IN the spring of 2015, the American broadcast network NBC aired a commercial for a new boxing series aimed at revolutionising the sport. The 30-second spot featured a coterie of young boxers sporting natty black suits and their glitziest timepieces, as they strutted – in languid slow motion – out of a dark corridor and into a sea of exploding flashbulbs on a red carpet, all set to the booming tune of Jadakiss’ proverbial communiqué The Champ is Here. Of the boxers, the most noteworthy were Adrien Broner, Keith Thurman, and Danny García, ascendant welterweights who at the time represented, from the standpoint of both ability and personality, the vanguard of the post-Floyd Mayweather generation, a point underscored in the commercial when the narrator intoned that “there was a time when the most famous person in America was the boxing champion of the world.” A few beats later, the segment cut to Sugar Ray Leonard stepping out of a limo, flaunting his familiar champagne smile.
The message of this appealing, if tad overheated, advertisement drew on a powerful premise: boxing, once regarded as a beloved mainstream sport, had suffered a winnowing effect of sorts over the past few decades, primarily because, so the story went, it had aligned itself with the subscriber-based model of pay cable television, thus drastically diminishing its visibility. Now, thanks to an ambitious gambit from Premier Boxing Champions to remove that onerous paywall, the sport was ready to hurtle back into the public limelight – back, as the Hollywoodian imagery of the plug suggested, to its rightful place within the cultural zeitgeist.
It was understood that no division was more important to the success of this experiment than the 147-pound class, over which the PBC had a virtual monopoly, and is presumably why Broner, Thurman, and García had been singled out in the company’s inaugural promotional push. In hindsight, a couple of omissions stand out from that NBC commercial. One is, of course, Errol Spence Jnr, arguably the top welterweight today. But Spence’s absence was understandable and justified, given that he was still something of a prospect at the time. Besides, his handlers had every intention of giving him the kid-glove treatment. The following year, Spence landed a coveted NBC slot as the headliner of a main event that was to air immediately after the network’s coverage of the Olympic Men’s USA basketball gold medal game, all but guaranteeing the young Texan unparalleled national exposure.
But the most conspicuous absence from that promo – an absence that illustrates just how poorly that promo has aged – is the one fighter without whom it is impossible to give a proper and accurate account of the past six years in one of boxing’s most consistently competitive and remunerative divisions; a fighter whose rare sense of purpose and authenticity, despite his frequent status as the B-side in the biggest fights of his career, makes him sui generis in an era in the sport in which low ambition and kayfabe predominate. That fighter is Shawn Porter.
★ ★ ★
It seems curious to listen to someone who has operated at the highest level in the sport for half a decade talk so openly about his shortcomings, but Shawn Porter has long demonstrated a degree of introspection at odds with his cutthroat aggression inside the ring.
“I do believe that ‘expose’ – even though it’s a pretty strong term – it’s the perfect term for that fight,” Porter said on a late Saturday afternoon, in October, in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas. He had just finished up his weekly massage session and was now making his way down the aisles of a Smith’s grocery store for that evening’s dinner – fish for himself, chicken for his two boys – while simultaneously fielding the proddings of a journalist about his upcoming showdown, on November 21, against the dangerous welterweight titleholder Terence Crawford.
But the topic, at the moment, is Kell Brook, the Sheffield man who still has the sole distinction of handing Porter the most comprehensive loss of his career. They fought in August of 2014, on the occasion of the second defence of Porter’s 147-pound IBF trinket. Four months earlier, he scored a ruinous fourth-round stoppage of veteran contender Paulie Malignaggi. The proud Brooklynite later described Porter, a former high school running back, as a “grenade” and admitted that he had “never been hurt like that before.”
No sooner had he established an aura of terror, however, that Porter found himself on the wrong end of a bullwhipping session against Brook. Through repeated clinching and blistering step-back counters, the Brit defused the Ohioan over 12 rounds en route to a split decision win. Porter had been, to use the often misapplied term, “exposed.”
“He had handled me in some ways that no fighter had handled me before, and he had presented some problems that I had practically never seen before,” Porter said of Brook. “His clinching definitely served its purpose in nullifying my offence but also being able to frustrate me. It definitely was a fight that I grew from.”
And that admission, in short, is perhaps what best describes Porter’s unique mentality as a prizefighter – his willingness to own up to a loss and extract lessons from it, rather than resort to the much more convenient option of inventing alibis. In a pursuit that generally requires its participants to steel themselves in superhuman magnitudes of ego, humility can sometimes be a tall order.
“That night, I was very arrogant – very, very confident and so sure of myself that I was willing to keep doing [what I was doing] until it worked, and it didn’t work, and I didn’t get my hands raised,” Porter said. “I’m a realist. In life, in general. I accepted the loss. I’m very selfish and greedy in the ring. Now the difference is, when things aren’t going my way, because of that experience, I make an adjustment and get what I want from whatever is going on in that fight. I don’t think that’s something that Terence Crawford knows a lot about,” he quipped.
Some say that the switch-hitter from Omaha, Nebraska native is the best welterweight in the world, but it is an observation founded more on intuition, rather than proof, at this juncture in time. For if there is another thing that Crawford presumably does not know too much about it is fighting the top names of his own division, a practice Porter has essentially turned into an art form. Since the loss to Brook, Porter has gone on to amass a first-class CV. With victories over Broner, García, and Yordenis Ugas – who saw his stock rise this past summer with an upset over Manny Pacquiao – and razor-thin losses to Thurman and Spence, Porter has gone through the welterweight equivalent of running the gauntlet.
