By Keith Idec
As the 2016 Summer Olympics conclude Sunday, the best fighter to emerge from the 2012 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team intends to capitalize on exposure not even eventual superstars Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya were afforded early in their careers.
Errol Spence Jr. fully understands the magnitude of the opportunity presented to him.
The hard-hitting southpaw can earn a shot at the IBF welterweight title by defeating Leonard Bundu inside Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island Boardwalk in Brooklyn. He also can attract numerous new fans by performing impressively on quite a grand stage.
Spence’s 12-round fight against Italy’s Bundu will be televised live by NBC immediately after it airs the gold-medal men’s basketball game, which should include the United States, from Rio de Janeiro. The undefeated contender from DeSoto, Texas, couldn’t ask for a more helpful lead-in than an Olympic men’s basketball final that’ll feature such NBA superstars as Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
“This fight is very big for my career, especially fighting in this time slot,” Spence told BoxingScene.com. “Fighting [after] the gold-medal basketball game, with Team USA possibly being in the final, I’ll have a lot of new fans joining in and watching me fight. That’s good for my career, getting me out there and letting fans know who I am.
“It just shows that my team and my management and NBC, everyone as a whole, has the confidence in me to put me on a platform like this. It’s a great opportunity and I have to take advantage of it.”
Many Olympians in recent years have benefited from early exposure in their professional careers on HBO and Showtime. Those two premium-cable channels have provided vital financial support to the sport during the past three decades, yet are available to far fewer viewers than a free network like NBC.
Numerous American Olympians – including legends Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and “Sugar” Ray Leonard – used regular appearances on free TV as springboards to superstardom once upon a time. A respectful Spence realizes, however, that his path toward brand development via free TV is extremely unusual during this era.
His fifth-round technical knockout of Chris Algieri also was broadcast by NBC four months ago. Spence noticed that beating Algieri (21-3, 8 KOs) before a bigger television audience than he could’ve attracted fighting on a premium-cable channel or basic-cable network helped broaden his appeal, particularly among casual boxing fans and viewers who don’t typically watch the sport.
“It’s meant a lot,” Spence said. “A lot of people don’t want to pay for pay-per-view and a lot of people don’t have HBO or Showtime. I’m fighting on NBC, a channel mostly everyone has if you have a television. A lot of casual people, people who aren’t even boxing fans, tune in to NBC just to see what’s going on. So it’s definitely a great opportunity for me.”
Though he didn’t win a medal during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the 26-year-old Spence (20-0, 17 KOs) also appreciates the value of having the word “Olympian” attached to his name. To an extent, having the Olympics on his resume helped legitimize him while his talent ensured he was viewed as a rising star.
“The whole label of being an Olympian is a great thing, a great honor,” Spence said. “If you know the history, guys like Muhammad Ali and ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard were Olympians. And now that I’m an Olympian and Shakur Stevenson is an Olympian, it’s just a great, especially when you’re turning pro, because a lot of people can identify with it. That’s a term that’s known by a lot of the world, and a lot of people love to watch the Olympics. And a lot of people think it’s a great thing, being an Olympian. So it’s been great in my career and I’m just taking advantage of it.”
Spence, listed as a 100-1 favorite by many Internet sports books, should be able to take advantage of facing a 41-year-old opponent Sunday to secure his first title shot. Still, Bundu (33-1-2, 12 KOs) has lost just once during his 11-year pro career and has never been knocked out.
“We’re just 100-percent prepared to execute our game plan and win the fight,” Spence said. “But he has a lot of experience.”
Bundu utilized that experience to survive for 12 rounds during his lone loss, a lopsided unanimous-decision win for WBA world welterweight champ Keith Thurman (27-0, 22 KOs) in December 2014 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Thurman won by the same score, 120-107, on all three scorecards that night.
Spence plans to win in even more convincing fashion than Thurman.
“Definitely. Just like when I fought Chris Algieri, I wanted to out-do [Manny] Pacquiao and Amir Khan,” Spence said, alluding to the previous two fighters that defeated Algieri. “I’m definitely looking to out-do Keith Thurman and look more impressive than he did.”
Becoming the first opponent to knock out Bundu obviously would resonate with fickle fans who’ll look to pick apart Spence’s performance.
“Getting the stoppage is always the icing on the cake,” Spence said. “If I can get a stoppage I’ll definitely take it. That would be great, to do something that another fighter, a top-caliber fighter like Keith Thurman, couldn’t do.”
Ideally, Spence hopes a win against Bundu secures a chance to battle British star Kell Brook, who currently owns the IBF welterweight title. Brook (36-0, 25 KOs) has at least temporarily moved up to middleweight for a September 10 fight against IBF/WBA/WBO champion Gennady Golovkin (35-0, 32 KOs) in London.
Win or lose against the heavily favored Golovkin, Brook is expected to vacate the IBF welterweight championship to continue competing at a higher weight.
“I want to fight him, but in a sense my gut tells me that I won’t,” Spence said. “My main goal is to win the world title, not just to fight Kell Brook. So if I don’t fight him, as long as I’m guaranteed to fight for the world title, I’m OK with it.”
Assuming a fight against someone for the IBF belt can be arranged promptly, Spence would like to fight for that title as soon as possible if he beats Bundu.
“That’s what I hope,” Spence said. “In a perfect world, I’ll be fighting for the IBF title by the end of this year, in December. But it’s a process and you’ve got to go through the IBF and see what they’re going to do, and see what Kell Brook does against Triple-G. So after this fight, I just have to sit around and wait.”
Keith Idec covers boxing for The Record and Herald News, of Woodland Park, N.J., and BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.