Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Options For Terence Crawford Following Successful First Defense Of WBO World Welterweight Championship

One of the more consistent topics throughout the sport of Boxing is the happenings of the 147lb. Welterweight division. Of course, the history of the sport is filled with memorable battles and fighters who each had tenures atop the division. What is interesting to see is not only the events that happen in the division, but also the discussion and debate that takes place following a fighter, who was viewed either as the best in the division or was viewed as a central figure either moves up in weight or chooses to leave the sport all together and retire.

Normally the events and discussion following either scenario taking place is centered on determining the next central figure and/or top fighter in the division. While this can easily apply to any weight class in the sport, whenever a notable fighter in the Welterweight division vacates their standing for whatever reason, the subject of who will be the next fighter to emerge as the top Welterweight in the world tends to be a key topic of discussion.

In recent years the subject in regard to the Welterweight division has been which fighter, either one who is at or near the top of the division or a fighter who is on the rise might emerge as the top Welterweight in the world in the post-Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao era. As most know, Mayweather vacated his standing as not only the top fighter in the division, but also regarded as the best pound for pound fighter in the world following victories over Manny Pacquiao and Andre Berto in 2015.

Although Mayweather retired following his win over Berto in September of that year and briefly returned in August of last year in defeating two-division UFC world champion Connor McGregor, in the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) star's pro debut as a boxer, the process of determining the next number one fighter in the Welterweight division has been an ongoing process since Mayweather's win over Berto three years ago. While this topic in itself can be evaluated several ways, one angle that also should be discussed whenever such a process begins is whether a fighter, who may not have been competing in the division when the previous number one fighter left the division could emerge as the division's central figure after moving up in weight. Enter Terence Crawford.

Crawford, who had won world championships in the 135lb. Lightweight division and completely unified the 140lb. Jr. Welterweight division emerged on the Welterweight scene when he stopped previously undefeated WBO world champion Jeff Horn in June of this year. Crawford’s extensive accomplishments, as well as his victory over Horn to win a portion of the World Welterweight championship immediately, established him as a top player in the traditionally talent-deep division.

It is indisputable that Terence Crawford has been one of the top fighters in the entire sport for the last several years. Despite the victory over Horn however, a challenge that is always present for a fighter who moves up in weight is how they will perform against fighters who are theoretically stronger and thought to be naturally bigger. For Crawford it is not a position he is unfamiliar as he had previously gone up in weight throughout his career. A question that might be more appropriate to ask that has been asked of great fighters with similar credentials as Crawford is can this fighter be as dominant at higher weights as they were in lower weight classes.

Many fighters throughout the history of the sport have been able to answer this question and have gone on to be regarded as all-time greats due in part to how they were able to be successful in multiple weight classes. Although Crawford appears certain to be in the discussion of all-time great multi-division world champions when all is said and done in his career, a question that is also asked of fighters who have success in multiple weight classes in addition to whether they can maintain their dominance as they move up the weight scale is naturally at which weight will a fighter reach their ceiling. At what point will a fighter no longer be able to move up in weight either because of physical limitations or because of perhaps an opinion of whether said fighter can continue to compete effectively at heavier weights.

Crawford’s second fight as a 147lb. Welterweight and his first defense of his WBO Welterweight crown came on October 13th in a familiar setting, his hometown of Omaha, NE as he faced undefeated contender Jose Benavidez. Benavidez, who entered the bout with Crawford unbeaten in twenty-seven previous bouts had previously held interim/regular champion status in the World Boxing Association (WBA) Jr. Welterweight ratings in his career.

Despite his undefeated record, the opinion of some was that Benavidez was attempting to take a significant step up in the caliber of his opposition by challenging Crawford in his first attempt at a world championship. Some may also remember that Benavidez suffered a career-threatening gunshot wound to his right leg during an incident where he was shot while walking his dog in August 2016. Although he had been told by doctors that it would take nearly two years to be able to walk again, the contender from Phoenix, AZ made a recovery that ultimately saw him return to the ring and score an eighth round stoppage of Matthew Stode in February of this year. In his last fight prior to facing the champion, Benavidez scored a first round knockout of previously undefeated Frank Rojas in June.

