Erroll Spence, the welterweight representative on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, says his experience at the London Games was marred by “politics,” but looks forward to entering the pro ranks on Friday.
Photo shoots, endless interviews, the urgency to promote that often supersedes any last minute preparations during fight week. The paid ranks bring a new set of distractions for the five male U.S. Olympic boxers who make their pro debuts this Friday at the Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, Calif., but also an opportunity to distance themselves from the disappointments of this past summer’s games in London.
Olympic representatives Marcus Browne (light heavyweight), Errol Spence (welterweight), Dominic Breazeale (super heavyweight), Terrell Gausha (middleweight) and Rau’Shee Warren (flyweight) will all appear on a ShoBox: The New Generation-televised card (10 p.m. ET/PT) entitled “Night of the Olympians” in separate bouts. The card will be headlined by 2008 Olympian Gary Russell Jr. (20-0, 12 knockouts), who faces Roberto Castaneda (20-2-1, 15 KOs) in a 10-round junior featherweight bout.
The team – which was hampered by a late start to camp after a head coach wasn’t named until late June – was the first in United States history to not receive a single medal. This, after the U.S. team earned just a single bronze in 2008 and just a single gold from 2000-2008, suggesting that the problem may be deeper than that group of kids. Most had little to no international experience prior to the Games, as well.
Spence, 22, of Dallas, Texas, made it further than any of his teammates in the Olympics, being eliminated on a 16-11 decision in the quarterfinals. He believes that he and his teammates could’ve gone further under different circumstances.
“There were a lot of politics [in the Games], but I think we were at a disadvantage by starting camp late, plus we weren’t used to the coaches,” said Spence, who faces Jonathan Garcia (3-3, 1 KOs) on Friday.
Spence, who won the U.S. national amateur championships three years in a row, had to survive an overturned decision in a loss to an Indian counterpart. He was given new life, but said the fiasco compromised him in his next match, a loss that stood.
Spence is happy to be able to choose whom he works with as a pro, retaining his amateur coach Derrick James, himself a former pro who retired with a 21-7-1 (12 KOs) record. Spence and James have worked together for over four years, since James noticed the talented but repetitive Spence in a Dallas gym and offered to help Spence’s father make adjustments on his style. The tandem subsequently won every conceivable amateur title in the country.
“His mental makeup is very strong, he has what it takes to be successful,” said James, 40, when asked how he feels Spence will fare as a pro. “He has the willingness to be better, to humble himself and learn. That’s number one, instead of being a guy who thinks he knows everything. He’s very strong willed, he sees what he needs to do, a lot of guys are not developed mentally in the ring, he can make adjustments in the ring and can do things in the ring that a lot of these talented guys can’t do.”
James still feels Spence is “a year or two” from developing into the fighter he believes he can be. “I still wanna bring him along, not such a rush. He’s phenomenal now but as a fighter training a fighter – you never stop being a fighter even when you stop fighting – you see that I want a couple more things we can get done, but he’s right there. It’s a gradual process.”
The Staten Island, N.Y. native Browne isn’t quite 22 yet, but will be a few hours after his four-rounder versus Codale Ford (2-0) of Fort Gibson, Okla. Browne made a surprise first-round exit in the Olympics following a competitive tiff with the Australian representative, seeming to build an early lead with his southpaw counterpunching, but only being credited with a one-point advantage heading into a final round that the Australian won decisively.
His memories of the Olympics, which include a collaboration with Sesame Street’s Elmo to discuss healthy eating habits, aren’t all bad. Browne seems eager to move forward, relishing the opportunity to turn the page on a nationally-televised stage.
“I’m not really gonna get into it too deep and say it’s political, it speaks for itself, the decisions, the things that go on, people saw it,” said Browne, who was this generation’s breakout New York amateur, dominating the local tournaments before winning a slew of national titles. “We’re not focused on that. Friday is ‘turn-up’ time.”
The professional game, like the amateurs, is largely self-governed by “politics,” as they’re often referred to. If boxing is political, then the five Olympians fighting Friday have boxing’s Barack Obama in their corner – super-manager Al Haymon, who handles the careers of Floyd Mayweather Jr., Russell Jr., and many other fighters who appear on the two major networks that televise boxing in the U.S.
“I’m blessed to be in this position,” said Browne, who is trained by Gary Stark Sr. “He said he’ll make me a superstar but I have to go through my end of the bargain.”
“He’s doing a good job and I’m gonna let him grab my career,” said Spence. “I’m gonna stay prepared and take every fight serious. I wanna put on a great performance.”
Browne says that, in addition to handling his career, he appreciates how Haymon reached out to him in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged much of Browne’s hometown and left him without power for two days and unable to train. As Staten Island continues to struggle in the wake of the storm that tore through the Metropolitan area last week, Browne hopes that he can lift their spirits with his performance.
“Last week before the storm hit I was worried about my clothes and sneakers being destroyed, but after seeing that disaster it made me realizethere’s way more to life,” Browne said via Twitter. “There’s people that had money but couldn’t get gas or light no matter how much money they had…It was like Armageddon in the streets.
“On Friday night I’m carrying the whole Staten Island on my back,” declared Browne, when asked further about Sandy. “We’ve been through a lot this whole past week and a half, I’m here to bring positive spirits and enjoyment to the city. I’m happy I’m still alive because there’s much worse things that happened to people five or six miles away from me. I’m grateful for being alive to see and talk to you. I’m just using that as motivation to keep on going. New York City, we fall down and we get back up because we’re that strong.”
Much of Spence’s motivation comes from within, he says. His competitive streak, which shined through in his victories and defeats when matched on the world stage, comes from, not just his love of victory, but his disdain for defeat as well.
“I just hate to lose,” said Spence. “Me just thinking about my opponent and wanting to dominate him every moment of the fight.”
On Friday night, the headgear that was fastened around the amateur standouts’ heads will remain in the gym, as will the larger gloves. The amateur titles accrued during their previous careers are of no consequence in the pro game. The professionals play for keeps, if you can even use the word “play.”
Another word discouraged in the amateurs is “fight,” with amateur officials preferring the terms “bout” or “contest.”
“I can’t wait to freaking fight already,” Browne says.
Photos / Tom Casino-SHOWTIME
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel and can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.