“Not one of these guys has ever considered rematching us,” said Kenny Porter, the martinetish father and head trainer of Shawn. “Skydiving for the first time, when you get to the ground and you’re safe, you say, ‘whew, I made it. I’m never doing that again.’ That’s Shawn Porter. That’s what you get.”
Even the surly Crawford admittedly wanted no part of Porter, although for reasons, he says, that had to do more with money and marketability. But the Omaha native’s preferred matchups – supposedly either Spence, Pacquiao, or Thurman – never had a chance of materialising, due to the usual promotional stonewalling. (Crawford is backed by Top Rank, which seldom does business with the PBC). Porter took the rejection in his stride – after a few receptive phone calls, Porter says Crawford started to ghost him – though he never gave up hope that his would-be adversary would eventually warm to the idea. He begrudgingly took one tune-up during the pandemic, a dominant decision against Sebastian Formella, but told his handlers and his father afterwards that he would not fight again unless it involved Crawford – bar none.
“I kind of argued with my dad back and forth,” Porter recalled. “Like, ‘Hey I don’t want to train for anyone else. I don’t want to train for a fight and get in the ring for a four, five-round fighter, or someone who’s not at my calibre. That’s not what I’m interested in. [My dad said], ‘Well, you need to get paid and you need to do this, and you need to do that.’ I just respectfully kept my mouth shut, understanding that this fight is going to get made.”
The turning point came earlier this summer from an unlikely bureaucratic source: the WBO sanctioning body, which ordered a contest between the two. That got the ball rolling, and soon, contracts were swapped and signed. But make no mistake, the fight that has had the cognoscenti salivating from the mouth was mostly the handiwork of Porter.
“I give all the credit to myself before I give any credit to Terence Crawford,” Porter said. “This is a fight that I publicly have been saying that I wanted for at least a year, probably longer than that. I could have had any other fight, with any other top-10 fighter on the PBC side. The reason why I give myself so much credit is the patience willing to wait and not be seen on TV, not fight, and not do what I’ve always done just for one specific fight, one specific person – to have that kind of patience is very rare.”
Whatever happens this weekend, one thing is for certain: Porter will be the first elite welterweight of his generation to have fought every belt-holder in the division. Which is to say, for all the chatter about outsize paychecks and the deep talent pool, there would be no “glamour division” without Porter. He is its true linchpin.
“Definitely, without a Shawn Porter, you don’t get the great fights you got with these other guys,” Kenny affirmed. “I don’t think that none of these guys would be as great as they are if they hadn’t taken on a fight with Shawn.”
Porter’s obsession with testing himself is, in part, why the Brook loss no longer has the sting of an indictment today, and why he can only chuckle when he is reminded of the pomp and circumstance of PBC’s opening ceremony – from which he was absent – all those years ago. The irony is not lost on him.
“Yeah, it’s kind of been me,” Porter said. “I’m the one who has come out of that big announcement we made all those years ago.”
A “sink or swim” metaphor comes to mind. “I think at that point in time we all were on the big cruise ship,” Porter said. “And then after that night we were tossed in the water, and we all had fights and we were all going our ways, swimming through the water, and then you look up, what about six years later, and I think I am the one now.”
He has a point there. The troubled Broner was recently hauled off to a Cincinnati jail for violating his probation; García seems more interested in buying beachfront property in Florida; Thurman has not entered the ring since Pacquiao thumped him around in 2019; Spence has seen his career briefly stymied by a horrific car accident and most recently an eye injury; and Brook has looked unsteady ever since he had his orbital bone bashed in by Gennady Golovkin in 2016. Porter, meanwhile, will soon enter the boxing ring as the clear, if not substantial, underdog. Not that that is anything new.
“If you haven’t seen what I’ve done in the past, if you’ve not seen what I’ve done to the other elite guys on the PBC side, if you really want to continue with that analogy, I’ve basically kicked everybody off – even the ones that beat me – I’ve kicked them and thrown them in the water,” Porter said. “Now I’m on the beach, about to reach for greatness in the fight against Terence Crawford.”
“I know ‘Bud’ is a pound-for-pound top fighter in the world,” Kenny said. “But what happens when Shawn Porter beats this guy on November 20? Now you’ve got to put him in the pound-for-pound conversation, whether you like it or not.”
Whatever the outcome on Saturday night, Porter’s chase for his latest white whale will be at an end. Until he embarks on his next one. No pound-for-pound list will ever be able to quantify that.
“Someone told me earlier, ‘Oh, he’s the last of a dying breed,’ Porter recalled. “I said, ‘No, I’m not the last of a dying breed.’ The other guy looked at me, and he said, ‘No, you are the last of a dying breed. No one does this. No one is willing to fight the best and the most elite.’
“I had another friend that was arguing with me. ‘You shouldn’t fight Terence Crawford. You deserve an easy night. Why don’t you get yourself an easy night and easy payday? Everybody else does it.’ I said, ‘You know what, after you’ve been to the Super Bowl, what does every fighter want the next year? They want to go back to the Super Bowl. They don’t want to make it to the playoffs. They don’t want to have a conference championship game. They want to get to the Super Bowl.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to make it to a couple of Super Bowls and win a few, and lose a few, but I’m not about to risk not having a Super Bowl night. Why would I want to get in the ring with someone that nobody cares about just to make some money. That’s not what I became a boxer for. I became a boxer to do what I saw Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler and all of those guys that put on great performances in front of thousands and thousands of fans – that’s what I’m after.”