While everyone surrounding him stood still, Errol Spence Jr. bounced from one foot to the other. When he stopped, he banged his silver-colored gloves against each other and walked from the hallways of AT&T Stadium toward the ring on the 50-yard-line. He’d sometimes punch across his body as he took a step. Other times, Spence simply walked with a stoic look. Everyone around him looked serious, except the Lancaster High School’s marching band, which belted out an energetic version of Big Tuck’s Dallas anthem “Southside Da Realist.” Even Yella Beezy, the Oak Cliff rapper who performed “It’s On Me” as the boxer walked to the ring, looked as unanimated as anyone can look while rapping into a microphone to a crowd of over 47,500.
Spence’s opponent, Mikey Garcia, waited in the ring. Like Spence, Garcia’s ring entrance was grand. Red, green, and white lights shot like lasers across the stadium. Unlike Spence, Garcia smiled. He wore a black tejana that contrasted his mostly white ring attire. Once inside the ring, Garcia kissed those white gloves and extended them to the public.
All week, at the public events leading up to Saturday night’s fight, Garcia was the crowd favorite. At Tuesday night’s media workouts, the people chanted his name in two syllables. “MI-KEY! MI-KEY! MI-KEY!” At Friday’s weigh-in, they did the same and when the announcer introduced Spence, it even sounded like the hometown fighter got booed. Watching men fight often arouses a sense of tribalism that extends beyond a shared location. Everyone around boxing understands this. Some, attempting to appeal to boxing’s largest and most influential fanbase, have even claimed themselves honorary Mexicans. This, among other reasons, was why Garcia, the underdog, received such an ovation.
When Spence ducked and stepped between the second and third ropes to enter the ring, he flashed a slight smile. It looked enormous on the screen that hangs above on the field. He sang along to the music that blared across the stadium so loud that talking practically required you to yell in your neighbor’s ear.
Spence walked around the ring. Garcia bounced on his feet and punched at the air. Spence retreated to his blue corner, where a man removed the boxer’s hat. He then unzipped Spence’s shirt. Once you have boxing gloves on—duct taped around the wrists so that the knotted laces don’t come loose—you can do little for yourself besides fight. With his sleepy eyes, Spence looked across the ring as Garcia’s corner held their man’s world championship belts above their head, all four of them. Spence’s corner raised their single belt; the only one that mattered for this fight. It was the belt Garcia wanted.
The moment before a major fight begins—when the boxers are half-naked, standing some three feet from each other and listening to the referee’s instructions—is unlike any other in sports. Butterflies collide in your stomach. Your palms feel slippery. Everyone is focused on the ring.
Jerry Jones, along with several past and present Dallas Cowboys, were there. They too awaited the opening bell’s ring. As did the beautiful people who, almost as if by nature, sat closest to the ring. Boxing of this magnitude, where it becomes a national event, attracts many people who are there to be watched. They flaunt what they have: expensive and form-fitting clothes, shiny shoes, silicone bodies, big hair, shiny wrist pieces that tell time, expensive cologne and perfumes. This is who, regardless of their overall interest in boxing, watched Saturday night in Arlington.
For those who don’t follow boxing, it’s easy to assume there’s no technique or intelligence to fighting. The point is to knock out an opponent, they’ll often say, ignoring that such a description is akin to saying the point of football is to score the most points. But scoring those points or beating those people isn’t the sport. It’s the calculation involved in doing it. And in the first few rounds, Spence carefully determined what he could and couldn’t do.
Spence jabbed—that most simple and effective of punches—to control the distance between him and Garcia. If you control the distance, you control the pace. Garcia, a master technician, understood this better than all and, when he attempted to move in, Spence’s jab kept him out. When Garcia got inside, Spence pivoted away, reset his distance, and punched Garcia again.
In the fourth round, Garcia’s face turned red. In the fifth, sensing the fight was slipping away, Garcia became more aggressive. But when he did, he only exposed himself to Spence’s punishing style, which often hides his fighting intelligence. In fact, many thought Garcia’s presumed superior boxing skill and IQ was his only way to win. But against Spence, neither of those attributes were clear. Garcia looked befuddled, and you increasingly saw it in his eyes.
