NEW YORK -- For boxers Errol Spence Jr. and Marcus Browne, the Olympic experience makes them more than friends. It makes them brothers.
Their shared history is bittersweet. The 2012 U.S. men’s team headed to London hoping for hardware, possibly a gold medal or two. Instead they came home empty-handed, the first time in history a U.S. boxing team was shut out of the medals. (Americans won two medals in the debut of Olympic women’s boxing.)
Since making their pro debuts together in November 2012, though, everything has gone Spence and Browne’s way. Their undefeated records earned them spots on Saturday’s Premier Boxing Champions card, a nine-bout line-up at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center that will be televised in primetime on NBC. Welterweight Spence’s bout against former junior welterweight titlist Chris Algieri (21-2, 8 KOs) is the 10-round main event.
“He has a big name, he’s one of the top welterweights in the division, so beating Chris Algieri will give me a title shot,” Spence said. “It’s a real big deal, this young in my career, to headline a card like this on NBC. It’s a huge opportunity and I have to make the most of it and put on a great show so I can get back on NBC.”
Title shots are what it’s all about for Spence (19-0, 16 KOs), a Long Island native who now hails from the Dallas suburb of DeSoto, Texas. Countless Olympians have gone on to world titles in the professional ranks, and he imagines his “band of brothers” doing the same.
“I see it happening just like the ’84 Olympic team (when) we had Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, all those guys who went on to win world titles — I see that happening with us, too,” Spence said. “They’re sitting in the stands when I win a world title, and I’m sitting in the stands and walking them out when they win a world title.”
Ask Spence about his experience at the London Games and he winces a bit. The then 22-year-old, a three-time U.S. champion, lost a controversial decision to Indian welterweight Krishan Vikas, only to have it reversed after the U.S. team protested the result. His momentum gone, he then lost a quarterfinal bout to Russia’s Andrey Zamkovoy.
Spence thinks the U.S. boxers in Rio will have better results than the London team.
“There are some politics, especially in boxing,” Spence said. “But we have a new group of proper guys (in the International Boxing Association), they made it 10-point scoring, took the head-gear off. I think we have a lot of good young guys like Shakur Stevenson (bantamweight) and Claressa Shields (women’s middleweight) and a couple more that I like, and I see them winning gold medals.”
Spence has some advice for Stevenson, Shields and the rest of the Rio qualifiers: keep it simple.
“The main things are to stay focused, stay grounded, don’t get too big-headed and just give it your all,” he said. “And always listen to your coaches.”
Spence and Browne, 25, have much in common. Both are southpaws with undefeated records and heavy hands: Browne, a light heavyweight, is 17-0 with 13 knockouts. Both are originally from New York; Browne grew up in Clifton, Staten Island, and still lives in the borough. But while Spence radiates quiet confidence, the ebullient Browne can barely contain his eagerness to step in the ring on Saturday night, when he will square off against Radivoje Kalajdzic (21-0, 13 KO’s) of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“I’m up for this one, I’m motivated, I’m focused,” he said. “I just want to prove my point and make my way in the boxing world.”
To prepare for Saturday, Spence and Browne worked out at Gleason’s Gym, a slice of Brooklyn boxing history where posters and photos of Ali, Frazier, Leonard — Olympic champions all — line the walls and lockers. With steep, rough-hewn staircases and peeling red-paint walls, the gym is authentically gritty, although it is nestled in the fashionable Dumbo neighborhood amongst Scandinavian furniture stores and organic groceries. The boxers met the press at Gleason’s on Thursday, 48 hours or so before their potentially life-changing fights.
“We both want to propel ourselves in the boxing world,” Browne said. “It’s absolutely amazing to be able to do that with my Olympic brother Errol, that’s what we call each other. Right now we’re focused on getting that win, making it look impressive and doing what we got to do.”
Browne arrived in London in 2012 with two Golden Gloves titles, a win at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and a USA Boxing national championship under his belt. He led in the third and final round of his opening bout against Damien Hooper, but ended up losing a close decision to the Australian.
“The Olympics was just a slip up and a mental lapse in the last round,” he said. “But that was the last time I ever want to feel that feeling, that feeling of defeat. So I would tell the team going to Rio: the most important thing is just stay focused.”
In a way, Olympic disappointment in London has made Spence and Browne — and teammates like Dominic Breazeale, Terrell Gausha, Rau’shee Warren and others — more determined to succeed in the professional ranks.
“That’s all part of our motivation and drive,” Browne said. “We’re all focused on getting titles and being world champions at the same time. But most importantly on winning these fights and getting to the next one and closer to the world title.”
“We’re really good buddies, he’s like a brother to me,” Spence said. “I wish him the best, I wish him a spectacular one-sided victory. And I wish the same for myself.”