…“Focus on your fight.”
That was Terence Crawford’s advice to Jose Benavidez Jr. when the two crossed paths in the Bank of America Center in Corpus Christi last February. According to Crawford, Benavidez confronted him that night, accused him of ducking a fight between the two, and promised to one day knock Crawford out. Unimpressed, Crawford suggested Benavidez focus on the fight awaiting him hours later, lest preoccupation with anyone other than the opponent he was contracted to fight carry a penalty. It was a warning too, that Benavidez would suffer more trouble than he could manage were he to escalate that conflict beyond the point Crawford could abide. There would be no penalty that night; their beef in the tunnel simmered and cooled and Benavidez went on to stop Matthew Strode in eight rounds.
Crawford offered that same advice to Benavidez last week at the open workout portion of the media day for Crawford-Benavidez. In a packed gym, which is to say, before an audience eager for some nugget of animosity to share, Crawford, smiling and shaking hands, strode to the ring Benavidez was training in to inject a little blood into the promotion. There, having provided a rather convenient and for Benavidez, as fiery and proud a fighter as you will find, unignorable distraction, Crawford repeated his advice. Yet however contrived this second encounter may have been (and please do not cite tickets sales for a hometown fighter from Nebraska as proof the promotion needn’t some enlivening), however staged the right hook Crawford would throw at Benavidez at the weigh-in days later, the animosity between the two was genuine. Again Crawford’s advice, like his insolent smile, was pregnant with threat, again that threat served as a warning. Benavidez had finally secured the fight he wanted—and with it, so said Crawford’s malevolent air, plenty he never wished for. Indeed, there would be a penalty this time.
That advice though? It seems Benavidez reckoned it. Because the version of him that slipped between the ropes in the CHI Health Center in Omaha Nebraska Saturday night was his best, with the fight he brought Crawford reflecting as much. We should make a point of recognizing that too. Because the problems Benavidez posed, the speed and timing he used to disrupt Crawford, the counter right hands he menaced, snapped and cracked into the best fighter he will ever face—all those manifestations of a smoldering defiance will surely be forgotten soon. Buried perhaps by Benavidez’ future accomplishments, but more likely under the tower of achievement Crawford is likely to build and by the memory of Crawford deboning Benavidez with a right uppercut to the jaw in the waning moments of the twelfth round. We should make a point of recognizing too, that, incredibly, Benavidez beat the count, and that for all Crawford’s finishing poison and panache when referee Celestino Ruiz rescued Benavidez with mere seconds left in the twelfth round, the Arizona fighter was on the ropes, not his back.
But he was cut down all the same, and however spirited, proud, effective his effort Saturday, it was eclipsed by Crawford’s brilliance. He has looked better, has Crawford, less vulnerable, less inaccurate, less unsure; and yet he was barely any of these once he parsed the bait-and-counter style before him. Of course, Crawford’s brilliance has been on display for years, and he was supposed to walk through Benavidez; that he took nearly twelve rounds to do so will provide some ammunition to Crawford’s critics—who tend to fixate if only because there is scant room for criticism elsewhere—primarily on perceived softness in Crawford’s ledger. Look long enough at any fighter’s record though, and you will, provided you wish to, find loose threads enough to unravel his accomplishments.
Besides, what is most charming about Crawford is not his skills, wonderful as they may be. No, what makes Crawford so rewarding to watch is what drove him to hunt Benavidez long after the fight’s outcome was inevitable. Although his jawing at Benavidez on media day was dismissed as contrived—ditto the weigh-in punch he intentionally whistled harmlessly off target—know that Crawford stopped Benavidez because the latter was owed a beating, and Crawford would find little satisfaction in squandering even that final sixty-second opportunity to deliver it.
There is something endearing about the twelfth-round knockout, its culminating quality, and that is especially so when a fighter who could, in the name of preservation, eschew the perils of aggression embraces them instead. Benavidez was breaking down, succumbing to a champion in the championship rounds, but he remained sharp, poised, and irreverent enough a threat that a fighter without Crawford’s constitution might have simply awaited wide victory. Not Crawford. And that is why we will forget Benavidez’ tiny victories (until perhaps the night when Crawford is first unmanned and the causal chain of explanation mines the flaws from his past).
Is it a stretch to wonder whether Crawford’s late destruction of Benavidez (and moments like it) isn’t also why we will soon forget the end of HBO boxing? It is telling though that so few (if any) of the words dedicated to the end of HBO boxing lament a rerouted future. But then, why would they? There is little arresting about the sight of an iconic production bus pulled over to offer the Jaime Munguia bandwagon a boost. Where we watch fights has changed, so too has how we watch them, but the reasons we watch remain the same. Crawford is one of those reasons. There are few stronger.