Weekend Afterthought On Terence Crawford Vs. Raymundo Beltran

(via @HBOBoxing on Twitter)

Three writers whose work I admire — David P. Greisman, Bart Barry and Carlos Acevedo — have in recent days offered some critiques of Terence Crawford vs. Raymundo Beltran that I think warrant rebuttals. We’ll dispense with the set-up other than to say that this isn’t anything personal in any way, nor did I view the trio’s critiques as aimed at me personally; it’s just a difference of ideas that is worthy of an airing.

First, Greisman:

Beltran was recently ranked No. 2 by many thanks not to his own good performances so much as the unimpressive performances of others, namely now-former titleholder Miguel Vazquez in a controversial loss to Mickey Bey, and Richar Abril, who returned from 18 months of inactivity by taking a majority decision over Edis Tatli. Beltran’s draw with Burns was his best performance; he’d since outpointed Arash Usmanee in April.

But by virtue of his being No. 2 and Crawford being No. 1, folks felt that their fight should decide a new lineal champion. While this is within widely accepted rules, and while it’s good for rankings organizations and magazines to follow their rules, I believe there shouldn’t be any rush to crown a champion when a division still needs to shake out its uncertainty. Sometimes a ranking is just a ranking, and a win simply cements that a guy is No. 1 for now.

The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (of which I’m a chairman) is one of the organizations that declared Crawford-Beltran a championship bout. There was no “feeling” about it — as Greisman correctly notes, the Board was, in fact, following its own rules.

It should also be said that there was no “rush to crown a champion.” Keep in mind, the Board didn’t declare Wladimir Klitschko the heavyweight champion until well after everyone else did; it’s not an organization that rushes much, and in fact was founded in opposition to the weakening of standards elsewhere that were meant to hasten championship bouts. In both cases, again, the Board was simply following its own rules.

As for the uncertainty: There wasn’t much of it. Besides the Board, the following organizations had Crawford and Beltran ranked #1 and #2 — Ring Magazine, ESPN and BoxRec. While reasonable people can disagree whether Beltran deserved to be #2, several of the major organizations and publications that rank fighters believed that he did. If someone wants to think Beltran is a weak #2, they’re on fair ground, and we’ll get to Beltran’s qualities as a fighter later. But #2 he was in the eyes of a great many, nonetheless, which is as close to certainty as you’re going to get in this sport.

Unless you think #1 vs. #2 shouldn’t decide a championship, a ranking is never just a ranking. It goes to the heart of a system meant to impose order on how championships are decided.

Next, Acevedo:

This fight, ludicrously, is also for the “lineal” lightweight championship as decreed by any number of observers who believe that opinion trumps fact at every turn. Although some of these folks like to think of themselves as the boxing equivalent of Herotodus or Lord Acton, they have written nothing substantial about boxing history (like this, for example, or this) and are not even members of an anodyne organization such as the IBRO. In fact, most of them seem to do their best work on Twitter. If Ray Beltran is the number #2 lightweight in the world and Richar Abril and Kevin Mitchell are not far behind, then who gives a damn whether or not the ridiculous machinations of faux historians produces a fugazi lineal champion? With ten obligatory slots to fill in every imaginary rankings panel across cyberspace, the fact that two names will wind up #1 and #2 by default—if not merit—is guaranteed. Hell, even the IBF uses NOT RATED for some of its rankings.

I can only speak for myself here when I say that I don’t think my opinion trumps fact. It is true, for instance, that boxer rankings are more opinion than fact. I also can only speak for myself when I say I do not think of myself as the boxing equivalent of Herotodus or Lord Acton, nor have I written substantially about boxing history.

I have read a fair amount of boxing history, though, and while I don’t consider myself a historian of Acevedo’s caliber, I do think I can offer an informed opinion on boxing history to a reasonable extent. Nor is extensive written scholarship on a subject a prerequisite for commenting on that subject, or else hardly anyone would be allowed to talk about anything ever. The defensibility of the opinion should matter more than one’s qualifications. I can also say that some of the people on the Board who viewed Crawford-Beltran as for the lineal championship have written extensively about boxing history, including co-founders Cliff Rold and Springs Toledo, and the likes of Matt McGrain and Alister Ottesen have serious historical chops as well. (Some of them might hesitate to use the word “lineal” for reasons that would require a long detour, but suffice it to say that they at least consider it the “true” or “recognized” championship.)

Anyone who doesn’t care that Crawford-Beltran — arguably or no — decided a lineal championship is certainly welcome to that. I could argue that they should care, but I won’t. One of the ideas of establishing true boxing champions is to make the sport relatable to general sports fans, some of whom had abandoned the sport, at least in part, after becoming too flummoxed by trying to keep track of who the champions are. So it’s not only about reaching the longtime boxing fan/writer. That boxing doesn’t behave like other sports is, in some ways, a notch in its favor, but in many respects, it is an alienating element for non-hardcores.

