At around 3 a.m., on the morning of October 10, Errol Spence Jr. was ejected from his barrel-rolling Ferrari. His body eventually came to rest in the ICU of Methodist Dallas Medical Center, where he was treated for a few broken teeth. Unless you are paid to say otherwise, that accident put the best fight in boxing on ice (which isn’t to suggest it wasn’t cadaver-cool in the first place).
Terence Crawford, the other half of that would-be fight for welterweight supremacy returns to action at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, against WBO mandatory challenger Egidijus “Mean Machine” Kavaliauskas. The matchup appeals only as an opportunity to watch the most complete fighter on the planet. If that doesn’t quicken your pulse, you’d be wise not to miss the co-main where Richard Commey and Teofimo Lopez will pose questions of each other that a prizefight should answer. The main event will give some of those too, with Crawford in the role of Grand Inquisitor and Kavaliauskas crumbling under examination.
There is a compliment to Crawford in there somewhere. That Spence was the one fighter below junior-middleweight who might be favored over Crawford is the reason why most any other opponent for the Omaha, Nebraska fighter is a letdown. There are good fights to make for Crawford, sure, but Spence was a great one. And even the good ones are fraught with obstacles. Most would require Al Haymon’s consent. But he has little reason to sacrifice members of his stable to another promoter. Not only does he pocket more money keeping fights in-house, but he also stalls Crawford out. Evidence that Top Rank is interested in any of Haymon’s welterweights outside of Spence is short, and who knows when—if ever—Spence will return to world-class form. Talk of Crawford fighting Shawn Porter has picked up of late, but that feels like a typical bait and switch rumor, a well-timed distraction.
As the opponent pool evaporates, Crawford, 35-0 (26), is left waiting for junior-welterweights like Josh Taylor, Jose Ramirez, and Regis Prograis to move up. That could be an exercise in Kafkaesque absurdity. Given the kind of living the trio could make fighting each other, it could take years for them to risk a beating from Crawford. And years are not something a thirty-two-year-old without a signature win has to spare. For now, Crawford’s goal of becoming an undisputed champion in a second division is stalled. Because he can fight only who is available, he will suffer for challenges.
Is Kavaliauskas a challenge? Crawford suggests he is, citing Kavaliauskas’s extensive Olympic experience, his having “everything to gain and nothing to lose” as proof the Lithuanian is dangerous. Against limited opposition, Kavaliauskas, 21-0-1 (17), has mostly impressed. He mixes his punches well, goes to the body with both hands, and attacks hurt opponents with control (to better exploit their distress). There is a confidence about Kavaliauskas too, one becoming of a fighter with over four hundred amateur fights who hasn’t met a challenge he couldn’t solve since he abandoned his headgear (Kavaliauskas dismisses the lone blemish on his record, a draw with Ray Robinson in March, as an unpalatable helping of home cooking).
But if Kavaliauskas, 21-0-1(17), has nothing to lose, it’s because he hasn’t acquired anything—not a title or even a reputation of any significant value. The “everything” he stands to gain? It’s all Crawford’s, and nothing about “Bud” suggests a fighter with nothing to lose is going to catch him unprepared. “I know what I can do, I know what I’m capable of,” Crawford told Andre Ward in a recent interview, “So when I say I’m gonna fuck you up—I mean it.” Crawford is hardwired to hurt people and relishes the opportunity to do so. As long as the ring promises this primordial satisfaction, as long as his ego swells at the sight of an opponent left helpless, Crawford will sacrifice himself to that pursuit. True, it takes more than a preternatural mean streak to succeed in boxing; but, then, there’s more to Crawford than that, too. His overproof cocktail of technical brilliance and disdain is richly apportioned.
Crawford isn’t flawless, though. He can be touched in the early going, something Jeff Horn learned while getting butchered for his welterweight title. It stretches the truth to say Jose Benavidez Jr. had success against Crawford, but the very real problems he posed are mostly forgotten because of the spectacular way Crawford finally cut him down. Crawford’s technique has slackened some since his lightweight days, too. His footwork is freer, punches a little wider; though this could be the product of committing to the knockout more than ever. Crawford’s gone the distance only once—against Viktor Postol, whom he dropped twice—in his last ten fights. Might these imperfections encourage Kavaliauskas? Should they?
At his best, Kavaliauskas is an aggressive two-fisted attacker. More could be said of him were his competition better, but such competition might’ve cost him his title shot. What we don’t know about “Mean Machine” will probably prove immaterial. Crawford is the best fighter Kavaliauskas will ever face and probably by some margin. His knack for taking a half-step back and countering an opponent is peerless, and lethal against fighters who come forward, something Kavaliaskas will have to do. And if Kavaliauskas’s performance against the unremarkable Robinson is symptomatic of trouble with southpaws, Crawford will terrorize him. There could be opportunities, particularly early while Crawford is parsing Kavaliauskas, for the Lithuanian to put a collective fright into Omaha. But it takes world-class power to hurt Crawford, and Kavaliauskas hasn’t proven he has that yet.
If Kavaliauskas is world-class, if he is more than a mandatory challenger because the WBO kowtows to his promoter, more than just another victim for the pride of ESPN, Saturday night would be the time to show as much.
Even then, Crawford should exorcise the ghost from the machine.