In boxing, change is precipitated by problems. A comebacking fighter changes trainers because a man who normalizes deadly risks cannot permit self-doubt. This new trainer promises to add a wrinkle or two, and so a change in style—pronounced enough for the trainer to claim proof of improvement—follows. Unhappy with the direction of his career, a fighter takes to social media to air his grievances, angling for a change in promoter, a change in network. The changes we see coming are born of conflict, the changes that surprise us reveal it.
Fourteen months ago, Errol Spence Jr. left the ring the unified welterweight champion, having turned back a spirited (for he knows no other way) effort from Shawn Porter by split decision. Less than two weeks later, he got into his Ferrari—under the influence, unfettered by his seatbelt—and woke up in the ICU. He doesn’t remember the accident. That is a remarkable statement. By contrast, fellow fighter, Paul Williams, paralyzed in a 2012 motorcycle accident, remembers in striking detail the chain of events that took his career from him.
What explains this missing chapter? Was it the alcohol in Spence’s system? The trauma to his brain? The necessary limitations of memory? Because we would go to pieces if we remembered everything, of course. How many of us shudder, whistle, snap a finger, when a shameful memory surprises us, leaps in from the blind spots of our consciousness?
No broken bones, no debilitating injury, no memory of it, nothing to come back from—so no problem. And no changes.
Spence returned to action Saturday night in the friendly confines of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the same fighter he was before the accident. And so Danny Garcia, as risky a return-opponent as Spence was likely to find, had nothing for him. Spence was better than Garcia before his accident, and he is better than him now.
The bodywork told us as much. What is so bewitching about body punchers is not only the crises those blows produce, but the daring it takes to commit to them, that tempting of the counter. Spence did not disregard the counters Garcia hurled in response to the leather banging off his ribs and elbows: he is too good for that. No, Spence rolled those punches, angled out to avoid them, caught them on his guard; and when the odd one found the mark, he accepted it and responded.
A natural counterpuncher, Garcia sought vainly the signals to let his hands go, and to see him pivoting away from an opponent so early in the fight was a sign that Garcia was in a fight for which he had few answers. Spence jabbed Garcia high on his guard, forcing Garcia’s hands back, a strategy that denied Garcia the timing he needed to counter and opened his ribs to assault. And when Garcia dropped his elbows in anticipation of those body punches, Spence would change levels to sell the deception before looping his left hand upstairs. Never off his feet as a professional, never stopped, Garcia was a man being driven to both by the end of the eighth round.
Being the first man to stop a fighter—that is a distinction with an echo. In some cases, it is because that feat reverberates through the sports; in others because the vessel struck is hollow. Seven pounds and as many years removed from his peak, Garcia is no longer an elite fighter, but his chin is world-class and he does not offer it freely. Spence, if he wanted to reverberate, could have taken it by force and stopped a fighter that Zab Judah, Lucas Matthysse, and Keith Thurman could not shiver.
But nothing has changed for Spence. And so having trapped Garcia in a fight that offered him survival at best, Spence three rounds sparring. That tepid ninth Spence might owe to his stamina, but what of the tenth, the eleventh? Garcia went from relieved to reinvigorated in these rounds, not because he had found a flaw to exploit or because Spence had tired, but because Spence is not wired for carnage. He has the style for it but not the disposition, which is why there is a joylessness to his fights, why “THE MOST ACCURATE BODY PUNCHER IN THE SPORT!” as Brian Kenny belabored ad nauseam during the broadcast, is not the finisher his record suggests. Told to “stop playing” by trainer Derrick James before the start of the twelfth round, Spence closed the fight with the type of pressure that could have ended it sooner had he cared to.
Lamont Peterson, a pressure fighter himself, one incapable of fighting any other way, was butchered by Spence because he made “The Truth” fight. Spence dropped Porter, a relentless mess of limbs, late because Porter fights like a badger hunting gophers for all twelve rounds. But Mikey Garcia went into survival mode and Spence let him, and when Saturday’s Garcia expected to fight for his senses, he was offered a stay of execution.
It is going to take the right opponents to make more of Spence than the most dominant welterweight in PBC history. Spence needs opponents who fight with a fire he lacks, men pathologically opposed to defeat, incapable of resignation. Imagine him against the thousand hands of Paul Williams or the iron-chinned belligerence of Antonio Margarito. These hypothetical fights were employed to assay the merits of another American welterweight who became wildly popular despite his penchant for uninspired decision wins, one who summoned his best only when an opponent refused anything less. You can hear Spence apologists already: “Well if that is an apt comparison, he’d be stupid to change.”
The opponent Spence needs was in the floor seats Saturday, his face shown on the broadcast, name mentioned repeatedly. But when it came time for Spence to speak that name, to point at that man and bind their futures, he passed. Nothing has changed there either.