By Lem Satterfield
Within a week of his improbable triumph that dethroned southpaw Marvin Hagler as 160-pound champion on April 6, 1987, Sugar Ray Leonard overcame a potentially devastating setback during a sparring session.
“Five days before the fight, my sparring partner, Quincy Taylor, nearly knocked me out in training. I mean I was out, man — I mean out on my feet. Quincy saw that I was really hurt and he backed off and gave me time to regroup,” said Leonard, during a February 2012 interview with RingTV.com.
“But I guarantee you that most people in my camp — probably 98 percent — thought that I was in some real trouble. Quincy Taylor had my ass knocked out. So they were like, ‘If a sparring partner could hurt him, then oh my God,’ you know? Basically they thought Marvin Hagler was going to kill me.”
Leonard said a victory by four-division champion Mikey Garcia (39-0, 30 KOs) over left-handed IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence (24-0, 21 KOs) would be analogous to his upset of Hagler, whom he fought after rising from 147 pounds, un-retiring after a nearly three-year absence (35 months).
“The similarities are absolutely on point, no question, and I would think that most boxing aficionados would say the same thing about Errol Spence, because he’s a rare, special fighter and a man who could be successful in any era. My family members and everyone thought I was crazy moving up for a solid middleweight with Hagler’s power and abilities after inactivity and not looking great in my previous fight with Kevin Howard,” said Leonard, 62, who was floored in the fourth round of his previous win over Howard, a ninth-round TKO in May 1984.
“My wife, at the time, Juanita, confronted me at home about a month prior to the fight with Hagler. I came home one day from training for Hagler and a tough day of sparring with young boys who were kicking my ass. Juanita asked, ‘Ray, are you upset that you’ve announced that you’re fighting Hagler?’ She was right, because, at times, I doubted whether or not I had said something I should not have said. With the fight a month away, I still had time to come up with a creative way of saying I didn’t want to fight Hagler any longer. But it boils down to what I believed, and it’s the same for Garcia, who has to nullify Spence’s strength and abilities.”
Firmly committed to rising in weight to face the nearly 5-foot-10, 24-year-old Spence (24-0, 21 KOs), the 5-foot-6, 30-year-old Garcia, of Oxnard, California, vacated his IBF lightweight championship, as reported by BoxingScene.com on Tuesday.
Garcia’s handlers also canceled a purse bid for his mandatory defense against former title challenger Richard Commey (27-2, 24 KOs) of Ghana, who could instead face Isa Chaniev (13-1, 6 KOs) of Russia for the vacant crown.
Garcia even mentioned Spence before his lightweight unanimous decision win in July over the nearly 6-foot Robert Easter Jr. (21-1, 14 KOs) at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where Garcia added Easter’s IBF title to his WBC crown to become a unified champion for the first time.
Garcia twice fought at 140-pounds, earning unanimous decisions each time. In those bouts, Garcia defeated four-division Adrien Broner in July 2017, and Sergey Lipinets in March, scoring a seventh-round knockdown in the latter to secure a fourth world title in as many weight classes before returning to 135-pounds to face Easter.
“I congratulate Mikey,” said Leonard of the win over Lipinets, which allowed Garcia to join Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao in modern boxing history with the distinction of having won titles at 126, 130, 135 and 140 pounds.
“I was expecting more from Robert, who reminds me of Tommy Hearns’ natural ability with his jab, height, reach, and all of his physical attributes. But like he seems to in every fight, Mikey definitely came in mentally prepared in great shape, physically.”
Garcia won world titles at 126 and 130 pounds in 2013, earning the first by three-knockdown eighth-round technical decision over Orlando Salido in January, and the second by eighth-round, knockout of Roman Martinez, who floored him in the second round in that November.
In between, Garcia lost his 126-pound title at the scales prior to stopping left-handed former champion Juan Manuel Lopez by fourth-round TKO.
But following a unanimous decision victory in his 130-pound title defense against Juan Carlos Burgos in January 2014, Garcia’s prolonged legal battle with Top Rank kept him inactive for 30 months until returning in July 2016 with a fifth-round TKO of former 126-pound champion Elio Rojas.
Garcia is 10-0 with six KOs against current or former world titleholders, and, in triumph over Spence, would join an exclusive class that includes Leonard, Floyd Mayweather and Thomas Hearns as five-division world title winners.
