SHEFFIELD, England—Unified junior welterweight champion Terence “Bud” Crawford returned to the UK Saturday night and once again left with a title. His victim, IBF welterweight champion, Kell “Special K” Brook, now understands what most everyone who faces Crawford learns: that an auspicious start is but a step in your undoing against the meanest man in Nebraska.
Or so it could have been “Bud ’n’ Brook” happened when their fight was less of a foregone conclusion. Think 2016, before Brook had half of his face crushed by Gennadiy Golovkin and the other half shattered by Errol Spence. Back then, no one, not even Brook, knew his ceiling as a fighter, that he was skilled enough to win a title but too fragile to endure the elite. Crawford would have shown it to him, ground his face into it, painted it red. Crawford, too, was a better version of himself then.
The next year Crawford eviscerated Julius Indongo to become the undisputed junior welterweight champion. All the belts, the supposed career ambition of Golovkin—remember that? Crawford did it in seven fights. We are encouraged to ignore alphabet titles, often in favor of the belt or imprimatur of another (admittedly less nefarious) organization. It is a prescription that works in a vacuum; fighters covet titles—and who is anyone to tell a man who has lived a nightmare not to pursue his dreams? What Crawford accomplished at 140 pounds, though, was a sort of invalidation of the ticks and leeches from Mexico City, Panama, Puerto Rico, and New Jersey. He was above titles because he had all of them; because he had all them all, he didn’t need them.
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The move to welterweight rightly followed. Jeff Horn was sacrificed first because when Top Rank wants to crown a champion the WBO obliges. Crawford showed welterweight power and strength against Horn. The next question was whether anyone could beat him. That is a rhetorical question, promoter-speak—the real question was whether Errol Spence could.
We should forget having the real question answered. But even the rhetorical one hasn’t been asked seriously. Not by Jose Benevidez Jr., or Amir Khan, not by Egidijus Kavaliauskas, and not by Brook, who Crawford blasted out in four rounds at The MGM Grand Bubble in Las Vegas Saturday. The fight went as anyone who might bother to read a thousand words on a niche sport might expect: Brook had success early, Crawford adjusted, turned southpaw, and wiped Brook out in a swift and tidy tantrum midway through the fourth round. Vintage Crawford, charming if all too predictable.
There was a time when a description and analysis of the Crawford spectacle, that overproof mix of talent and cruelty that kicked like a defibrillator after years of Floyd Mayweather’s pulse-deadening dominance felt like a privilege. Does it still?
Crawford is an exercise in aspect perception, Wittgenstein for the aficionados, boxing’s duck-rabbit image. Perceived one way, Crawford is boxing’s most complete fighter, its most versatile sadist. That he lacks a signature win is mostly the fault of his reticent peers—because who wants to get his ass kicked coming and going, inside and out, and then, while his brain is still rattling in his skull, answer questions about his futility? That’s what Crawford represents: torture wedged into sport. And while that signature win may elude Crawford, the respect of his peers does not; they know how special he is.
But then you tilt your head, maybe cover an eye, look again, at what you see: A fighter whose best win is Yuriorkis Gamboa? Viktor Postol? Jeff Horn? Granted, Crawford can only face the opponents available but since a promotional embargo (rather than a dreadful division) is responsible for his uninspiring opposition, his hypothetical victories are impossible to concede. If Crawford warrants the hype, Brook is a stay-busy fight for him, the kind of opponent sandwiched between real challenges. Under this aspect, even Crawford’s dominance, his dispatching of the overmatched, is suspect, a testament more to matchmaking than greatness (or the potential for it).
What we perceive in the duck-rabbit image is often determined by what we bring to the observation. We might see the rabbit first because we had one as a pet and have to be shown the duck, or vice versa; we can see both simultaneously. Maybe that is the best way to perceive Crawford: as superlative and yet unproven, unproven and yet superlative, with what you see first determined by what you are looking for.
Either way, Crawford’s career now makes demands of a patience rightly wearing thin. A proper prizefight should answer questions about the men in the ring, it should remove the aspect-perceiving element by establishing something true and definitive. No one seriously denies Crawford’s talent, but no one seriously denies he is squandering it. There is nothing to learn from a Crawford fight that wasn’t revealed by the time he made Horn run his jewels. Yet ambiguity persists.
It seems Crawford no longer cares to remove the ambiguity either. Speaking of the one opponent who would make him prove himself anew, Crawford said: “I never really felt like I really needed Errol Spence for my legacy or my career.” He walked that statement back, saying his legacy at welterweight would suffer without a Spence fight but that his overall legacy would remain untarnished. It’s an odd answer but perhaps a sign that Crawford views his welterweight run as a sort of tenured position, less valuable than the ambitious period that preceded it.
If so, the real challenges will come, though only when the fighters he would once have destroyed can seize on his slippage. Until then, perhaps the best American fighter since Mayweather will leave the adverb in place. That is a waste. Anyone can see that.