Terence Crawford may be the biggest star of Saturday’s card at Madison Square Garden.
But Richard Commey’s lightweight title fight with upstart Teofimo Lopez is unquestionably the biggest fight on the show.
And that's a strange situation for Crawford to be in.
One of the best and proudest fighters in the sport, Crawford (35-0, 26 knockouts) is defending his WBO welterweight strap against Lithuania’s Egidjius Kavaliauskas on ESPN.
The 2019 Heisman Trophy winner will be announced in the lead-in at 8 p.m. (ET) on ESPN before the card, which starts at 9 p.m., so presumably even more eyeballs will be glued to boxing.
And yet an undercard matchup is getting most of the buzz, meaning that if either Commey or Lopez dazzles in their appearance, they likely have a better chance of walking away with a new fanbase than Crawford, who has had trouble attracting top opposition because of his promotional ties.
Keith Connolly, who co-manages Commey, hopes Commey can steal the show and some viewers with it, going from hardcore favorite to mainstream curiosity with the attention of Heisman viewers who stay on to watch the fights.
And if that happens, Commey (29-2, 26 knockouts) may as well be announced as boxing’s Heisman winner (hey, just go with it) that night, instead of the supremely talented Crawford, who isn’t expected to have to dig deep to beat “The Mean Machine.”
Connolly is salivating at the potential benefits that await his fighter if he performs well in Saturday’s tripleheader.
“When you have five million people going from the Heisman to the boxing, if a lot of those guys stick around and watch, you’re going to have a lot of people who don’t normally watch boxing seeing my guy in the best fight of the night,” Connolly told BoxingScene on Thursday. “So, it could quadruple his profile because of the slot he’s in. I think Richard is going to lay it all out on the line on Saturday and he’s going to rise to the occasion. I think they’re both going to bring their ‘A’ game. I don’t think either of them is going to freeze. And now it will come down to whether Richard Commey is too much for Teofimo at this point in his career.”
It’s edge-of-your seat type stuff — is the 22-year-old Lopez (14-0, 11 knockouts) biting off too much in taking on the veteran Commey at this point in his career? Can he live up to the hype? It’s the type of intriguing storyline that Crawford’s fight is lacking.
It wasn’t until Top Rank promoter Bob Arum told BoxingScene’s Keith Idec on Thursday that he was targeting the PBC’s Shawn Porter for Crawford’s next fight that interest in Saturday’s bout seemed to suddenly shoot up.
With most of the marquee welterweights on the other side of the street under Al Haymon, Crawford has been unable to lure a top opponent, causing his career to sort of idle in neutral while his peers - Errol Spence Jr., Porter, Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia have all participated in career-defining type fights.
Arum seemed to be applying a bit of a promoter’s sleight of hand, Connolly suggested, in injecting Porter’s name into the promotion for Crawford- Kavaliauskas. Arum did the same with Commey’s matchup with Lopez when he said he was already planning a bout with Vasiliy Lomachenko against Lopez for March or April, should Lopez emerge victorious in Saturday’s co-feature.
Arum was only trying to drive up interest in their bout on Saturday, Connolly said, just as he was doing with Crawford’s bout by mentioning Porter.
“Bob Arum is smart and he knows that by discussing Lomachenko, one, it will put more attention on this fight and it’s going to build Teofimo’s brand,” Connolly said. “And two, if he beats my guy then, half the work of pumping him up has already been done by Arum. It’s smart for him to do it as long as Teofimo can deal with that type of pressure being put on his shoulders.”
Of course, Connolly would pursue a bout with Lomachenko if the Lou DiBella-promoted Commey walks away with the win and the financials are right.
“That’s a huge fight,” Connolly said. “If we get the types of numbers that other guys are getting for a fight on that level — he’d definitely take it. It has to make business sense. But we’re not going to overreach for the fight and take short money. He has to be treated fairly.”
Beyond trying to sell this fight and the next one after that, Connolly believes that Lopez’s camp and Top Rank may be underestimating Commey, that by virtue of talking about their next opponent, that in itself is a sign they are looking past Commey and perhaps not taking him as seriously as they should.
“I love it that they’re overlooking Commey,” he said. “If they’re already talking about Lomachenko, that means that everyone involved in his side is looking past Commey and I think that’s the wrong thing to do. He’s the type of guy with the type of power that you should only be focused on him and not looking ahead. So, I think that plays definitely into our favor.”
Connolly has been in this position before where his fighter’s opponent garnered the lion’s share of the hype heading into a fight. It happened when his fighter Danny Jacobs faced Gennady Golovkin at MSG back in 2017 and it happened again when Sergiy Derevyanchenko, another fighter he manages, took on Golovkin this past October, also at The Garden. In both cases, Connolly’s guys lost close decisions.
“My biggest fear is the fight being taken away when they really win,” he said. “I’m 0-2 against GGG but I feel like I’m 2-0. In my heart, I feel like Danny beat him and Sergiy beat him. I think the only reason those fights went the other way was the politics of boxing. So that’s the fear — it’s always the fear.”
Crawford would face anyone if given the chance and his problem finding opponents is another issue borne of boxing politics, Connolly says. Crawford doesn’t fear anyone. Nevertheless, one can only wonder — does Crawford fear being overshadowed by the night’s co-feature?