Judo Chop: The old school skills of Errol Spence
Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch breaks down a few of knockout artist Errol Spence’s more subtle tricks, ahead of his March 16th clash with Mikey Garcia.
On March 16th, Mikey Garcia will take on Errol Spence Jr, in what amounts to the boxing world’s biggest superfight since Lomachenko vs Rigondeaux. A great featherweight for most of his career, Garcia has only recently begun fighting as high as lightweight and junior welterweight. Spence will be his first ever opponent at the 147-pound limit, and that is significant. Spence currently holds the IBF welterweight belt, having defended it twice already, and he is a serious puncher at 147, with 21 of his 24 wins having come via knockout. He is two years younger than Garcia, with a lot more tread left on his tires.
You won’t find many in the boxing world who don’t respect Garcia for taking this fight. It’s a seriously gutsy move. On the other hand, you won’t find many who expect him to give Spence much trouble in the ring, either. The consensus among boxing fans appears to be that Spence is simply too big, too powerful, and too physical for the undersized Garcia to overcome.
All of this is very likely true. But there is a great deal more to Errol Spence’s boxing game than his physical attributes. He is a clever boxer, a ruthless in-fighter, and a relentless pressure fighter. Today, we’ll take a look at a few of Spence’s best techniques, from the subtle to the violent.
A lot about Errol Spence feels very old school. Despite his age and relative inexperience, he appears utterly cool and unflappable, in the ring. Each new test set before him has forced him to adjust, or persevere, and he has done so time and again. There’s something in the tireless, workmanlike nature of Spence’s aggressive style that smacks of Henry Armstrong--but maybe that’s just me.
What can’t be disputed is that Spence’s stance has a lot to do with his success.
Almost all of the best defensive fighters work primarily off the back foot. In this case, “fighting off the back foot” does not necessarily mean boxing while retreating. From Pernell Whittaker to George Benton to James Toney, the great evaders all spend most of their time with most of their weight situated over the rear foot. The reason is simple: a back-foot stance pulls the head farther away from the opponent’s reach, while keeping the front foot--and the jab that follows it--in a threatening position. Usually, this means blading the upper body to create an even narrower target, so that everything is protected by the physical obstacle—and the threat—of the lead hand.
If your aim is to slip punches and keep aggressive fighters off of you, it just makes sense to stand with your weight pulled back.
The exceptions are few, and most of them--think Joe Frazier, Juan Manuel Marquez, Dwight Muhammad Qawi--are known for their many violent, back-and-forth fights. These are still skillful defensive fighters, but their front-foot styles put them in harm’s way on a more frequent basis than the cagey back-foot crew. But these men are left hooking monsters, and more often than not, their aggressive stances are worth the risk.
Now look at Errol Spence. He fights with all the ferocity of a Frazier, Marquez, or Qawi, and yet he tends to keep his weight on the back foot. Why does this work so well?
Well, it sort of just makes sense. By advancing off the back-foot, Spence can pressure without automatically endangering himself. If his head were carried closer to his front foot, he would expose his chin immediately upon entering his own punching range. He could still likely outslug most of his opponents, but the point is he would have to. With his head farther away, on the other hand, Spence can land the jab while keeping his chin out of range.
For a southpaw, Spence uses his jab a lot. He sets up almost everything with his right hand. Now, landing the right-handed jab clean against orthodox opponents can be tricky. That doesn’t stop Errol from doing it dozens of times in every fight, but his right remains effective whether he lands it or not. It is both a spear to hector the opponent, and a shield behind which to close the distance. By staying behind his jab, Spence can sit in range, keeping his chin relatively well protected at all times, and choose the right moment to close in fully with his left hand.
And as for the left, there is one other--perhaps blindingly obvious--advantage to a back-foot stance. Loading weight on the left leg means keeping the left coiled, at all times. Spence is a naturally powerful puncher, but his stance adds that extra bit of oomph to his dominant hand.
Sometimes, it feels unfair to describe what Errol Spence is doing with his right hand as merely “jabbing.” Because his stance keeps his lead hand between his chin and the opponent, he feels free to keep it very active. You’ll see him stab, poke, paw, slap, push, pull, and post with his right hand. He uses it to counter and to lead, as both offense and defense. It is the very picture of an educated lead.
One of Spence’s most unique moves is as decidedly old school as his stance. Here’s how it works: Spence will throw out his right like a backhand jab, hitting his opponent’s raised gloves or forearms. This looks a lot like a jab, but it is, in fact, intended to be blocked. Once his hand touches the opponent’s guard, Spence’s forearm becomes a frame, often pinning both of his adversary’s arms in that high, defensive position. Then he steps in, bending at the knees and waist, and unleashes a brutal left hand to the body.
This looks an awful lot like one of the standard blocks present in virtually any school of Karate. The same move (more or less) was also a staple technique of early boxers, from the bareknuckle era through the time of Jack Johnson. Below, you’ll find an image of middleweight legend Bob Fitzimmons demonstrating the idea.
These Karate-esque blocks and counters have largely disappeared from boxing, because they don’t work particularly well against combination punching. But Spence rarely uses the move defensively. It could still be called a block, but it is applied offensively. By wedging his right arm up against his opponent’s guard, Spence smothers any punches the other man may have wanted to throw, while opening the body for his own attack.
Errol Spence doesn’t want to anticipate your moves. He doesn’t want to let you throw and then counter you. He wants to aggressively prevent you from fighting back, and hit you so hard that, soon enough, you don’t really want to, anymore.
Finally, another trick that plays in beautiful concert with the southpaw jab: head control.
Any grappler or wrestler will happily tell you that where the head goes, the body follows. Posture is very important in fighting. When it is broken, it becomes very difficult to generate meaningful leverage, either for punches or clinch maneuvers. What’s more, a fighter loses sight of his opponent when his head is pulled down, rendering him susceptible to strikes and more or less incapable of throwing any in return.
Spence will often post with his lead hand, forcibly maintaining distance between himself and his opponent. More importantly, however, he focuses on controlling the head. While it isn’t strictly legal in boxing to reach out and grab an opponent by the ear, it is one of the easiest fouls to get away with. Most referees simply won’t call a posted arm, likely because the tactic blends in so organically with legal punches.
By applying pressure to his opponent’s head, Spence can very effectively control where the other man goes, and adjust his own position accordingly. Often, this requires a parrying motion, reminiscent of the circular blocks and hand traps of Tai Chi. By allowing his hand to glide around the opponent’s head, Spence can either press down to break his posture, or simply press him aside as he finds an angle of escape.
This being Errol Spence, he usually looks for a chance to hit the other guy with his left hand, too.
At 29 years old, Spence has likely just entered his prime, and there is no indication that he will not continue to improve as a fighter. Even his considerable power may continue to improve, and it’s hard not to celebrate just how hard this man can hit. But don’t forget: without his unique and perfectly coordinated set of skills, Errol Spence would be just another puncher. For Mikey Garcia, learning how much more “The Truth” has to offer could be a very painful lesson, indeed.