When Sugar Ray Leonard turned professional after winning a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in 1976 – a time when even amateur boxing was still significant in this country – the television networks were eager to broadcast his pro debut.
No, not HBO or Showtime. ABC, CBS and NBC, which at the time were the only networks available.
When Leonard eventually debuted on CBS, he had sponsors throwing money at him to endorse their product, newspaper reporters stayed with him throughout training camp and he was a fixture on the nightly news.
Ray Charles Leonard – who turned 61 last week – made his professional debut on CBS on Feb. 5, 1977, and developed into one of the greatest boxers of all-time and one of the biggest sports stars of his era.
Errol Spence Jr., a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team, has compiled a 21-0 pro record with 18 knockouts and will challenge Kell Brook on Saturday for the IBF welterweight title in Brook’s hometown of Sheffield, England, before about 30,000 fans.
And yet, Leonard was a vastly bigger name on Day 1 of his pro career, when he won a unanimous decision over Luis Vegas, than Spence is today on the verge of his biggest match.
But from the time he stated his intention to turn pro, Spence was compared to Leonard. As a fighter, even though Spence is left-handed and Leonard fought conventionally, the comparisons are apt.
Spence is big, powerful, athletic, has great timing, precise movements that are the result of superior footwork and a mind that seems to think four or five steps ahead of his opponent.
He’s not more widely known because of the state of modern boxing, though English promoters and fans are doing their best to uplift it. He is, though, extraordinarily gifted, and the feeling from many is that as good as he’s been in running up that 21-0 mark, his best is yet to come.
Brook, who has to be given enormous amounts of credit for his willingness to fight elite opponents, understands the level of opposition he’s facing, even if many American fans do not.
“I think [Spence] is a great talent,” Brook said. “He’s been doing what is being asked of him. He’s been knocking over everyone that’s been put in front of him, but he’s up against the champion now: A big strong welterweight. I believe I train very, very hard and I’m ready to fight and I am very honored to fight in my home city of Sheffield.
“I’m up for this fight and I know what I’m up against. Errol Spence is a talented fighter and I know that it is going to be a very, very tough match but I have been putting the work in at the gym and I’m in absolute focus.”
The clear difference between Spence and Leonard, of course, is that Leonard went out and performed against some of the best opponents of all-time. Leonard has five wins and a draw against boxers who are members of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Spence has only fought one opponent, Chris Algieri, who held a world title.
His level of opposition is soft, and he’s making a huge leap when he meets Brook.
A budding star like Spence could have had an easier path, had he wanted it. He could have gotten a fight at home in front of a friendly crowd. But he’s going to Brook’s hometown in front of what surely will be a heavily pro-Brook audience.
That’s tough to overcome, particularly if the judges get influenced by the cheers for Brook. Spence, though, knows he’s good enough to win on the road against a good opponent, so he had no qualms about accepting the fight.
“I’m excited that it’s finally here and that I’m finally getting the opportunity to prove myself and prove that I am the best welterweight in the division,” Spence said. “Kell Brook, who’s a good fighter, has great skills and he’s a strong fighter too, he can fight. … I know it’s not going to be an easy fight for me; it’s going to be a real test to go to his hometown and to take his title from him. It’s something that real fighters do; they go to other people’s town and fight the champion. I’m going to go to his hometown and take the title.”
A Spence victory would be the sign of an arrival of yet another young, under-30 star. Spence is 27. Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford, who each have experts who believe they’re the best in the world, are both 29. Heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua is 27. Canelo Alvarez is 26. Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez is 29. Keith Thurman is 28.
There are more, but the point is obvious. They are a slew of talented boxers just now into their prime.
There is legitimate hope that this can be something of a golden age for the sport. Leonard led that golden age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s along with fighters like Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Aaron Pryor, Alexis Arguello, Larry Holmes and Wilfred Benitez, among many others.
Spence has the ability to be the best of the current crop, and that’s saying a lot. But the time for talking about potential and physical gifts is over.
It’s time for Spence to prove why so many believe he’s about to become the new face of American boxing.