Sixteen months ago, Steve Spark was at his day job as a bartender slinging drinks at the local pub when he received a call that would alter the trajectory of his life and career. He was being offered a fight against Tim Tszyu, now regarded as one of the best light middleweights in the world, ten days later. Although Spark was a natural 140-pounder, he said yes without hesitation. He finished pouring his drink, finished his shift, and began getting ready for a gargantuan challenge. 

As would be expected in that scenario, Spark came up short, but not for a lack of effort. He barreled straight ahead at Tszyu, uncorking power shots until one from his opponent kept him on the canvas for the ten count in the third round. It was an unthinkable display of bravery to even take the fight, and one that was rightfully commended by the boxing community, but it was also a calculated decision.

“We had discussions about whether it was 10 or 12 (rounds) or whatever it was, but I knew I was gonna go out there and have a crack. Tim even said I'm one of the hardest hitters he's been in there with,” said Spark. “It put me in a position where I can take this fight game seriously, I've been full time ever since then. I don't have a job anymore, my job is full-time boxing. I weighed up the negatives and the positives, and here I am now.”

Spark did the difficult calculus that fighters in situations like that have to solve for themselves. Is the risk worth the reward? Is a potential loss still worth the spoils, both financially and in terms of boosting one’s stock? In Spark’s case, the Tszyu fight produced the best result it could have for him other than a win. Fans understood that with only six full days of training and an added 14 pounds to his frame beyond what he’s most comfortable with, and luckily, he didn’t take a frightful beating that would have negated any possible gains. The added funds in his account allowed him to focus solely on training—from now on, he would only be in the pub if he wanted to be. 

Having more money tends to mean having more leverage in the sport, and it enabled Spark to take a few fights in which he was the A-side, where the outcomes were more likely to be beneficial for his career. He knocked out former world title challenger Apinun Khongsong in June of this year, which helped net him a contract with Matchroom. Around that time, Matchroom had also announced its first fight to be staged in Spark’s homeland of Australia, and offered him a spot on that show. But Spark had bigger ideas, offering to face Montana Love in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. 

With additional resources behind him, Spark was able to conclude his camp in Texas, sparring with former world champion Austin Trout, in addition to the dogged training he’d always adhered to, including weekend CrossFit sessions, which he says he hopes to compete in when he finishes his boxing career. 

On Saturday, Spark entered hostile territory against Love, as he had against Tszyu, and against Jack Brubaker in another trip up on the scales in an opponent’s backyard in April of 2021. On some sportsbooks, Spark was a +500 underdog.

In the opening round, it looked like bookies might have been on to something. Love flashed his hand speed and rocked Spark back with a quick check right hook and a whipping counter left uppercut. For moments in the first round, Spark conceded ground, the opposite of what he’d intended to do.

The next round however, Spark got a little more bullish in his approach. Midway through the frame, Spark connected on a trio of hard right hands that sent Love to the canvas, which changed the dynamic of the fight. Spark now had certainty that he could hurt his opponent, and Love was now forced to fight with more urgency knowing both that he could be under siege at any moment, and that one round was definitively off the table.

To Love’s credit, he recovered well, getting back to his original game plan of trying to walk Spark into counters. Spark responded by trying to impose his physical strength, more than once hoisting Love in the air during a clinch. By the fifth round, Spark was beginning to find his mark with longer range shots as well, having discouraged some of Love’s inside work with his brutish approach. 

But the physicality would reach a crescendo in the sixth round. Spark collided with Love head-first moments after the round began, opening up a bad gash over Love’s left eye. Love communicated to the doctor that at least in that moment, he was having trouble seeing, and mentioned that his vision was “blurry.” Many doctors would have heard those words and immediately halted the fight, but the physician said he would monitor Love for another minute before making a decision, warning Love that if he got hit, the bleeding would intensify.

Both men reemerged and approached one another looking a little less under control. In Spark’s case, seemingly trying to capitalize on an opportunistic scenario with a compromised opponent, In Love’s case, he was perhaps acting out of frustration and also desperation, with an uncertainty about what the scorecards read at the time—pertinent information given that the fight would have gone to the cards had the doctor stopped the right due to the accidental head clash. In retrospect, had the fight been stopped at that time, it would have been ruled a draw, as one judge had Love ahead, and the others had the fight even.

Instead, Love was disqualified. Love drove Spark back against the ropes in a clinch, and Spark went over the top rope as though he’d just been eliminated from the Royal Rumble. Miraculously, Spark landed on his feet, avoiding disaster in what could have been a catastrophic scenario. Spark immediately jogged up the ring steps, got back into the ring and was prepared to resume the fight, but referee David Fields had already waved it off. 

Despite the chorus of boos from the crowd in Cleveland, and Love’s vocal protests of the referee’s ruling, Spark remained disarmingly polite. 

“Thank you Cleveland for your hospitality. My job as a fighter is to come here and fight, and I can't thank Montana Love enough for the opportunity that he gave a young boy like me. It's literally changed my life,” Spark told DAZN’s Claudia Trejos during his post-fight interview. “I'm as devastated as you guys, it was warming up to be a fantastic fight. I come in this ring and I fight with all my heart, just like Montana Love does. We were going to give you a hell of a show, that's just how boxing goes sometimes.”

As Spark was prompted to watch the replay of the incident along with Love, he resisted the urge to debate any of Love’s allegations of dirty tactics, or even to say definitively that the fight should have been stopped. As Love continued to protest, Spark simply complimented his own agility. “Bloody good landing if you ask me,” he said. “Look at that landing!”

Perhaps more so than some other fighters, Spark is able to flip the switch between warmhearted family man in day to day life and violent attacker in the ring. The unhinged aggressor we see in the ring is in dramatic contrast to the man who seems to detest any hint of animosity created for he and his opponents.  

“The thing with the fight game,” Spark said to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2021. “We have so much in common with each other, if you go around hating people you might miss out on some of the best friends of your life. There is no need for some of the animosity that goes around."

The understanding that fighters have for one another, even on opposite ends of controversial melees, is that they will understand one another’s frustrations in a way non-participants cannot. 

“There's so many sacrifices that go into this sport. There's so many things that people don't see on the outside. They see the bright lights, the glitz and the glamor. We go in there for the entertainment of people seeing violence. That's what they see, but they don't see the lead-up, what some of us fighters have to go through, not seeing family, going away for training camps,” said Spark. “Look, I'm not complaining, I love this sport, I love what it's given me. But we do miss out on things. But it makes it all worthwhile when I can go out, put on a great performance and go back home. I get to hang out with my family and friends for Christmas, it's going to be 35 degrees, there's gonna be some beers enjoyed in the sun, my baby boy is running around now and talking a little bit. I get to enjoy the finer things in life.”

Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman