Terence Crawford is one of two men who is called the pound for pound best fighter on the planet by anybody these days. The consensus top dog amongst outlets and observers is Canelo Alvarez, but ESPN, which broadcasts Crawford’s fights, promotes him as the No. 1 fighter in the world. ESPN isn’t the only one who thinks that—although it seems on its surface that it’s a declaration made out of promotional loyalty, many people share in the view that Crawford is the best active fighter today.

Being thought of as the best in the world in a sport where, by design, all fighters can’t fight one another, hinges on two things: What you look like in the ring, and what you have actually accomplished in the ring.

On Saturday night, Crawford returns to the ring to face Kell Brook, putting his WBO welterweight title on the line. The fight is a perfect example of the conundrum Crawford is in in terms of his public perception. It’s a bout Crawford is expected to win, and has a good chance to look spectacular in, both because his opponent is of inferior quality and because Crawford is a spectacular operator. But fans and analysts alike don’t need to see Crawford beat Brook to come to that conclusion, so at best, his standing in their minds will remain whatever it already was.

That’s been the situation for Crawford for close to four years, particularly after venturing up to welterweight where his promoter Top Rank, isn’t as well-stocked as its rival Premier Boxing Champions in terms of top-flight welterweights.

One would have to go back to July of 2016, to Crawford’s 140-pound unification bout with Viktor Postol, to find a bout which anyone at all thought he had a chance of losing (according to betting line aggregator ProBoxingOdds.com, Crawford opened as a -500 favorite that that bout). Some of that is because, like all special fighters, the odds are that they will win. However, it also speaks to the fact that while suitable competition is out there in the world, it hasn’t been available to him.

Since the Postol fight, Crawford has faced the following opponents: John Molina Jr., Felix Diaz, Julius Indongo, Jeff Horn, Jose Benavidez Jr., Amir Khan, Egidijus Kavaliauskas. The latter four have represented his ongoing title run in the welterweight division. 

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Simply put, it’s been a long time since Crawford has had the chance to prove much of anything.

As a result, we’re seeing some slippage in terms of public esteem towards Crawford, not because of anything he’s doing wrong, but because other excellent fighters in his own weight class or otherwise are capitalizing on the kinds of challenges Crawford hasn’t faced in a while. Ring Magazine now has bantamweight dynamo Naoya Inoue ranked at No. 2 pound for pound, one spot ahead of Crawford.

“When anybody and everybody asks me who I have for my pound for pound number one, I look at them like, me, what are you talking about,” Crawford told Andre Ward in a sit-down interview aired on ESPN Sunday night. “I feel it in my heart and I believe it to the fullest that I am the best fighter in the world today.”

Ring Magazine also has Errol Spence Jr., the fighter everyone wants to see Crawford matched with, ranked one spot ahead in the welterweight rankings. Gambling sites almost universally have Spence listed as a slight betting favorite over Crawford in odds listed for their theoretical fight down the road.

It should be noted that boxing rankings, even the ones produced by sanctioning bodies that purport to be solely results-based are no different than the polls that help decide who American college football’s best is. Like NCAA voters, evaluators making boxing rankings utilize some mix of results, strength of schedule and “the eye test” to come to a conclusion about who’s best.

Sometimes, there are teams that pass the eye test and blow out the opposition they’ve been scheduled to face, but without having to face Top 25 competition regularly due to the conference they’re in, are docked points and pushed aside in favor of more “battle tested” schools.

To use a present-day example, Notre Dame has historically been an independent college football team, opting to create its own schedule that while generally tough, doesn’t always put it through the woodchipper the way a team in the SEC would go. This year, due to the pandemic, the school made a decision to enter the ACC. On Saturday, Notre Dame played and defeated No. 1-ranked Clemson, and will presumably have a “rematch” in the ACC Championship Game, an opportunity that wouldn’t have been there as a non-conference team.

Had it not joined the ACC, Notre Dame still would have had the same collection of talent and would have been every bit as good as it was today, but without a way to prove it as conclusively as its rivals. It could have gone undefeated and theoretically found itself outside of the national Top 4, and as a result, out of the college football playoff. Now, that fate is firmly in the team’s own hands.

In this analogy, Crawford has simply been playing in the wrong conference. He needs his Clemson game—a bout with Errol Spence—in order to convince the plurality of voters of what he believes, and what many already suspect.

“I'm so natural and God gifted with all my abilities and tools. I have what other fighters don't have,” Crawford told Ward. “I have the heart, I have the skills, I have the speed, I have the power, toughness, I can switch, I can fight inside, outside, going backwards, forward, I can counterpunch you. There's no fighter in the game today that's shown what I have shown.”

Whether that’s true or not, perception often boils down to what you’ve shown lately. Four years ago, when Crawford said he was the best 140-pounder in the world, he was able to prove it by snatching all four belts. Now, four years and seven pounds later, he says he’s the best welterweight in the world—and the best fighter, period—and he ought to have the chance to prove that too.