Sometimes when you sit ringside—among the media, who are far from the beautiful people—you hear and see things that, because of angles, cameras can’t even pick up. You see spit and blood, shining in a brilliant red, land on the crowd. You hear the glove’s leather make a brutal, thumping sound when it connects on the bare, sensitive parts of the body that a boxer can’t train into being immune from pain. You hear a boxer moan. They gasp for air. Sometimes you see a look in their eyes that makes you feel pity. It’s a look that’s part embarrassment, part frustration, and all disbelief. Garcia had that look.
By the middle rounds, Spence had everything he needed to know about Garcia. He knew that so long as he wasn’t reckless, Garcia couldn’t hurt him. And as the fight progressed to its later rounds, Spence moved closer to Garcia. Their foreheads touched as Spence pounded away at Garcia’s body. Garcia backpedaled, Spence followed.
Out of an instinct to protect his kidneys, liver, and lungs, Garcia lowered his elbows and left his head exposed. Soon after, Garcia’s head violently rocked back or to the sides. Sweat flew from his head. You could see his people—fans, yes, but more so family, so confident leading up to the fight—were more than concerned.
Garcia’s corner—his brother and father—wanted to stop the fight but their fighter said no. He believed he could still land a punch that would alter the night. That’s the assertive side of machismo. The passive side says part of being a man is taking a beating like one. And so, instead of stopping the fight, Garcia’s corner let him go. And as he did, you looked at his brother and saw him moving his head around the red ring post. He was, in essence, trying to get an unobstructed view of his baby brother taking the beating of his life.
The irony is that Garcia’s career would have been better served had he been knocked-out in the first round. Or the second, or the third, or any time before the end. But instead, Garcia fought all 12 rounds. They turned increasingly brutal toward the end. Younger men than Garcia have lost their fighting careers taking beatings like the one he took.
He chased greatness a level too far and had to content himself with not being embarrassed. After the fight, as he did after each round, Garcia gave a slight fist pump. He lost. That much was obvious. But the implied consensus was that at least he lost like a man. Only in boxing and its odd and complicated subculture, can one claim the worse kind of Pyrrhic victory in loss.
Before a boxer at this world championship level loses, they think they are unbeatable. Everything about their past affirms this belief. Every road, both taken and not, becomes proof of destiny.
An undefeated world champion boxer lives with a confidence most others will never know. They walk and talk differently. And though they may have other insecurities, fighting—that most simple and visceral of actions—isn’t one.
If he slept at all, there’s a good chance Mikey Garcia awoke Sunday morning feeling the effects of losing. There is the physical toll, no doubt. He took the type of savage beating that humbles even those with the most arrogant of hubris. But the most important side effect is mental. Within 48 minutes, Garcia’s entire boxing identity crashed. Everything he once believed—about himself, about his place in boxing history, about becoming immortal—all of it was ruthlessly interrupted. And in that place in the mind and soul where self-confidence once ran unimpeded, self-doubt now stands in a corner. It stands silently, but it’s there.
Garcia may still be an all-time great boxer. He may even end up with a better career than Spence. But he will never be undefeated again. He may take solace in saying the loss came from chasing greatness. But chasing greatness and failing is more than just trying. The type of person who takes on that challenge and fails is generally the type that can’t just move on. They are haunted by that shortcoming. At best, they’ll learn from that night that they discovered a painful truth. At worst, their unquiet and doubtful mind will paralyze them. Never will Garcia enter the ring completely sure no man can beat him.
Errol Spence Jr. still has that.
Spence is arguably the best boxer in the world and he’s a local. He didn’t win a new title, and he easily won a fight many expected he’d win. But this fight wasn’t without consequence. Spence could have lost it all, like Garcia did. Had he lost, Spence’s nickname—The Truth—would have gone from an affirmation to one bordering on delusion. But he won. And on Sunday morning, he woke up perhaps from the most restful sleep he’s had in months, still believing that if all things were equal, there isn’t a man walking this earth that can beat him.