eating a few hard punches before being outgunned. Spence took them because he rightly marked Peterson—a career junior welterweight distinguished by pressure, not pop—as no opponent to fear. No, Garcia is unlikely to cut Spence’s strings with any one punch, but he has sterner power than Peterson. The Oxnard fighter is also a precise counterpuncher, one comfortable orchestrating or waiting for the minuscule openings needed to impress his craft upon both Spence and the judges. In a fight Garcia isn’t supposed to win, that impression could prove crucial: the rounds Spence does not dominate he might lose based on the charm of the unexpected and improbable.
There is also this to reckon with: Garcia, thirty-one, is better than Spence. Ring intelligence, technique, jab—Garcia has all of these over “The Truth” and will use them with consequence while Spence acclimatizes to the best fighter he has ever faced. That could mean stretches of inaction; inaction is something Garcia welcomes (doubly so against a terror), and something likely to be held against Spence by the judges.
Spence will warm to the moment, though; at which point Garcia will understand fully what he asked for and what mayhem physics can wreak on the balance of skill. A vicious southpaw puncher, Spence is, accordingly, hittable, but he has yet to be discouraged by the penalty of his aggression. That ignorance complements his natural comportment such that few fighters attack the body more earnestly than he does. Whatever success Garcia has—and he will have some at least early—Spence has twelve rounds to break him down, and those rounds will lengthen as the fight progresses. Garcia may be a bona fide welterweight come Saturday night, those extra pounds fortifying his chin, but no added size will insulate him from Spence’s liver-withering gusto. That is something Spence, twenty-nine, already knows—and that knowledge, that trust in his ruinous agency, will calm him should his nose start to bleed, should his eyes get puffy; even if he finds himself behind on the scorecards late. Spence may be short on notable wins, but a fighter who goes overseas and takes a title by knockout has just cause for trusting his mettle.
Harrowing moments await Garcia, then. In them, we will meet the fighter beneath the polish. Fair or otherwise, the question of Garcia’s heart remains. Posed first by Orlando Salido six years and twenty pounds ago, that question has lingered perhaps because the criteria for satisfying it are too exacting for a fighter who has proven himself the way Garcia has. There is little satisfaction in such an answer, and it is hardly convincing—but that answer may be replaced on Saturday.
Does Garcia dream of greatness? He will gut himself through the darkest rounds of his career if he does. Victory promises him glory, and defeat, if noble, will offer a little as well. Whatever Garcia reaps will come at Spence’s expense. In this respect, Spence faces trials of his own. He cannot just beat Garcia; he must defeature him. Those expectations were foisted on Spence when he agreed to fight a lightweight, and they are unlikely to change regardless of shifting opinions about the fight’s merits or how the action plays out. Crawford will be watching, after all. So too will the hardest cynics among us.