In Terence Crawford, fighting Saturday evening on HBO, we have the latest contestant for Floyd Mayweather’s successor as the next American superstar boxer — a game show punctuated by the mournful blasts of sad trombones for years now.
Chad Dawson? He had the physical talent, but none of the personality, and he petered out. Andre Ward? He had an Olympic gold medal, was battle tested in a tough Showtime tournament and at first demonstrated a marketable demeanor and story… but he has spent the last couple years in a promotional dispute, and didn’t even fight in 2014. Timothy Bradley? He capitalized on a shaky win over Manny Pacquiao to become the 2013 Fighter of the Year, then followed it up with a foolish strategy in a rematch loss to Pacquiao, so his bid for the mantle is in limbo.
Crawford makes Dawson appear downright gregarious outside the ring, and like that all-American trio, he has, at times, bore the scarlet letter inside the boxing ring — B, for “boring.” Yet he’s coming off a Fight of the Year-style bout against Yuriorkis Gamboa, and the label was less apt for him than it was for, say, Dawson. Plus, he’s taking another step forward this weekend toward proving himself against Raymundo Beltran, a bout that will crown a new Transnational Boxing Rankings Board 135-pound champion.
A fighter like Beltran never gets the word “talented” thrown at him the way Crawford does, because he is not fast, nor gifted at defense, nor prone to mixing up his strategies. He is a fairly straightforward slugger, who relies on resilience and a mean left hook to score victories. Yet, in its way, resilience is a talent, too. It is, if nothing else, a weapon. And while reasonable people can differ, he does have a case as the best lightweight outside of Crawford.
That best-vs-best element gives this fight appeal it might not have without it. Beltran shouldn’t be discounted entirely — he’s made a career of it as an authentic contender after rising from the journeyman/gatekeeper level, a leap rarely made. But he’s an underdog for a reason; people know Crawford is battle-tested now, too, and he’s just better in almost every aspect of the game. This is one of those good fights on paper that might not be competitive.
Inside the ring, it’s hard not to like Crawford’s chances of going a long way toward filling Mayweather’s shoes. He is smart, patient and poised with speed, adaptability and even power.Whereas Beltran fought Ricky Burns to a disputed draw (it looked like a very bad hometown decision from here), Crawford definitively beat Burns in his neighborhood. The Gamboa win suggested some vulnerabilities, too — say, comparable speed, or infighting. Crawford also tends to start too slow. But he can counter or lead; his defense is tight if not impenetrable; he won the Gamboa fight by switching stances (another rare thing, since most people switch stances out of desperation or do it ineptly); and the physical tools are there. Mentally, he seems to be razor sharp in there, seeing what his opponent is giving him and then responding, and he showed in the final round against Gamboa that if you hurt him, he is capable of gathering himself and stopping you in that same round. It’s an impressive package.
Whereas Crawford debuted on HBO and immediately demonstrated why he deserved to be, Beltran has spent his 33 years clawing in the trenches. He has losses to former prospects and current contenders like Luis Ramos, Jr. and Sharif Bogere. But perhaps all that sparring with Pacquiao has helped him. Since 2012, when he defeated Hank Lundy, he’s been on a nice run. The Burns draw should’ve been a win, and he followed that up with a win over Arash Usmanee. Based on recent performances, we probably know better how Beltran deals with “Crawford types” than vice versa, because Burns is more like Crawford than Gamboa is like Beltran. He was able to back up the quicker, more traditionally skilled Burns with feints and leaping left hooks, then fire combos to the head and body on the ropes. If Crawford can’t figure out how to clinch effectively or counter well enough to hurt Beltran, the latter no easy task, Crawford could be in for a tough night.
But it’s hard to conceive how even a tough night for Crawford translates into a win for Beltran. Beltran won’t find Crawford so easily backed up as Burns, because as much as Beltran is sturdy, he hasn’t been hit for a while like Crawford’s going to hit him. Beltran will have to think twice about taking unanswered shots to create his own openings, something he didn’t have to do much with Burns. Crawford won’t be so easily trapped, either, as he’s a more natural athlete than Burns. That leaves Beltran with volume, but he won’t hit Crawford as easily as he hit Burns, and the volume edge wasn’t gigantic there.
Look for a coronation for Crawford at lightweight, most likely by decision. That will move him in the right direction as the future of American boxing. He already has won over his fellow Nebraskans and some of his critics. Some of the rest of it will have to be obtained away from what happens in the ring.