It was understandable both given Benavidez’ skill level and what he had overcome in just being able to resume his career that the undefeated challenger would not be intimidated by a man regarded by many as one of the best fighters pound for pound in the world. The build-up to this encounter also saw a sense of bad blood between the two fighters, which included the two having to be separated physically at the official weigh-in the day before the fight.

When the two fighters squared off at the CHI Health Center before what appeared to be a sell out crowd in support of the hometown favorite Crawford Benavidez made his presence known from the outset. What I was particularly impressed by Benavidez’ approach was how he was able to dictate the tempo of the combat by making it difficult for the champion Crawford to close distance and land consistently. Even though there was not much of note in terms of something that would turn heads in terms of a back and forth slugfest, it was a tactical Boxing match that the challenger more than held his own in for a good portion of the fight. Benavidez was able to land his jab more than occasionally and mix in some combinations that were effective when he was able to land them.

An element that I saw early on in the fight that I felt could have served Benavidez well was how he was able to land offense to Crawford’s body. Despite the success he was able to have working off of his jab and landing occasionally to the champion’s body, Benavidez chose not to make a sustained attack to Crawford’s body a focal point of his offense. The challenger was successful however, in applying pressure on the champion and was able to make it appear that the champion was uncomfortable for a time in the fight.

As he has done throughout his career when opponents have been able to have success early, Crawford gradually stepped up his offensive output as the fight progressed and took over the tempo of the fight, landing combinations of his own and more specifically, landing the harder punches of the two fighters. The story of the fight in my eyes gradually became whether Crawford would be able to score a knockout or if Benavidez would be able to go the distance. This was due to the ebb and flow of the combat appearing to favor the champion in the middle and late rounds.

In the twelfth and final round the champion's gradual attack ultimately caught up with the challenger as Crawford scored a knockdown of Benavidez and was able to get a stoppage in the closing seconds of the fight. It was a workman like performance by Crawford where he simply broke his opposition down over the course of the fight. Despite coming out on the losing end of the bout, Jose Benavidez gave a great account of himself and showed his mettle in defeat.

As for what the possible options are for Crawford going forward there is no shortage of potential opponents that could possibly an interesting challenge for Crawford. Fights with the likes of undefeated WBA champion Keith Thurman, recently crowned WBC champion Shawn Porter, and undefeated IBF champion Errol Spence would almost certainly generate buzz and debate amongst Boxing fans and experts. There are also potential fights with several top contenders, many of whom are former world champions that would likely welcome an opportunity to face Crawford should the opportunity come their way.

A hurdle that will need to be addressed is several of the other world champions and top contenders in the Welterweight division currently compete under promoters who are rivals to Crawford’s promoter Bob Arum. It goes without saying that one of the biggest determents to the entire sport is when those in the “Business of Boxing” who are not necessarily willing to work together on a consistent basis end up becoming an obstacle that can and unfortunately does prevent marquee fights that could elevate the sport from taking place in a timeframe that many fans would prefer rather than the fan having to wait a significant period of time before a fight between two top fighters, and/or fighters who are regarded as stars in the sport becomes a reality.

What this observer believes will be a more likely scenario at least in the not too distant future will be for Crawford to next defend his WBO crown against whomever the World Boxing Organization determines to be their next mandatory challenger. Although the Boxing fan would likely prefer to see a unification bout between Crawford and one of the other current world champions in the division in a short time frame, what Crawford facing the next mandatory challenger will do is if he continues to retain the WBO world championship, it will fulfill his annual obligation by facing a mandatory challenger, which will in turn free up time for him to pursue a unification bout against another current world champion. If Crawford continues to win and does so impressively, it will also create demand for such a unification bout to take place.

One can only hope that such demand will increase pressure on the rival promoters and other entities that are normally on opposite sides of the “Business of Boxing” to come together to make marquee fights between top stars happen. The “Sport of Boxing” as  a whole is after all elevated to a higher level when the best fighters fight the best.

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

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