Athletics is often described as a grind. There's a mythology built around hard work that's hard for some to resist. There's something democratic about the concept of hard work as a panacea, of average Joes outhustling their opponents on the way to glory.
The truth is hard work alone is meaningless. Hard work alone is failure.
Talent? Talent is everything. And Errol Spence Jr. (19-0, 16 KOs), the otherworldly boxing prospect who will be introduced to the world against Chris Algieri Saturday on NBC, has ability oozing from his pores.
"There's a lot of guys who train hard and they just don't have it no matter how hard they train or what they do," Spence Jr. told Bleacher Report. "Some fighters just have it, just like basketball, people like LeBron James, of course they have a workout regimen, but at the end of the day they still just have that it in their game. They just have it. It's something they were born to do. That was me and boxing."
He was 15 years old when he stepped into the Vivero Boxing Gym in Dallas for the first time. His boxing-fanatic father had seen him slap fighting with friends at the house and knew, somehow knew, that he was special. Coaches Gene Vivero and Wayne Maddox soon confirmed it for him.
It normally takes a young fighter weeks to just stop tripping over his own feet. Boxing is a difficult sport to master, filled with movements and strategies that don't always come easy for even the best athletes. But Spence, a talented cornerback on the gridiron—so good that opposing players would occasionally ask him for autographs—was immediately fight-ready.
"When I first got to the gym, like two weeks after my first training, I was winning a tournament," Spence Jr. said. "I was fighting in the open class, and then I was beating those guys who had been amateur fighters for six, seven years, eight years. Been an amateur since they were like four or five years old. You know, I was beating guys, I'd knock them out just like that."
Football had been his first love. But when he saw fellow Dallas fighter Luis Yanez qualify for the 2008 Olympic team, it lit a fire that couldn't be extinguished.
"That's when I decided that I wanted to go to the Olympics too," Spence said. "At first I didn't want to go to the boxing gym. I wanted to keep playing football. I didn't see the point in boxing. And then I started reading up on the Olympics and the boxing Olympics and decided I wanted to go to the Olympics."
Four years later, Spence was living that dream, so good that he was already being discussed as the potential new face of boxing in America. But gold-medal dreams died hard. Although he's loath to make excuses, Spence says the chaos surrounding the American program in 2012 definitely had an impact.
"USA Boxing had a lot going on. They were still picking out the coaches a month before the Olympics," Spence said. "So you didn't really have time to adjust to these coaches and build any chemistry with these coaches.
"You know Cuba and these other countries like Russia, they've had the same coaches for 10 years, five years. Our coaches don't know us like that. I mean they seen us around, but they never trained with us and we had to cram everything in, in three to four weeks. It was kind of stressful, but we had to make do with what we had."
Three months after the Olympic Games, Spence had turned pro. Less than one year later he'd won nine straight fights, seven by knockout. For Spence, the professional game didn't require much of an adjustment. He was, he says, already fighting like a pro, even in the amateur ranks.
"The only change was me taking off the headgear," he said. "Me and my coach Derrick James never trained to fight the amateur system. It was more of a fencing style. Like you watch a lot of the international guys as amateurs, it's kind of like touch, touch, touch, move and touch, touch, tap. I always had a desire to go to the body. You know I would really throw my hands. I've matured a lot as a fighter. I'm more patient now. But basically, overall, my style is still the same."
The results have been nothing short of spectacular. Widely recognized as the top prospect in the sport, the 26-year-old looks to vault to the next level on Saturday. In front of a television audience likely to number in the millions, and with thousands of hostile fans cheering local favorite Algieri at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, Spence will attempt to justify the hype.
"Errol Spence Jr. is as talented of a kid as I've seen come on the scene in 10 years or so," promoter Lou DiBella told the media. "That's how much talent I believe he has."
Algieri is no stranger to seeing talent across the ring. He's been in with the best and has never been stopped. He was knocked down six times by Manny Pacquiao and never gave up. Against fan favorite Ruslan Provodnikov, he used fleet feet to win a world title. Spence, Algieri claims, has no idea what is about to hit him.
"Spence hasn't fought anyone. I don't think he's fought a guy who's tried to win," Algieri told the press. "He's done all his work against guys who were tailor-made for him to beat up. He hasn't fought a guy with footwork or a guy who can box. He hasn't fought many guys who were in there to win. It will be a really eye-opening experience for him."
Spence, though never disrespectful of Algieri's ability, doesn't appear the least bit intimidated by the prospect of stepping up in class.
"I trained for the Algieri who is gonna move and I've trained for the Algieri who is gonna come forward," he said. "I won't be surprised no matter what he does. I'll be prepared for whatever he brings to the table.
With due respect, he says, Errol Spence Jr.'s dreams are much bigger than beating the Chris Algieris of the world. While this might be the fight that launches him to the next level, it won't be the fight that defines him. He wants to put his name right next to his boxing idols, Roy Jones, Lennox Lewis and "Sugar" Ray Leonard, in the history books.
"I want to be mentioned with the greats, a champion in multiple weight classes," Spence said. "That's a goal of mine. I want to be the best at 147 pounds, and I want to be the best at 154. When people mention my name, they'll say 'he never ducked anyone, he always fought the best fighters, and he always gave it his all.'"
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.