By Cliff Rold
Welterweight is almost always one of boxing’s deepest divisions. Even when it’s not, when the depth gets light and fans are left with a bit of a down time, it usually maintains a higher level of interest than almost any other class.
How seldom are the down times?
Try to think about the last time welterweight didn’t have anything particularly interesting going on for an extended period of time. Think hard. There might be pockets of a few months, maybe even a year, but it doesn’t last long.
This isn’t a reflection of recent decades. It stretches back at least a century. Even during World War II, when the title was frozen during while champion Freddie “Red” Cochrane served in the entertainment unit of the US Navy, Sugar Ray Robinson was back home playing the part of champion in waiting.
Maybe one can make a case for the late 1950s, between the end of the Carmen Basilio and beginning of the Emile Griffith years. All but ardent historians often forget the reign of Don Jordan. Since then, we’ve seen the division roll near seamlessly from Griffith to Cokes to Napoles to Palomino and Cuevas, the Sugar Ray Leonard years, Donald Curry and the parity of the late 1980s, Pernell Whitaker, the Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad years…
…and that’s just a few of the names and pockets along the way.
The problem at welterweight isn’t about a lack talent. It is often sides of the fence. That’s not new. In the 1990s, we waited first for Whitaker-Trinidad and then for De La Hoya-Trinidad so the HBO (with multiple promoters) and Don King (spending most of the decade with Showtime) sides of the fence could find common ground. In this decade, it’s been the mirror universes of Top Rank and the Al Haymon umbrella, across multiple television outlets.
Nowhere could this be more graphic than in the consecutive weekends of welterweight action we are currently between. Last Saturday on ESPN+, former lineal lightweight and Jr. welterweight champion made his move to welterweight with a dominant pummeling of Jeff Horn for the WBO belt. This Saturday (Showtime, 10 PM EST), IBF titlist and 2012 US Olympian Errol Spence (23-0, 20 KO) will attempt his second defense of the belt he won from Kell Brook last year against Carlos Ocampo (22-0, 13 KO).
Spence is as prohibitive a favorite as Crawford was last weekend, without the intrigue of just arriving in a new division. Spence would likely be the favorite against any welterweight in the field, including the unified-before-injury WBA titlist Keith Thurman. The one might come in a showdown with Crawford.
If Spence-Crawford isn’t yet the best match on paper between prime welterweights since the late 1990s, a few more wins by each could send perceptions quickly in that direction. Mayweather-Pacquiao would easily have fit the bill in 2010. It wasn’t that in 2015. Both Spence and Crawford have things to prove at welterweight but it has the makings of a generational rivalry at 147 lbs.
That’s if it could happen while both are still in their primes or one of them grows out of the division.
Anyone who follows the sport regularly knows more than just more than just a few fights separate Spence-Crawford. It’s also separated by factions, networks, the reality of boxing today. There are two welterweight divisions and they aren’t living on the same one.
A quick glance at the current TBRB top ten at welterweight gives a solid enough picture of both worlds. Currently rated number one, Spence’s potential top foes under the Al Haymon umbrella include Thurman, who occupied the top spot before injuries and inactivity removed him, along with number three Shawn Porter and number four Danny Garcia. Garcia and Porter fight this summer, making the winner particularly interesting for Spence or a returning Thurman who has wins over both. Crawford, promoted by Top Rank, can cross his fingers for a crack at aged number five Manny Pacquiao if Pacquiao beats Lucas Matthysse this summer. If he develops a bit more, number seven Carlos Adames could be a potential foe for Crawford as well.
New names will emerge along the way but this is the immediate picture. For Spence, it’s not a bad one. In terms of recognizable foes still fairly near their prime, he has the better options if the fights in his world get made. Still proving his place in the division, Thurman, Garcia, or Porter would all be dangerous opponents that could not only determine if Spence is as good as he looks but also make him both better and more marketable.
Crawford could find himself running out of welterweights anyone cares about far quicker. That won’t force worlds together.
This version of two boxing worlds has a lot in common with a distinct chapter of the HBO/Showtime divide in the 1990s. When Don King took his talent across the street to Showtime in 1991, it was in the midst of a remarkable talent run at middleweight and super middleweight. On HBO, James Toney and Roy Jones became a heavy source of investment. King featured names like Julian Jackson, Gerald McLellan, and Reggie Johnson while Showtime also worked with promoters in the UK along the way to include Steve Collins, Nigel Benn, and Chris Eubank on their airwaves.
HBO built to a 1994 pay-per-view showdown between Jones and Toney with a cast that included a young Bernard Hopkins and Iran Barkley. Showtime and its pay arm brought US viewers McLellan-Jackson twice, Johnson-Collins, Eubank-Benn II, and the tragic but classic Benn-McLellan among others.
Crawford today finds himself in a position somewhat like Jones. After he beat Toney, signed exclusively to HBO, Jones found himself defending a super middleweight title against no-hopers like Antoine Byrd, Vinny Pazienza, and Tony Thornton. There was never a Benn, a Eubank, a Collins, or even a unification with amateur rival Frankie Liles.
If this is different it’s because Crawford isn’t, in this moment, as monumentally perceived as Jones was then. Jones’ generational rival looked like it might be McLellan but the fates intervened. Still, it’s easy to argue that the era, as outstanding as it was on face, fell short of the place in history it might have achieved because two worlds couldn’t become one.
What if it had been easier to bridge the divide and give Jones even a couple of those names? The same question could emerge if Crawford is watching Spence, Thurman, Garcia, and Porter engage in a round-robin already in full swing without him. The inhabitants of boxing two current welterweight worlds are boxing stars but none are yet the sort of general sports superstars that demand the planets align.
For so long as the divide persists, this era at welterweight can be deep, it can be exciting, but it can never be all it could be.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]