At first, Erol Spence ignored a point that appeared in the peripheral vision of his left eye in August 2021. His inevitable fight for the lightweight title against Manny Pacquiao overcame this mysterious new challenge.
And when a pre-fight eye examination revealed a retinal rupture – an injury that could end his boxing career – Spence said he offered to sign a waiver, confirming he acknowledged the risk and still planned to compete.
“At this point, you want to fight,” he said.
The victory over Pacquiao could translate Spence, who was born on Long Island and grew up in Dallas, from famous among boxing fans to just famous. This is an important difference in a sport where the pay of athletes depends on the number of audiences they attract.
Predictably, commission officials in Nevada did not allow Spence to participate in the competition, and he was replaced by Jordanis Ugas, who was ahead of Pacquiao and won the decision. Spence headed for surgery and a second long break in his career. Ugas won the World Boxing Association title and the recognition that accompanies victory over a legend like Pacquiao.
This series of plot twists sets up a Saturday meeting between Spence (27-0, 21 knockouts), who holds the titles of World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation, and Ugas (27-4, 12 knockouts). This is not the fight that boxing fans most want; it would be a match between Spence and Terence Crawford, another invincible heavyweight. But the winner on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, will come out with three of the top four titles and legally claim the title of best fighter in a very competitive division.
“Spence and Crawford are one and two,” said Ugas, who said he considers himself the world’s third-best lightweight champion. “The man who wins this fight is the best in the lightweight division.”
While both fighters have the championship, Spence acts as the clear side of A. The fight will take place near Dallas, where Mayor Eric Johnson has declared Saturday “Erol Spence Day”. Organizers are expecting more than 40,000 spectators, most of them Spence’s guerrillas, who want to see him eliminate the last hurdle between him and the mega-fight with Crawford. This potential combination remains the most intriguing in the division.
“The middleweight has always been a glamorous division, from Sugar Ray Leonardo to Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather,” said Stephen Espinosa, president of Showtime Sports, a pay-per-view partner on Saturday. “It’s a secret recipe, and it’s really not a secret. You compare to elite fighters, and you usually get fireworks. ”
But last year’s eye surgery took Spence aside, and he hasn’t competed since defeating Danny Garcia in December 2020. And Garcia’s fight itself was a comeback, the first fight for Spence after the crash in October 2019 that left him hospitalized. week.
For his part, Spence argues that the accident, the operation and the layoffs they caused did not diminish his skill.
“It helped me train more,” Spence said. “It’s not that I had another job or 9 to 5. Most of the time I spent with family and kids.”
However, long absences smoothed out the career trajectory of the fighter, who after defeating Sean Porter in September 2019 seemed ready to reach a new level of fame. Now questions remain as to how well Spence, at 32, can move away from another serious medical problem. Instead of battling a marginal contender, Spence chose to confront Ugas, whose profile and confidence grew after he removed Pacquiao last year.
The similarities are many. Both boxers are knowledgeable and aggressive, equally comfortable punishing body punchers in a tactical bout or in melee makeup. And both have experienced career delays. After successive defeats in 2014, Ugas left boxing for more than two years before moving from New Jersey to Las Vegas and contacting his current coach Ismael Salas, another Cuban expat.
The 35-year-old Ugas lives on two generations of Cuban boxers.
The senior cohort includes Olympic gold medalists such as Juriorkis Gamboa and Guillermo Rigando, former world champions now in their 40s who are still active but no longer elite. Rigando has lost two fights in a row and is recovering from domestic incidents that nearly blinded him. Gamboa, who also lost two in a row, will meet Isaac Cruz in the undercard on Saturday.
The junior group includes recent defectors such as Robisi Ramirez, and Olympians like Andy Cruza gold medalist in Tokyo who is part of a group that the Cuban government, which banned professional sports in 1961, has allowed to act as professionals.
Pacquiao’s victory made Ugas the first Cuban lightweight champion since Jose Napoles, who twice ruled the title between 1969 and 1975. Victory over Spence, Ugas said, will resonate in Cuban communities around the world.
“It’s a historic night for Cuban boxing,” Ugas said. “It’s a big stage. Many are proud of me. “
Saturday’s winner will have high stakes for the next bout.
First and foremost, there is Crawford, whose advertising contract with Top Rank expired last November and who sued his former promoter in January. When a stalemate between promoters and broadcast partners prevented serious fights in the past, Espinosa said Crawford’s free agency had removed the hurdle.
“We have a better opportunity to fight Crawford after this fight than we have for a long, long time,” Espinosa said.