Why it's so lonely at the top for pound-for-pound king Terence Crawford

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Terence Crawford is unbeaten in 34 professional fights, but hasn’t faced the type of elite opposition other fighters of his caliber dealt with in their Hall of Fame careers. (Getty Images)
Terence Crawford is unbeaten in 34 professional fights, but hasn’t faced the type of elite opposition other fighters of his caliber dealt with in their Hall of Fame careers. (Getty Images)

In a little over a week, Manny Pacquiao will fight in the U.S. for the first time in more than two years when he faces Adrien Broner in Las Vegas for the WBA regular welterweight title.

Pacquiao would have been a great opponent for WBO welterweight Terence Crawford, Yahoo Sports’ pick as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

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For that matter, Broner would have made for a good match with Crawford, who is expected to fight Amir Khan in a pay-per-view bout in the spring.

The welterweight division is one of the deepest and most entertaining in boxing, and yet Crawford and promoter Top Rank haven’t come close to making a match for him that would thrill the masses.

It’s a none-too-subtle reminder that for all of the good things happening in boxing, the walls that have been erected between promoters is going to keep it from ever being close to what it could be.

Top Rank president Todd duBoef has changed the game for the better in so many ways over the last two-and-a-half years. It was his vision of how boxing should be presented that led to the broadcast deal with ESPN. ESPN is providing mainstream access for a sport which has lacked it in the past.

It’s also treating boxing as more than an afterthought, which is how it has been treated by TV for much of the past half-century. There is a commitment at ESPN to broadcasting boxing as a major professional sport no different than the NFL or NBA, and much of that is a result of duBoef’s work.

So far, though, duBoef hasn’t been able to break down the garden walls that keep the best fighters on opposite sides and unable to get into the ring and prove who is the best.

A Crawford-Pacquiao fight would do massive business on pay-per-view, but it’s not feasible because Pacquiao opted to sign a deal with the Premier Boxing Champions. It was an astute move coordinated by Joe Ramos, the CEO of MP Promotions; Sean Gibbons, its matchmaker; and Pacquiao attorney Tom Falgui.

With the PBC, Pacquiao has an opponent list that includes Broner, IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence, WBA champion Keith Thurman, WBC champion Shawn Porter; ex-WBC champion Danny Garcia; two-division champion Mikey Garcia and the granddaddy of them all, Floyd Mayweather.

If there is a knock against Crawford, it’s that he hasn’t had the kind of elite opposition that superstars have routinely faced in the past. Crawford is 34-0 in a pro career that began in 2008 and the most significant opponent he’s faced has been Viktor Postol.

By the time the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard had 34 pro fights, he’d fought Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Wilfred Benitez, all Hall of Famers.

If, as expected, the fight is finalized, Khan will instantly become Crawford’s best opponent. And that’s a sad thing in a division laden with so much talent, given that Khan is a notch below the fighters on the PBC side of the wall.

This isn’t to say that Crawford is ducking anyone, because he is most definitely not doing that. But it’s incumbent upon duBoef and Crawford’s management team to break through this morass to show Crawford’s greatness.

Leonard became great because of his performances against Duran and Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. He fought some of the best fighters who ever lived and more often than not, came out on top.

We suspect that Crawford is similarly talented, but you can’t gather that by fighting the opponents on B Street.

DuBoef used an example from early in Mayweather’s career to defend the opponents Crawford has faced to this point.

“It’s the riddle with everybody, right,” duBoef said when asked of the challenge of finding opponents with name recognition who can move the needle from a business standpoint and who are talented enough to compete with Crawford.

“You talked about Mayweather’s greatness when he was fighting guys like Carlos Hernandez and Victoriano Sosa. You have to get guys. You put him in fights to keep him busy and developing his skills and you look for those cornerstone fights that develop more organically, where somebody comes out of the pack. Terence has proven to be a brilliant fighter at lightweight, at super lightweight and now at welterweight and we’re going to line up the biggest and the best fights for him.”

Part of duBoef’s strategy is to try to build opponents for his stars and he wants to use ESPN’s muscle to do it. The problem is that the clock is always ticking. Crawford is 31 and there is a defined window for him. If that opponent is not, as looks increasingly and disappointingly likely, going to be from the PBC group of Mayweather-Pacquiao-Spence-Thurman-Garcia-Porter, then Top Rank needs to quickly get on it.

Manny Pacquiao fought Erik Morales three times in his legendary career. (Getty Images)
Manny Pacquiao fought Erik Morales three times in his legendary career. (Getty Images)

Top Rank promoted Pacquiao as he developed into a superstar, and it was blessed with elite talent in its stable to pair him with as he was rising. Pacquiao fought three times against Hall of Famer Erik Morales and twice against Hall of Famer Marco Antonio Barrera. He also had four fights with the great Juan Manuel Marquez, who no doubt will be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame on the first day he becomes eligible.

As Pacquiao rose in weight, there were even more stars available to him, even if it took an agonizingly long time to put him in with Mayweather. He fought Hall of Famer Oscar De La Hoya in 2008 and followed up with a win over future Hall of Famer Miguel Cotto in 2009.

Unless Top Rank somehow finds a way to make nice with the PBC and get Crawford into that mix of fighters, it looks like he’ll go his entire career without the kind of defining bouts that Pacquiao had.

Top Rank made a bid to keep Pacquiao last year, but Pacquiao opted to go to the PBC. DuBoef and Top Rank chairman Bob Arum flew to the Philippines last year to pitch Pacquiao on a fight with Crawford.

“When Pacquiao made it clear to us that he wouldn’t fight Crawford, had no interest in fighting him, we had to go out there and look at other options,” duBoef said.

Pacquiao, though, disputes duBoef’s version of events. In an interview with Yahoo Sports, the Filipino senator denied turning down a fight with Crawford.

“That’s not true,” Pacquiao said. “I would fight anybody, even in the heavyweight division.”

If Pacquiao defeats Broner on Jan. 19, he’ll fight again in either May or July. Mayweather is a possibility, but so is the winner of the March 16 bout between Spence and Mikey Garcia. Thurman, who fights Josesito Lopez on Jan. 26, would be in that mix.

If Crawford fights and then defeats Khan as expected, his future is considerably more muddied. Would it be Top Rank prospect Egidijus Kavaliauskas, who is 21-0 with 17 KOs but has yet to meet a notable opponent? Perhaps, but Kavaliauskas is 30, a virtual unknown beyond the hardest of hardcore fight fans and doesn’t provide the sizzle that many of the PBC fighters could.

Crawford is a brilliant champion and the public is being cheated by not getting to see him pushed to his limits.

Boxing is in a great place in many ways, but the barriers that have prevented so many big fights in the past have not yet coming tumbling down.

It’s up to duBoef to find a way through that or Crawford’s brilliance will go to waste in a mire of mediocrity.

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