Plenty laughed in November, malicious little chortles at a rare moment of weakness from a fighter who seemed without any. Terence Crawford heard them. They questioned his nerve, his heart, and through that jaundiced lens, his manhood, the legitimacy of all he had earned. Crawford heard that too. They laughed at his work beyond the ropes—work best left to managers, promoters, and their lawyers. And for good reason: he failed utterly and embarrassingly in that endeavor. When the first negotiations between Crawford and Errol Spence were stillborn, Crawford had to shoulder the blame. They laughed at him for that while talking about strap season, big fish, and bigger ducks, laughed at the footage of Crawford struggling to explain how he might, with more than a signature, consummate the only welterweight fight that has mattered for years. Crawford heard them.
He learned his lesson, no doubt a bitter one for showing him what he could not do and what entertainment others might derive from that. But Crawford, who does not suffer mockery, knew there would be further lessons. Saturday, at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Crawford finally faced Spence for the undisputed welterweight championship and for nine masterful rounds delivered a lesson in butchery.
Are those people laughing now?
(That is a rhetorical question, of course, posed for dramatic effect. Here is another one: Who is the greatest American fighter since Floyd Mayweather Jr.?)
There was a chance Crawford’s vaunted versatility, his ability to fight coming and going could undo him against Spence. Stepping to “The Truth” meant engaging him while backing up would allow Spence a headstart in building the momentum he’d used to grind up the rest of the division. That potential depended on a relatively even matchup, however: it represented a stylistic risk that, over twelve close rounds, might figure just enough to separate one fighter from the other. On Saturday, it mattered not at all. Because Spence, an excellent fighter, encountered a great one.
That excellent fighter was himself early, backing Crawford to the ropes behind his jab, ripping a few long lefts to the body, forcing a pace that Crawford seemed reluctant to accept. But with few exceptions, what you get from Crawford he gives you: your success is secretly the outlay of your destruction. Spence took the first round in a manner befitting his demeanor and intent. However, a counter right hook from Crawford near round’s end portended something evil.
Crawford, 40-0 (31), acknowledged that Spence’s jab was a focus in training camp, and the first round seemed to confirm its threat. So in the second, Crawford took that jab away, countering it with a 2-1 that sent Spence to the canvas. It brought to mind Yordenis Ugas slugging Spence’s mouthpiece loose. That night, before Spence could celebrate another title-winning victory, trainer Derrick James reminded him that he would have to be more focused in the future. The fighter insinuated in this warning was obvious: Crawford would punish Spence for mistakes in a way Ugas could not.
And here was Crawford doing just that. Oh, Spence continued to throw his jab; he fights but one way: applying a style with increasing intensity until the man across from him is in retreat or incapacitated. But Crawford would be neither. Instead, he stepped forward behind a jab that broke Spence’s rhythm and bloodied his face.
The left hook that Spence hurt Crawford with in the third round, the body punches that had Crawford on the move early—“Bud” took both of those away too. Little adjustments of hand and elbow explained part of this negation, as did a tighter guard from which to unleash his disassembling counters. The most striking revelation, however—beyond the chasm in class separating the two best welterweights in the world—was one Crawford yelled at HBO ringside analyst Andre Ward years ago. Leaning over the ropes after manhandling Jeff Horn, Crawford laughed off concerns about his strength in his third division—“I told ‘em, Dre! I told ‘em!”
Crawford has matured into the division. If there was a weakened fighter of the two, it was Spence, who curiously announced his upcoming move to junior middleweight prior to the fight. That smacks of an excuse, but Spence was too gracious in defeat to offer anything but respect for his conqueror, so let us take his comment as but one more proof that the division belongs to Crawford and Crawford alone. The sport might too, though Naoya Inoue has plenty to say about that.
It was a complete performance from the most complete fighter in boxing. But it was not a signature one. Nowhere during that domination did Crawford indulge in the sadism that makes personal the surgical application of his skills. Perhaps his respect for Spence, 28-1 (22), tempered his cruelty; at the end of the seventh round, after Spence twice hit the canvas, Crawford even touched gloves with his wilting opponent as if to compliment his toughness. And before he could indulge fully in the jubilation of his signature win, Crawford sought out Spence to thank and praise him. It was a rare emotional night for Crawford, a performance of supreme violence that resolved into quiet gratitude.
During his post-fight interview, Jim Gray directed Crawford’s attention to a nearby monitor where the two could “go through all the knockdowns.” The knockdown in the second that changed the geography of the fight, the pair of knockdowns in the seventh that signaled the onset of an inevitability, the assault in the ninth that drove referee Harvey Dock to save Spence when James wouldn’t—to see how quickly and definitively Crawford unmade Spence, to see years of anticipation satisfied in a handful of well-curated seconds—this was a surreal moment born of a sublime performance. All you could do was laugh.