Errol Spence Jr. says he's 'grateful' he caught eye injury in time before it threatened his career

August 26, 2021, 2:39 PM

Errol Spence Jr. suffered a retinal detachment/break in his left eye during sparring weeks before his scheduled fight with Manny Pacquiao, the 31-year-old unified welterweight champion told ESPN.

During a session at the World Class Boxing Gym in downtown Dallas, Spence said, he felt something amiss, stopped the session and said, "My eye, my eye."

Despite his left eye not being right, Spence told ESPN that he sparred again two days later, and then, during a prescheduled medical checkup in Dallas the following day, his fears were confirmed as the doctor said Spence's eye looked "like dark clouds."

Spence (27-0, 21 KOs) was told not to spar until he was examined by an eye specialist. "You don't want to lose your eye," the doctor warned him.

After consulting with PBC founder Al Haymon, Spence immediately traveled to Las Vegas on Aug. 8 for his comprehensive prefight medical testing. The eye exam was conducted Aug. 9 by an ophthalmologist, Dr. Thomas F. Kelly, who told him he couldn't fight and reiterated, "You gotta get this fixed ASAP."

With the diagnosis of a a retinal detachment/break, Spence, ESPN's No. 4 pound-for-pound boxer, was deemed unfit to fight in what was to be the biggest event of his career, an Aug. 21 pay-per-view bout with Pacquiao. Spence returned to Dallas the following day and underwent surgery, an air bubble placed on the recovering eye.

That same day, Yordenis Ugas stepped in to fight Pacquiao on 11 days' notice. Then, on Saturday, Ugas scored the upset, surely spoiling the prospect of a Pacquiao-Spence fight for good.

"I'm grateful that I caught it. ... It's a career-ending injury for a lot of other boxers," Spence told ESPN in his first public comments since the surgery. "A lot of them don't get checked up. Even if this would have happened early in training camp, I would have still tried to spar and things like that. And it probably would have damaged it permanently.

"I'm just grateful it happened when it happened, I caught it sooner than later, and I have another chance at what I love doing."

Now Spence prepares for yet another return from catastrophe.

In October 2019, Spence crashed his Ferrari 488 Spider, a single-car accident that left the fighter hospitalized in intensive care for six days. Spence, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the vehicle as it flipped multiple times. He was charged with DWI and later received probation.

Miraculously, the only injuries Spence sustained in the crash were broken teeth and facial lacerations. At least, it appeared that way.

The doctor, Spence said, believes the eye injury could stem from the accident. But between two full training camps and one fight (a December 2020 win over Danny Garcia), it's possible that the retina finally broke.

Nevada requires an ophthalmologist exam. Texas, where the Garcia fight took place, only requires an optometrist exam.

"I did have a little curtain, not in my eyesight but in my peripheral; like a shadow," Spence, ESPN's No. 1 147-pounder, said of his eye before the air bubble was wrapped around it. "I was seeing that after sparring and things like that. Me just being a boxer, being young, I didn't wanna say anything about that, but then the doctor asked me if something was wrong with my vision on the left side because my left eye look like a shadow."

Retinal detachments first compromise peripheral vision before moving to the center. Luckily, Spence's injury was discovered before that happened.

"If it gets to the center of your eye, it will get a lot worse," Spence said he was told by the doctor. "If you would have got hit or anything, it would have got way worse than what it is."

A detached retina isn't all that uncommon in boxing. Sugar Ray Leonard underwent surgery for the injury in 1982 and subsequently announced his retirement. Two years later, he was back in the ring. Leonard fought seven more times -- including a win over Marvin Hagler in 1987 -- before his final bout in 1997.

Abner Mares, a three-division champion, has suffered detached retinas in both eyes. The left eye underwent surgery in 2008. He returned one year later and won his first title in 2010. Before a scheduled fight with Gervonta Davis in 2019, surgery was performed on Mares' right eye. He hasn't competed since but remains in training ahead of a comeback.

And then there's Michael Bisping.

"There was a UFC fighter who had the same thing, and he started training too early and lost his eyesight. ... He went blind in [one] eye," Spence said of the former UFC middleweight champion. "My doctors tell me take it easy or just chill; that's what I'm going to do. Not going to push it or think I'm Superman and something go wrong. I'm going to listen to the doctor. And hopefully I make a full recovery."

For now, Spence is restricted from doing anything remotely strenuous. No strength and conditioning. No running. And definitely no sparring.

"I can't do nothing but walk," Spence says. "I gotta sleep on my left side. I gotta put eye drops in. ... I know I can't spar for probably like two months. But I'm optimistic about when I can start jogging. Hopefully that will be next three weeks or so."

Despite criticism from former boxers, including Bernard Hopkins, on social media, there can be no doubting the legitimacy of the injury. Spence gave the Nevada State Athletic Commission permission to publicly discuss his medical condition, and it confirmed in detail the severity of the injury in an email to ESPN.

"It's freaking Manny Pacquiao, future Hall of Famer, future legend, undoubtedly top 10 all time," Spence said. "One of the greatest fighters of all time. And I drop out of a fight with him two weeks before the fight? That don't make sense. Not to mention all the money we would make off pay-per-view. I called him out two years ago in the ring. Not like he handpicked me. I been asking to fight him."

The opportunity to tack the legend onto his résumé has likely passed Spence by. But he still has a chance to resume his career and come back from yet another career-threatening incident.