And so, by that standard, the notion that someone might wind up #1 and #2 by “default, if not merit” is not an odd thing in any sport where competition is involved. When the NBA’s Eastern Conference puts forward a weaker championship contender than some of the teams that were eliminated in the Western Conference, the NBA doesn’t call off the NBA Finals. Yet that weaker team has, effectively, ended up #1 or #2 by default. That doesn’t mean one can’t judge the eventual NBA champs that emerged from the West as having less esteem than a prior champion that definitively beat the strongest opposition; it’s just a different discussion.

Lastly, what the IBF does doesn’t strike me as a good model for what other rankings organizations should do. They might be right some of the time, but usually it’s by accident. I see no issue with ranking fighters #1 to #10, or to whatever number, the same way most every other sport ranks every athlete/team from top to bottom. Sometimes in a division there’s not a great deal of daylight between #9 and #10, say. But we already make a decision like that every time we score a boxing match — almost everyone scores a winning round 10-9 rather than 10-10, even when it’s effectively even.

And now, Barry:

Saturday at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraskan lightweight champion Terence Crawford decisioned Mexican Raymundo Beltran lopsidedly, 119-109 and 118-110 and 119-109, in a match that was not large as its superlatives but demonstrated Crawford should stay at lightweight, which he won’t, Beltran was overrated, which no rater will admit, and Crawford should be 2014’s fighter of the year, an award that instead will go to a Russian who decisioned a 49-year-old last month…

The sturdy optimists saw Saturday on HBO two mediocre featherweights followed by one good lightweight and one very good lightweight. The sturdy optimists, who are optimistic for their refusal to call a counterfeit the true coin, saw nothing great happen. The evangelists, contrarily, saw the possible future of Puerto Rico prizefighting score a questionable draw with a Russian fighter – and if this year taught us little more, it taught us a former-Soviet-bloc fighter has amazingness as his birthright – followed by a future great with every tool establishing lightweight lineality against a very good contender (who should be champion!) before 12,000 Nebraskans, which is an astounding number when one considers it is 30-percent more fans than Gennady Golovkin’s record breaker of a ticketselling feat comprised in October.

As a rater, there are two different ways to respond to “Beltran was overrated, which no rater will admit.” We established earlier than there was broad consensus among several major boxing rankings that Beltran was #2 in the division. In that sense, he doesn’t seem overrated. He seems appropriately rated.

Speaking less literally: As a matter of course, I’m not sure anyone was ever all that convinced that Beltran was anything he wasn’t. Beltran is a plugger and ex-professional sparring partner who earned his way to genuine contender status but nothing more. As I readily admitted earlier, there was an element of default that got him here in a weak division. So, I don’t think that Beltran was overrated in the general way — I think he was appropriately rated by everyone as an overachieving tough guy who probably had no chance of beating Crawford.

In a manner of speaking, then, this particular rater doesn’t admit that Beltran was overrated. That doesn’t mean that I agree with every single ranking at TBRB, only that I don’t find Beltran to be one of the overrateds by two different standards.

I don’t think you have to be a blind, cheerleading evangelist to conclude that Crawford-Beltran could establish lightweight lineality. The rest of it, yeah, that kind of sounds like the ravings of an evangelist. We don’t know if Crawford is a future great. Judged by the standard of its time, 12,000 tickets is a good number, not an astounding one.

Speaking of this era vs. another, here’s a section I left out of the above quote:

There are the sturdy optimists, identifiable by their collective disgust, creatively and diversely expressed; and there are the evangelists, using to describe today’s middling fare what words once adorned feats by Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran – and almost always with a financial incentive for imposing such overwrought modifiers.

Maybe I risk devolving into evangelism here. Nobody right now in boxing is matching anything Roberto Duran did. I doubt anyone will for the rest of my lifetime. It’s important to keep this era in the proper context, of course, by occasionally pointing out how it suffers in comparison to the past. This year, in particular, is sorry as hell. But anyone comparing this era favorably to past eras is making a similar mistake as those who dismiss this era out of hand because of how it suffers in comparison to past eras.

That Beltran isn’t Duran is incontestable. But that doesn’t mean one can’t enjoy or get excited about a Beltran fight, or even that one can’t describe it in excitable terms; it doesn’t make one naive, unless the comparisons are naive. Surely some of the folk who relentlessly say negative things about this era (not talking about Greisman, Acevedo and Barry here — their writings vary greatly, and I can’t read their minds) are clouded by a sense of nostalgia. Didn’t your dad think everything was better years ago — baseball, music — and that everyone now is a bum? His dad before him, the same? And some of it is legitimately a product of the fact that this era of boxers doesn’t have anyone who got as much done as Duran, to return to his name.

The alternative to never writing enthusiastically about a sport that isn’t what it once was is to functionally read someone rolling their eyes over and over and over again. I think people should be able to enjoy the sport as it is today, where it provides enjoyment, and say so if they do. It doesn’t mean they’re being evangelists.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.