Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Near-death experience behind him, Errol Spence Jr. returns to ring Saturday vs. Danny Garcia

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Referee Jack Reiss declares Erroll Spence Jr. the winner after he defeated Shawn Porter in their IBF & WBC World Welterweight Championship fight at Staples Center on September 28, 2019.
Referee Jack Reiss declares Erroll Spence Jr. the winner after he defeated Shawn Porter in their IBF & WBC World Welterweight Championship fight at Staples Center on September 28, 2019.
Image: Getty Images

If on Nov. 18, 1994, someone had told you that Roy Jones Jr. would be fighting on Nov. 29, 2020, you would think some ridiculous mistake had been made.

Surely you must mean Roy Jones III, the son of the man who had just outclassed James Toney, considered among the world’s best boxers at the time, for the middleweight title.

But no, more than a quarter-century after that career performance against Toney, here was Roy Jones Jr., yes, that Roy Jones Jr., dragging a puffy and poorly-trained body into a public sparring session sold as a pay-per-view event against an even older but somehow less washed-up Mike Tyson.

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As Errol Spence Jr., who could turn out to be the Roy Jones Jr. of the 21st century, prepares to return to the ring on Saturday against Danny Garcia following a near-fatal car accident, there is a lesson to be learned there, for Spence and for us.

No matter how much a fighter has going for him, it can all disappear, over 25 years or, in Spence’s case, a matter of milliseconds.

How Roy Jones lost his fortune, his talent, and ultimately his dignity is a puzzle that still causes boxing insiders to scratch their heads. This guy made an estimated $100 million in net purses over his career, while simultaneously pulling down a hefty paycheck from HBO, somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000, to serve as the successor to Sugar Ray Leonard as its resident ringside expert commentator.

In addition, he had a merchandising deal with Nike — the first boxer ever to score one — and was branching out as a hip-hop impresario, a veritable license to print pictures of Ben Franklin. Besides, Jones never left his hometown of Pensacola, Fla, no one’s idea of the Gold Coast, and was one of the rare boxers who neither lived an extravagant lifestyle nor traveled with a large retinue of bloodsucking toadies.

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By just about any standard, Roy Jones Jr. had it all.

And yet, here he was, a portly 51-year-old, huffing and puffing through eight two-minute rounds for a guaranteed $1 million purse that was unlikely to make the slightest dent in his massive debts.

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It’s safe to assume Errol Spence was watching Tyson-Jones last Saturday, because like most professional boxers, he’s a fight fan, too.

But I wonder if watching Jones, who looked unhappy to be there from the moment he left his dressing room, caused Spence to think about how to avoid some of the pitfalls that led Jones into that position — being forced to engage, out of necessity, in a dangerous pursuit he is no longer really capable of doing.

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Over the course of a long conversation with Spence two weeks ago, the 30-year-old, Long Island-born and Texas-bred welterweight said all the things you would expect someone to say who survived a car wreck that would probably have killed 99 out of 100 people. If you haven’t seen it yet, here goes (Warning: graphic content):

The fact that Spence turned out to be that 100th person was not lost on him. For more than two months after the accident, he said he had been unable to watch that surveillance camera video of his Ferrari 488 Spyder tumbling end-over-end down Dallas’ South Riverside Blvd. at what had to be over 100 MPH. And he could only bear to look at it after he had been assured by doctors that he would be OK to resume his boxing career.

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“Honestly, man, I was surprised I survived,’’ he said. “If it had happened to anyone else, I woulda thought that person definitely died. I replayed it over and over again trying to see if I could see myself getting thrown out of the car.’’

In retrospect, what nearly happened to Spence was not entirely shocking; as an undefeated (26-0, 21 KOs) fighter with a seemingly limitless future, he was both a little cocky and a lot enamored with the adrenaline rush of fast cars. On this night in October 2019, Spence was celebrating a hard-fought win over Shawn Porter with a combination of speed and alcohol, a deadlier combo than Mike Tyson ever put together in the ring.

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To complete the daredevil trifecta, Spence was not wearing a seatbelt, which ironically probably saved his life; being thrown clear of the hurtling car kept him from being crushed inside the wreckage. As it turned out, the only damage he received were some lost teeth and an assortment of superficial bumps, bruises and cuts. The worst damage was to the car, which became a $300,000 pile of junk.

But there was also a week-long gap in his life where Spence was unable to remember anything. Not how he lost control of the car, not how his body became a limp projectile, not how he wound up in the hospital or how he got home.

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“People told me that visitors came into my room and I was talking to them, having conversations with them, that the doctors would ask me to name every person in the room and I did, but I don’t remember none of it,’’ he said. “The first thing I remember was waking up in my house.’’

The old saying that God, or something, protects drunks and fools was never proven more true than on that night. But for an accident of fate, Spence could have been another Salvador Sanchez, killed in a car accident on the cusp of all-time greatness at 23, or even movie icon James Dean, cut down just as his career was getting started. “I was lucky,’’ Spence said. “Somehow, I got saved.’’

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Not surprisingly, the accident caused him to think about his three kids, his five- and four-year-old daughters and newborn son. It persuaded him to get rid of most, but not all, of his speedy cars. He kept his Mercedes AMG 63, but admits he is haunted by recurring dreams of horrific car accidents. And for now at least, it has prompted him to pursue a more sedate existence on a newly-bought ranch in DeSoto, Texas, a suburb of Dallas.

The short-term effects of the accident have faded, the teeth replaced, the bruises healed and a neurological exam assuring him that it is safe for him to resume being hit in the head for a living.

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But the long-term effects could take years to truly know.

Spence chose to come back against Garcia, an A-class junior welterweight who has shown himself to be just a cut below the top 147s such as Porter and Keith Thurman, both of whom decisioned him, because he wanted to prove to himself that he still belonged in the upper echelon of boxing’s deepest division.

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And judging by his ability to pack 47,000-plus into AT&T Stadium for his fight against Mikey Garcia last year, he should have no problem selling out all 25,000 available seats in the pandemic-restricted arena. Considering how bad the local football team is this season, Spence might be the most popular cowboy in town.

Assuming he gets by Garcia, a megabucks showdown with Terence Crawford looms as the marquee fight of 2021.

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As of December 5, 2020, it would seem as if Errol Spence has it all.

But 25 years ago, the same seemed true of another supremely talented Junior. Errol Spence could wind up being another Roy Jones.

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Whether that turns out to be good or bad may take us decades to learn.

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