By: Sean Crose
As far as overall popularity goes, boxing arguably lives or dies by household names. Floyd Mayweather, Mike Tyson, Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, such names have attracted interest, not just from boxing’s diehard fan base, but from the larger culture beyond. Believe that the promoters, networks, and streaming services that dominate today’s sweet science are dying for another household name to pop up from within the sport, one that will be well known by fan and nonfan alike, one that will be recognized through the vast demographics that make up American society and beyond.
Finding a fighter who can attain such fame is no easy task. After all, boxers, like tennis players, aren’t part of any team. In other words, there’s no built in fan base to be found. Fighters have to do more than fight well – they have to capture the imagination – if they wish to reach beyond those who follow the sport with regularity. Tyson was terrifying, as was Dempsey, Ali transcended the sport by becoming a figure of his time and place, Leonard was everything Americans liked to think was true about their country – friendly, successful, and dangerous when need be. Mayweather? He was the anti-hero, the man who lived as and how he pleased. How, some might ask, will boxing’s next household name capture the imagination?
Enter one Errol Spence Jr, 29 years old, of Desoto, Texas. A former Olympian, the five foot nine and one half Spence has been a professional since November of 2012. Since that time, he has yet to lose a single fight. At the moment, Spence’s record is 25-0. He was won all but four of his bouts by knockout. He won his first world title in 2017, when he traveled to England to fight IBF world champion Kell Brook for Brook’s welterweight title. The bout went down in Sheffield, in front of what was essentially a hometown crowd for Brook. Spence knocked his man out and returned home a champion.
Since that time, Spence has faced Lamont Peterson, Carlos Ocampo, and Mikey Garcia. Garcia and Ocampo were undefeated on fight night. Peterson was a highly regarded foe, one who some felt bested Danny Garcia when the two men met in 2015. No matter. Spence beat all three opponents handily. Now Spence is set to face fellow titlist Shawn Porter this Saturday in Los Angeles at the Staples Center. Their match will headline a card that will be broadcast live on Fox Pay Per View. Porter has bested the likes of Adrien Broner, the aforementioned Danny Garcia, and Paulie Malignaggi. What’s more, both Porter’s defeats were close ones – the first to the aforementioned Kell Brook, the second to Keith Thurman.
Still, it’s Spence who is the favorite, and who is receiving the glowing attention. CBS Sports claims Spence is on a “quest to become the face of boxing.” The New York Daily News has wondered in print is the fighter is the “Master Chef of the Welterweights.” Spence has been showcased at a Dallas Cowboys home game, and at the opening of Southern Methodist University’s football season. Never mind Porter, there’s talk of Spence facing the legendary Manny Pacquiao next. And if that’s not all enough, there looks to be a superfight on the horizon between Spence and fellow welterweight titlist Terence Crawford.
Should Spence get past Porter – which some seem to forget is no guarantee – there is reason to believe he may be positioned to become boxing’s next household name. The media likes Spence, fellow fighters respect (or fear, or both) Spence, and boxing guru Al Haymon, who advises Spence via his Premiere Boxing Champions Organization, clearly views the fighter as a special asset. Can Spence, however, capture the public imagination? Can he lodge himself into the public consciousness the way Mayweather, Tyson, Ali, Louis, and Dempsey did before him?
It’s a hard question to answer, especially with the rugged Porter currently standing in Spence’s way. It’s also worth noting that Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and heavyweight Anthony Joshua have also been positioned to be the sport’s next household name, as well. Yet Canelo’s English isn’t the best, and Joshua was stunned by Andy Ruiz last June at Madison Square Garden. That means Spence may eventually be on his way to overcoming the pack. Again, though, it’s uncertain whether or not Spence has the “it” factor. He certainly seems to in the ring. In order to capture the world outside of the realm of boxing, something else might be required.
It’s worth noting that numerous great fighters have dominated boxing but did not reach the Olympian heights of fame Mayweather, Tyson and the like did. Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Roy Jones Jr, Pernell Whitaker, and Julio Caesar Chavez were all great fighters who became justly famous. Their names, however, were never a part of the general zeitgeist. Not that serious boxing fans cared. Or that they needed to. For fans, popularity isn’t of primary importance. For those who stand to make big money on big names, however…