“My main target, focus and No. 1 goal right now is getting a fight with Errol Spence. If Errol for some reason is unavailable, then I’ll see what options are available. But I’m still focused solely on getting an Errol Spence fight. Nothing else excites me other than that one, so we’re working on that,” said Garcia, who, like Spence, is advised by Al Haymon.
“There’s no one else that excites me, motivates me enough and who can challenge me other than Errol Spence, and I’m willing to take that challenge all the way up to 147 because that’s the fight I want and will motivate me the most. A win over Spence is going to let everybody know that I’m the best. [Spence] might feel that it’s an easy fight for him and that I’m too small, but that’s fine. Let’s get into the ring and let’s get to work.”
Spence was ringside at Staples Center for Garcia-Easter, which preceded Shawn Porter (29-2-1, 17 KOs) earning last month’s split-decision over Danny Garcia (34-2, 20 KOs) in a clash of former champions at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, for the WBC’s vacant 147-pound title.
“[Mikey Garcia’s] daring to be great. He wants to move up and try to dethrone me and it’s not going to happen. It’s definitely not going to be an easy fight. He will be pound-for-pound No. 1 if he beats me, but it’s not going to happen,” said Spence, who climbed into the ring after Porter-Garcia to challenge Porter to a unification match.
“I’m a 147-pounder, he’s a 135-pounder, and there are weight classes for a reason. [Mikey Garcia] will be a challenging fight because he has great skills, but I see myself winning. I don’t really see anything that concerns me. He’s technically good, I’m technically sound, too. I have speed and power, but I don’t see him hurting me at 147. I just see me winning the fight, period.”
Spence scored his 11th straight knockout with a first-round body shot that dropped and stopped Carlos Ocampo (23-1, 14 KOs) in June at The Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas, the Dallas Cowboys’ training center near his hometown of DeSoto.
Spence was coming off January’s eighth-round stoppage of two-division champion Lamont Peterson, and Ocampo represented his second defense of the crown won by two-knockdown, 11th-round KO of Kell Brook in May 2017 in England.
“Spence’s punches will be harder for Garcia than I believe he will have faced in his career, but Garcia can’t be in awe of that because that’s when I got into trouble. On the other hand, Spence has gotta go in there believing he’s facing the baddest son of a bitch in the world,” said Leonard.
“Spence has to respect Garcia’s skills and talent because Hagler didn’t do that. I got into Hagler’s head, mentally, talking about how well he could box. He tried to prove it rather than trying to enforce his will and he fell behind early. So that’s how I got the jump on Hagler and that’s how I beat him.”
Leonard became convinced he could defeat Hagler on November 10, 1983, when “Marvelous Marvin” won a unanimous decision over Roberto Duran. Leonard already had split bouts with Duran, including an eighth-round TKO in their November 1980 rematch and the infamous “No Mas” fight.
It was Duran who first expressed Hagler’s vulnerability to Leonard, convincing him that he was the better fighter of the two. With that in mind, Leonard detected flaws in Hagler in March of 1986 during his 11th-round knockout of then-unbeaten John “The Beast” Mugabi.
“Right after his fight with Hagler, Duran told me that if I boxed Marvin Hagler, then I would beat him,” said Leonard during an April 2012 interview with RingTV.com. “I was there working ringside with HBO. After the fight, [Duran] came over to my table and he leaned toward the ropes, and he told me, ‘Ray, you box him, you beat him.’”
Asked if Garcia can do the same thing with Spence, Leonard said, “That’s not a simple answer.”
“Only Mikey truly knows. But 98 percent of those asked probably thought Hagler was gonna beat me, and you can never convince a real champion that he can’t win. Being the smaller man, Mikey’s gotta pick his shots based on footwork, moving in and out, and finding out what works best against Spence’s strong and weak points toward breaking him down,” said Leonard.
“Garcia will feel that size difference in Spence’s punches, because nine times out of 10, when a bigger guy hit me, he would rock me. The biggest thing for Garcia will be poise and composure, which is everything for guys moving up and taking risks against bigger guys. Garcia just has to be selective with shots and make Spence feel uncomfortable with his timing. From that point, Mikey Garcia beating Errol Spence would be huge, but I gotta go with Spence.”