Last night's ESPN broadcast of the welterweight showdown between Terence 'Bud' Crawford and Jose Benavidez, Jr. featured announcer Joe Tessitore repeating--at least half a dozen times--the claim that Crawford, the 31-year-old Omaha native who dispatched Benavidez with a last-minute knockout in the twelfth round, is the "best in the world," i.e. the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. Tessitore, who always carries out his duties with the punctiliousness of a trusted company man, made this claim so assuredly that one might have assumed that Crawford was the consensus selection of ring afficianados everywhere. But his insistence on repeating the claim ad nauseum suggested a marketing angle reflecting Crawford's status as the best fighter in Bob Arum's Top Rank stable, and therefore the hottest commodity that ESPN, which carries Top Rank fights, can claim in its efforts to squeeze a larger share of the boxing public's attention. It seems to be working. The overnight numbers marked Crawford-Benavidez as the most-watched boxing event of 2018, allaying the concerns of some that the fight was not being marketed adequately despite a contentious weigh-in the day before that saw Crawford take a swing-and-miss at Benavidez's jaw. The ESPN announcing crew also did their part to hype the fight, portraying Benavidez as a worthy opponent to Crawford, the champion of three weight classes and the two-time designee of Fighter of the Year by the same network. In his charge up the pound-for-pound ratings, Crawford has displayed the athleticism, foot speed, ring IQ, and flair for drama that make for a premier attraction. Now boasting a record of 34-0 with 25 knockouts, Crawford would seem to have backed up the hype, although his resume lacks a signature win, and is marked by a surfeit of capable but questionable foes. Unfortunately, the win over Benavidez, dramatic as it was, does not change that equation. Further, the way Crawford won the fight raises questions about how he might fare against the sterling opposition of the 147-pound division, boxing's toughest.
Benavidez, despite an impressive run to the national Golden Glove championship a decade ago, has seen his professional career diminished by weak opponents and a devastating injury to his right knee in August 2016, the result of a gunshot wound. Last night, that knee was held together by a brace, and perhaps as a consequence, Benavidez showed little footwork in the fight, but rather cautiously followed Crawford around the ring, as if he was trying to hypnotize a fly into holding still long enough for him to swat it. Known as a counter-puncher, Benavidez seemed reluctant to throw for most of the fight. His jab appeared weaker and less accurate than Crawford's, and aside from a few effective body punches in the middle rounds, he landed little of consequence on the champion. Leading into the 12th and final round, I had Crawford winning the fight easily, by a score of 109-100.
For his part, Crawford seemed, until the final moments of the fight, content to wage the bout on Benavidez's terms, and to show the younger man that he could beat him at his own game. Deploying a more effective jab, after an uncertain beginning Crawford found the optimal distance from his foe, and spent most of the night lashing at Benavidez's face before quickly backing away to prevent any counters from landing. This style suggested the preoccupations of a pickpocket, or a poker player hoping to swipe the pot without being cuffed. In a way, it was a remarkable showing of composure and strategy, but perhaps insufficient to the title of "greatest," given that his opponent seldom threw anything of concern and possessed all the agility and movement of a sturdy tree stump.
But then, finally, Crawford put his foot on the pedal in the championship rounds, and in the last minute of the last stanza, disassembled his man with a wicked right uppercut, a punch he had attempted once or twice in the earlier rounds without success. Throughout his career, Crawford has shown a knack for making in-fight adjustments that lead to spectacular finishes. Alongside Benavidez, we can also include Jeff Horn, Thomas Dulorme, and Yuriorkis Gamboa, among others. The question that now weighs over Crawford, the welterweight division, and the entire sport of boxing, is whether his winning formula can be successfull applied to Erroll Spence, Keith Thurman, Shawn Porter, or Manny Pacquiao, i.e., the biggest names in the division. If there were any justice in the world, one of those stars would be Crawford's next bout, but given the politics of the sport and the limited stable of Top Rank fighters who can challenge Crawford, I fear that Bud's next challenge will be another Jose Benavidez.