There are people not yet sold on Terence Crawford. They must’ve been smiling in the second round on Saturday night, when the first meaningful punch of ESPN’s main event crashed into Crawford’s jaw, smiling when a hook and overhand right followed seconds later. Imagine their smiles in the third, when a right hand clipped Crawford, took his legs, sent him to the canvas for what would’ve been a knockdown had Crawford a history of vulnerability.
And who was troubling Crawford? Lowly mandatory challenger Egidijus Kavaliauskas, next man up in the mostly unremarkable stream of opponents Crawford’s pasted to titles real and fantastical. What’s worse, Kavaliauskas wasn’t fighting Crawford: he was letting the overzealous “Bud” self-sabotage. One of the smartest fighters in the game baited into his undoing by an opponent whose name even his publicist spells slowly. Crawford might recover from a loss to Kavaliauskas, but the humiliation of that defeat? He would never be allowed to put that behind him.
Such is the risk so many of the best current fighters run. A loss may not be defining, but it comes close if you’re short on signature wins, and you needn’t too many such wins to be anointed a star. Fragile stardom; Crawford isn’t alone in having it, but he might—rather unfairly—lose it easier than most. Packaged as one of the best fighters in the world, he had no business struggling with Kavaliauskas. Crawford’s lightweight title, the one he won overseas, his undisputed dominance at junior-welterweight—if Kavaliauskas had his hand raised— those achievements would’ve been picked clean by the vultures sniffing carrion in Crawford’s ledger. That’s not hyperbole, either. Ask Anthony Joshua what damage a bad loss can do.
Crawford didn’t lose, though. Because Crawford is a champion. And he ended the fight as a champion should: by overcoming his early struggles and slaughtering Kavaliauskas in nine rounds. In doing so, Crawford gave the crowd at Madison Square Garden a little of the unexpected and all of what they came for. He said the unexpected was intentional, that his early trouble was the result of making a fight the audience would enjoy. If you believe that, you likely believed Roy Jones when he cited a lack of motivation as the reason Antonio Tarver nearly knocked him out of the ring. Crawford denied being hurt, too—but then, what fighter like him wouldn’t?
There is at least as much pride as there is truth in his words and a little embarrassment, too. Whether it was because he courted a brawl, expected a lesser opponent than the one he got, or because he’s slipped a little for lack live fire, Crawford started the fight sloppily and paid for it. Instead of engaging, Kavaliauskas let a reckless Crawford overextend and taxed him with counters. His protest aside, Crawford was hurt, too. Evidence for that came not only in that would-be knockdown but in the beating Crawford administered in return. That was payback, and payback is always in retaliation.
That the night wasn’t going to plan was evident in the commentary. Crawford’s proclivity for switching stances was mentioned repeatedly despite Crawford’s fighting the first half of the fight southpaw. Why highlight a skill set Crawford wasn’t using? Because he had been a bit of a disappointment. The list of fighters shaken by Kavaliauskas, 21-1-1 (17), should not include one of Crawford’s class. Andre Ward, once a nasty fighter himself, suggested Crawford, aware of his early gaffe, remained southpaw to deny Kavaliausks the satisfaction of precipitating a change.
Such spitefulness is something Ward can appreciate. Thankfully, Crawford would do him one better. He doubled down on his pressure in the middle rounds, hurting Kavaliauskas from the southpaw stance before switching to orthodox in the seventh and dropping “Mean Machine” with an overhand right. Unable to finish Kavaliauskas before the round ended, Crawford scowled and shook his head at his glassy-eyed opponent before storming to his corner. Having shown he could hurt Kavaliauskas from both stances, Crawford upped the intimacy of his attack, crowded his overwhelmed opponent, and broke him down behind a high guard. It was not enough to punish Kavliauskas for his impertinence—Crawford was thumbing his way through a sort of torturous Kama Sutra, applying the techniques that brought him the most pleasure.
Crawford lurked across the blue canvas, a great white shark returning to the prey he’d left to bleed out. In the ninth, he spilled Kavaliauskas with a right uppercut before putting him down for good with a right hook. Beaten physically and mentally, Kavaliauskas could only shake his head.
So Crawford, 36-0 (27), did to Kavaliauskas what he was supposed to do, and he’ll get very little credit for it from his critics. Whether their valuation is fair will depend in part on what comes of Kavaliauskas. But how Crawford won should matter regardless. In that protracted execution, Crawford proved himself world-class; there is simply too much variety, intelligence, and talent in Crawford’s game for him to be a fraud. There is a fire there, too, the kind Floyd Mayweather Jr. showed in dominating Shane Mosley within seconds of Mosley wobbling him, but also the kind of fire that regards decisions as defeats. That does not make Crawford perfect, as Kavaliauskas showed. But there’s a reason Freddie Roach openly and unabashedly kept Manny Pacquiao away from Crawford. There’s a reason why Top Rank is going to have to overpay to get Crawford the opponents he needs, the Premier Boxing Chemicals required to accelerate the curing of his legacy.
Because while Crawford is one loss away from merciless revision, he’s also two or three quality wins from being unassailable. If the possibility of his never getting a crack at those wins makes you smile, boxing isn’t for you.