WBO welterweight titleholder Terence Crawford, 34-0 (25), will be watched closely for several reasons this weekend when he makes the second title defense against former junior welterweight titlist Amir Kahn, 33-4 (20). Most notably, his perceived welterweight rival, IBF titleholder Errol Spence, dominated undefeated Mikey Garcia last month, and his rival lightweight titlist, Vasyl Lomachenko, may have fought the best fight of his career last weekend stopping Anthony Crolla in the fourth round.
Crawford, thirty-one, and 12-0 (10) in title bouts, is arguably the second-best fighter in boxing and some rank him as the best. Khan, thirty-two, and 6-3 (2) in title bouts, is an exceptionally quick-handed fighter who can put his punches together in combination terrifically. And for a few years he was in the running for high-profile fights against Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, with many respected observers thinking he matched up well with them stylistically because of his speed. But he was never able to get the fight.
In the run-up to this fight, Khan has said repeatedly that he is the best opponent Crawford will have faced. It’s a statement that’s hard to refute. On the other hand, Crawford represents the most complete and stylistically diverse fighter Khan will have faced. Khan’s two best opponents at welterweight, Devon Alexander and Chris Algieri, both went the distance with him and weren’t on Crawford’s level. And many of Khan’s flaws were revealed in both bouts and most significantly against Algieri. The other opponent of Khan’s who ranks as one of his best is Canelo Alvarez. The only issue with that is, Canelo fought with an apathetic mindset because he believed that, because of his power and strength, he would catch and finish Khan eventually. Crawford has nothing in common with Canelo in the ring when it comes to how they win fights. Crawford studies his opponent for a few rounds first and then begins to pick them apart piece by piece until he sees that it’s time to go in for the finish. Instead of blowing through opponents, he beats them by a wider margin as the fight progresses and presents them with a muddled picture continually.
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Most big fights require more in-depth analysis, but not Crawford–Khan. There’s no need to bore you with the fancy vernacular that’s in fashion today, such as changing levels—like some YouTube professors use—or pointing out front-foot dominance like Timothy Bradley did during last weekend’s Lomachenko–Crolla bout.
Both Crawford and Khan are athletically gifted and fast. The difference between them is their fighting acumen, and it’s hard to find two world-class fighters who are so opposite from the neck up. Crawford has a doctoral degree, while Khan seems to have never studied after breezing through college, which in his case were the Olympics.
Starting with Khan, the truth is that he makes too many basic mistakes to do more than compete with Crawford for a while. Khan usually just lets his hands go without rhyme or reason and seems to do so because he’s hoping to create something with which he can plot his next move—but Crawford is the wrong guy to freelance and wing it against. And because he’s concerned with what’s going to come back at him, Khan punches from too far out. This is based on his being concerned with getting out as much as he is with landing his own punches flush (because he’s been stopped three times). He also goes straight back when he retreats and Crawford can step in to answer faster than Khan can step away. And most fatal for Khan is that he tends to fight with his head up in the air and seldom tucks his chin, which is one of the reasons he’s been knocked out in big fights.
Some analysts have chastised Khan for stepping with his punches—but they’re wrong. That’s what most fighters are taught to do. The problem is, Khan does it incorrectly and his technique is too pronounced and more easily countered, which leads to him getting hit cleanly, and which exposes another flaw in Khan’s game: he doesn’t react or respond well to getting hit due to his low boxing aptitude. He either freezes in front of his opponent, or he panics in the heat of battle and throws the wrong shot looking to counter and disrupt his opponents surge, leaving him open for a big counter to his telegraphed counter.
One thing Khan has shown that has been rare is that when he is facing a fighter he feels he can’t overpower or muscle his concentration is at its highest and he suffers fewer momentary lapses. That was evident during his bout with Canelo. The problem was that Canelo picked it up and forced him to panic and abandon the sound boxing he showed early on. But that won’t happen against Crawford for two reasons. First, Crawford doesn’t push the fight from the start but instead observes and processes what’s taking place. And second, and maybe even more important, is how much Khan has said he’s the bigger, stronger fighter and the more legitimate welterweight between them. These words have put Khan in a bind, however, because if he doesn’t fight Crawford aggressively he’ll be sending the message that he has some doubt—and if that happens, Crawford will go at him and feint and maneuver Khan into making mistakes and choosing the wrong time to fight his way out.
Sure, it can be argued that the skill level between Crawford and Khan is close. Freddie Roach, who trained Khan for several fights, said the following recently: “He has all the skill in the world and he has a lot of speed, but at some point he will go for the knockout; and when he does that, he gets himself in harm’s way and knocked out.”
In other words, Roach is saying Khan seldom fights to his strengths and often goes away from what needs to be done to win a particular fight.
If these two fighters were race cars, they’d be close in specifications and horsepower with the difference being one is driven by a NASCAR champion (Crawford) and the other a skilled weekend racer (Khan) who has never qualified for the circuit. Bud has no stylistic weaknesses and, as Bruce Lee said, he’s like water capable of forming and adjusting to whatever he’s confronted with. Crawford can do everything a fighter can be asked to do in a boxing ring. His fundamentals are very good, he knows what he is good at, and above all he has a great boxing mind. This leads him to know what punch or punches to throw at the exact right time. And if that scenario changes, he does too—he feints, he sticks, he probes, he pivots, he tantalizes and baits, and he can fight orthodox or equally effectively as a southpaw.
Crawford isn’t the defensive master Floyd Mayweather was, but there’s a reason for that: he’s more diverse offensively from both sides leading, and he usually seeks the highlight-reel finish versus winning by lopsided decision. Everything Crawford does has a purpose and there’s never any wasted movement or gyration. And perhaps his key strength is that he doesn’t enter fights with a specific plan—other than surveying what his opponents like and don’t like—and then he force feeds them what they don’t like once he’s locked in.
On paper Crawford and Khan could be viewed as equals. The difference is that Crawford fights with heightened concentration and sees everything—whether it’s on offense or defense. His boxing aptitude is off the charts and he has the strength, power, and technique to execute what his mind tells him. There’s nothing Amir Khan can do strategically or physically, then, that will confuse or throw Crawford off.
Perhaps Khan can remain focused and resist the temptation to fight Crawford? It’s highly unlikely Crawford will allow that, knowing that Khan is capable of boxing with him if Khan remains mistake-free. What’s more, that’ll trigger Crawford to turn up the pressure and prevent Khan to gain a false sense of confidence, if even for a moment.
The only thing that might happen during the bout is that Khan’s hand-speed advantage, combined with Crawford’s willingness to study his opponent for a few rounds, will make Khan look good early. It could give his backers some false hope before the reality that the two fighters are in different leagues becomes obvious.
A final thought about Crawford: he’s a cold assassin. Mostly quiet and reserved on the outside, on the inside he’s a mean guy who thrives on proving his opponents and pundits wrong. He takes in all the bad things people say about him much like Michael Jordan did, and he uses it as motivation. Crawford has noticed that Khan has mocked his opposition, size, power, and boxing ability. And that’s ideal motivation for Crawford even though the odds favor him 10-1.
In this case it is doubtful Crawford will be satisfied simply getting the win (which Crawford would probably view as a loss). For this fight, then, satisfaction for Crawford probably means the complete destruction and embarrassment of Khan—and if that opportunity is presented, Crawford won’t let him off the hook.