By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, was what a fight of the year should look like.
In a perfect example of what happens when you step beyond robotic repetition and incorporate plot twists and drama, Terence Crawford and Yuriorkis Gamboa got together Saturday night for a match that’s sure to be fondly remembered when BWAA members mark their ballots come December.
The majority of the first four rounds were controlled – if not actually dominated – by the older, smaller challenger, who used a discernable speed advantage to land eye-catching, if not particularly concussive, pot shots to a younger, bigger adversary’s head and body.
The narrative was almost literally turned on its head in the fifth round, when the champion began connecting with the short, precise counterpunches he’d been barely missing on for the first 12 minutes, and nearly drove his foil into stiff-legged stupor with each successive blow.
Ultimately, as the battered visitor mounted a dramatic final valiant push before a suddenly hushed crowd in round nine, he was again caught by a laser-guided counter on the way in. And just that quickly, the hometown hero was lifted victoriously, to the approval of his 10,000-plus gathered followers.
The ninth alone was enough to guarantee the fight gets love during awards season, and when placed atop the masterpiece that had already been concocted through 24 minutes, it’s a winning combination.
Measured by the four criteria discussed in this space last week, it scores well, too.
Though a WBO title at 135 pounds these days isn’t exactly on the level of Roberto Duran or Henry Armstrong, it was still a legitimate enough matchup to warrant a middling score (6) on the 10-point significance system. That, coupled with higher marks for departure from pre-fight script (7), in-fight momentum shifts (10) and level of sustained action (8), calculates to a memorable 31 on my card.
If 20 is your garden-variety event and 40 is Hagler-Hearns, turning 31 isn’t so bad.
And when it comes to Crawford’s prospects now that victory is secured, well, they’re pretty good, too.
The win instantly elevated him to premier recognition status among the lightweights, even though his tenure pales in comparison to IBF champ Miguel Vazquez, a title-holder in anonymity since 2012.
It more than likely will wind up his last night in the division, too, thanks both to the fact that he’d already weighed north of 135 pounds for 19 of 23 previous fights, and the instant star status hung on him by a – legitimately, this time – breathless HBO announce team after the fight.
Though he leans hyperbolic by nature, Roy Jones Jr. was on point in the immediate aftermath.
“This guy’s a star all the way around the board,” said Jones, who claimed Crawford’s seamless switch from orthodox to southpaw conjured Hagler-tinged memories. “He’s got all the capabilities to become a world-class fighter. The guy’s a really special talent, and he looks like he’s ready to do the job.”
A few minutes later, Top Rank executive Todd duBoef added Money-scented fuel to the celebratory fire, insisting that Crawford’s home-stage performance woke echoes of one Floyd Mayweather Jr.
“As a promoter who has signed numerous fighters for 20-plus years that I've been here – everybody tells me ‘Come to my hometown, I can do it’ and 99.9 percent of them don't,” he said. “They don't deliver like this. The last time I felt this in a first defense, was when Floyd Mayweather, after he beat Genaro Hernandez, we went to Grand Rapids, Mich. and he sold the place out.”
Though duBoef’s chronology is a tick flawed – Mayweather’s return to Grand Rapids came in his second lightweight defense against Carlos Ruiz (his first was in Miami against Angel Manfredy) – his point is well taken. Crawford lobbied for the Omaha date and ultimately made it worth the promotional while.
“It was a magical night, except one thing – the fight (Saturday) was 10 times better,” duBoef said. “I think Floyd cruised to a decision. But this guy delivered. He captured everybody and he had the right guy in front of him who gave his heart and everything. This was a special night and he delivered.”
While it’s ironic that a Top Rank president would seek to build his fighter’s emerging brand by invoking the name of Bob Arum’s highest-profile nemesis, it’s not a colossal overreach to suggest that the 5-foot-8 Crawford could have as much second-division success at 140 as Mayweather had in his second stop.
Lest we forget, Floyd’s first climb was from 130 to 135, and he became a belt-holder at lightweight with a narrow decision over Jose Luis Castillo at the MGM Grand in April 2002 that was followed by a more decisive version a little more than seven months later at Mandalay Bay.
Two more one-sided defenses followed before he abdicated to pursue bigger quarry at 140.
Crawford’s downing of Gamboa was his initial title risk at 135, but he said a few days before that he fully intended to make the upward move in search of more lucrative foes than lightweight could offer.
“I feel like I can be on the pound-for-pound list,” he said. “I've just got to keep winning. Everything else will fall into place. As much as I would want all that, I've just got to keep winning.”
The thawing of the stalemate between Top Rank and Golden Boy could open up intriguing options for Crawford, considering that the heaviest hitters at junior welterweight – Danny Garcia, Lamont Peterson, Lucas Matthysse and Adrien Broner among them – have most recently appeared on Golden Boy cards.
The other truly significant title-level entities at 140, Ruslan Provodnikov and Chris Algieri, work with Philadelphia-based Banner Promotions and New York-based Star Boxing, respectively, but recently met on HBO on a show that was co-promoted by Arum and duBoef’s Top Rank conglomerate.
Another intriguing possibility lurks in the form of Filipino superstar Manny Pacquiao, whom trainer Freddie Roach prefers at junior welterweight though he hasn’t weighed-in below 140 in five years.
“He’s not a great puncher at 147 like everyone thinks,” Roach said in April. “Everyone says he’s not getting the knockouts like with Hatton, and those knockouts were at 135 and 140. I’m going to ask him if we can fight at 140 because that’s a better weight for him. He has no trouble making 140.”
Roach downplayed the idea of a move at first because of a perceived dearth of matches at the lighter weight, but the emergence of Crawford as a player could ultimately make it a viable proposition. Especially if Crawford is able to decisively pass an intermediate test with any of the names mentioned.
And presuming he does so, there’s no lack of interest on his part. If his people present him with a target, he simply locks on with no regard to the behind-the-scenes drama.
“I just fight,” he said. “I don't pay attention to the politics and all the cold war stuff. I watch it on TV, on Showtime and HBO, and I just like to watch boxing. As far as me getting in the ring with anybody, I don't call anybody out. I just fight who my handlers tell me to fight.”
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
No fights scheduled.
Last week's picks: 1-1
2014 picks record: 47-12 (79.6 percent)
Overall picks record: 594-206 (74.2 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.