Terence Crawford vs. Amir Khan preview/prediction: 'Bud' will be at his best

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports

Terence “Bud” Crawford is behind, badly. The WBO champion is the heir to a welterweight throne that is largely unbroken over the last 40 years. Sugar Ray Leonard reigned over the division, followed in short order by Oscar De La Hoya, who then ceded to Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Crawford has now accepted that mantle.

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And while all three were, like Crawford, elite talents with speed, power, defense and smarts, there is one obvious place where Crawford lacks in comparison to the legends who came before him:

The quality of opposition.

Leonard, De La Hoya and Mayweather each had what could be called a signature victory in roughly four years or less after turning pro.

Not even three full years into his pro career, Leonard stopped the 38-0-1 Wilfred Benitez on Nov. 30, 1979, to become the WBC welterweight champion. Benitez, one of the great defenders in the sport’s history, would go on to be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

On June 7, 1996, less than four years after turning pro, De La Hoya defeated the 96-1-1 Julio César Chávez to become the WBC super lightweight champion. Chávez is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and one of the 25 greatest fighters who ever lived.

Mayweather stopped the 38-1-1 Genaro Hernández on Oct. 3, 1998, eight days shy of two years since turning pro, to become the WBC super featherweight champion.

Crawford is like the other three in many ways. He’s got a diverse game and thinks it as well as anyone. He is a mean and brutal finisher, one of the best of his era and truly one of the best ever. He can fight orthodox and southpaw equally well, making him a nightmare for which opponents to prepare.

Terence Crawford and Amir Khan go head to head during a news conference. (Reuters)
Terence Crawford and Amir Khan go head to head during a news conference. (Reuters)

He stands now on the precipice of the biggest fight of the year, but it’s largely perceived that way because of marketing. Top Rank and the ESPN hype machine have been out in full force, noting that his pay-per-view fight with Amir “King” Khan on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York is the most significant of his career.

While that could be debated — Is it really a significant fight given Khan’s place in the division? — if we accept that premise on face value, what does it say about Crawford? He’s more than 11 years into his professional career, and he’s gone 34-0 with 25 knockouts. Yahoo Sports ranks him as the No. 1 pound-for-pound boxer in the game, just ahead of IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr. and unified lightweight champion Vasiliy Lomachenko.

But Crawford hasn’t done it against nearly the kind of opposition that the greats prior to him have done. By the time Leonard had 34 fights, he’d fought Roberto Duran twice and Thomas Hearns and Benitez once apiece. Fight No. 35 was against “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, who ranks just a bit higher than Khan.

At 34 fights, De La Hoya had fought Chávez twice, Shane Mosley, Arturo Gatti, Félix Trinidad, Pernell Whitaker, Héctor Camacho and Hernández. Chávez, Gatti, Trinidad, Whitaker and Camacho are all in the Hall of Fame.

By 34 fights, Mayweather had fought José Luis Castillo twice, as well as Gatti, Diego Corrales, Hernández, Jesus Chávez and Sharmba Mitchell.

Crawford hasn’t come close to that level of opposition during his run to the top. And though the welterweight division is boxing’s best, with Spence, Manny Pacquiao, Keith Thurman, Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia all active, Crawford hasn’t gotten near any of them.

It’s not his fault, but more the divisions within the sport. Talk to him for any length of time and you’ll be convinced of his desire to face Spence, Pacquiao et al.

What all this conspires to do is to make looking like a star more critical against Khan than it otherwise would be.

Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe, who is promoting a Garcia-Adrian Granados fight on Saturday in Carson, California, that will be broadcast live on Fox, told Yahoo Sports that he didn’t hear a public cry for Spence-Crawford.

And while Ellerbe vigorously denied reported plans that would have Spence fight Porter and Thurman face Pacquiao in their next bouts, he said he was aware of plans by Premier Boxing Champions founder Al Haymon to pit his welterweights against one another.

Thus, Crawford is in against Khan, who is 0-3 in his last three world title fights and has been knocked out twice.

Khan is 32 and still retains quick hands and good though not great power. It is no doubt a defensible fight for Crawford to take, but the disappointment lies in the fact that it is his biggest match at this stage, 11 years and 34 fights into his career.

His hand speed can cause Crawford problems, but Crawford is a master of timing. He’s also brilliant at not only taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes, but also forcing errors with his own tactics.

Khan hasn’t had a knockout in a world title fight since he KO’d Zab Judah in July 2011, so that would suggest that Crawford, with a famously strong chin and brilliant survival tools, isn’t in much danger of being stopped.

The result of the fight may hinge on Khan’s ability to simplify his game and avoid mistakes. Khan has to rely on a jab, and step into it and not just flick it at Crawford. A fast start would be helpful, because Crawford is a notoriously slow starter. He is willing to take a couple of rounds to get a feel for his opponent and to set his traps. Khan needs to win those rounds if Crawford is willing to cede them.

Canelo Alvarez (L) watches after knocking out Amir Khan during their WBC middleweight title fight on May 7, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo)
Canelo Alvarez (L) watches after knocking out Amir Khan during their WBC middleweight title fight on May 7, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo)

Not much can be made of Khan’s knockout by Canelo Alvarez, because it was clear the moment the fight was made that it was a size mismatch. Alvarez is a terrific boxer and is far bigger and stronger than Khan, and so there was little doubt in that fight that Alvarez would eventually figure him out and catch him.

But Khan must avoid the mistakes that have led to him being hurt badly. He can’t allow the fight to turn into a shootout, because he’ll be outgunned by Crawford. He needs to control the pace and try to force Crawford to lead.

Crawford is one of the smartest fighters in the game, as well as one of the most physically gifted. Khan often gets overextended, which is when he gets into trouble, and Crawford knows how to put fighters into that spot.

This is a statement fight for Crawford, and he’s going to be at his best. He’ll show Khan multiple looks and keep him guessing, both in terms of which stance he’ll fight out of and the distance he competes at.

Look for Crawford to put in a lot of work to the body, before moving his efforts upstairs.

Expect Crawford to land something big around the fifth round, when the tide of the fight will shift big-time his way. I predict he ends it in the seventh with a brutal and violent finish of an overmatched opponent.

And when he does, the search will begin anew for an opponent who could give him a legitimate challenge.

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