When Errol Spence Jr. turned pro after the 2012 Olympics in London, I called a slew of highly rated boxers and asked them about his potential and for a comparison of fighters.
One name kept coming back: Sugar Ray Leonard.
Spence is a southpaw and Leonard, who won gold in Montreal in 1976, was an orthodox fighter, but the fact was Spence had the ability to do the things that made Leonard one of the game’s legends. is one of the 10 greatest boxers of all time and has proven it in an era teeming with elite talent.
More than a decade later, as Spence heads into the biggest fight of his career, those comparisons remain mostly intact. Spence is 28-0 with 22 knockouts and is widely considered one of the top five pound-for-pound fighters in the world. He has held a welterweight title for six years and has never been seriously challenged.
However, that all changes on July 29 when Spence takes on WBO champion Terence Crawford for the undisputed welterweight title at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Crawford’s entry into the professional ranks was as misunderstood as Spence’s was trumpeted. He won a lightweight belt six years after turning pro, and that’s when things started to settle down for him. He quickly unified the super lightweight title and now has the opportunity to unify the welterweight crown.
Leonard was considered the so-called “pretty boy” when he first met Duran, who at that time was considered by many to be the best lightweight in history. Duran fought with a growl that made him as intimidating as any boxer ever.
Leonard, however, proved his toughness in this fight with Duran. He showed his ability to stay on the outside and box, and could have won this fight using his legs and jab. But he wanted to make a point and so he stayed in the pocket and fought Duran’s fight.
When it was over, opinion on the verdict was mixed, but Duran walked away with a close unanimous decision. Leonard demanded an immediate rematch and sent Duran out, forcing him to drop out in the infamous “No Mas” fight five months later.
Going into Crawford-Spence, it looks like Crawford is now the best comparison for Leonard. Crawford is a brilliant boxer who has the legs, the jab and the weird combinations to win a fight this way. But there’s no meaner or tougher boxer in the game than Terence Allan Crawford.
Like Leonard, Crawford’s boxing IQ is very high and is probably the best in the business at this point.
Like Leonard, he’s a finisher. When he hurts an opponent, he rarely lets them off the hook. Leonard fought Hearns 10 months after his rematch with Duran, and Hearns took a big lead in what was a compelling and dramatic fight.
Legendary coach Angelo Dundee implored Leonard to step on the gas. After the 12th, Dundee said to Leonard: “You’re screwing it up now, son. You blow it up.
Leonard viciously attacked Hearns in the 13th and finished him with a brutal assault on the ropes in the 14th.
That’s the type of fighter Crawford is, and if he were ever faced with a situation where he got left behind, it would be easy to see him react the same way Leonard did in the first fight of Hearns.
Spence is an extraordinary talent and has few weaknesses in the ring. If he has one, it’s that he hasn’t always lived the life of a fighter and hasn’t been shy about partying in the past.
Crawford, however, is all about the fighting life. Fighters have short careers, and he knows it. And he knows better than anyone what a decisive win over Spence would do for him, not just now but in the future.
There has never been a fighter who has been undisputed champion in two weight classes. Both Crawford and Oleksandr Usyk have the opportunity to do so. Crawford was the undisputed super lightweight champion, while Usyk was the undisputed heavyweight champion. Crawford has the chance to fight Spence for all four belts, while Usyk, who has three heavyweight belts, must strike a deal with WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury for the opportunity to do so.
It’s early days and things may change as we see the fighters in training camp.
My opinion just under two months from the first bell is that Crawford’s versatility is going to be the difference. He also fights orthodox and left-handed and no one has been able to solve this riddle.
I think he walks away in the middle of the fight and wouldn’t be surprised if he finished down the stretch to prove he was the greatest of his era.
And don’t be surprised later if there are a lot of comparisons between Leonard and Crawford rather than between Leonard and Spence.