Historic moments in professional sports are often defined by the value of what’s at stake, which would already make Terence Crawford’s ninth-round TKO of fellow unbeaten Errol Spence Jr. in Saturday’s first four-belt undisputed welterweight title fight a monumental affair.
Add in the fact that the 35-year-old Crawford (40-0, 31 KOs) also became the first male boxer to capture the undisputed championship in two weight divisions since the four-belt era began in 1988 (joining women’s pound-for-pound queen Claressa Shields), and it only sweetens the pot as to how important this stunningly one-sided performance truly was.
Yet even those lofty accolades can’t do justice to how virtuoso and jaw-dropping Crawford’s performance actually was.
In a true 50/50 matchup on paper between two of the best and most accomplished boxers of the modern era, during the same week that four-division champion Naoya Inoue attempted to secure his stranglehold atop the sport’s pound-for-pound rankings, Crawford somehow found a way to have the last word.
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Crawford wasn’t just better than Spence (28-1, 22 KOs) on the defining night of their respective careers, he made a fellow all-time great look like he didn’t belong in the same ring. On a night designed to declare the clear-cut face of the post-Floyd Mayweather welterweight era that began with the five-division champion’s retirement in 2015, Crawford delivered the answer by creating an entirely new set of questions.
How would this version of Crawford compete with the welterweight primes of Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao? Or would he have been a problem for the “Four Kings” of the 1980s that competed between 147 and 160 pounds? And speaking of rising in weight, is Crawford now a threat to become a three-division undisputed champion if he can draw Jermell Charlo at 154 pounds? Or what about one day meeting at a catchweight with this decade’s best overall fighter Canelo Alvarez?
Crawford was so good against Spence that words like genius, sensation or wizard don’t begin to do it justice. Crawford didn’t win this fight with one perfect punch or, similar to Mayweather, leave his opponents frustrated from chasing for so long that it opened up opportunities to expose their weaknesses.
This was boxing’s equivalent to James Brown at the Apollo Theater or Elvis Presley on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” This was Miles Davis taking one long note and bending it with so much determination, skill and emotion that a transaction of art took place between Crawford and those who experienced this level of transcendence from ringside.
Crawford was part jazz soloist and part orchestra conductor as he opened the fight in the southpaw stance and never once allowed the hard-charging Spence to get out of first gear. Crawford not only took away the jab so effortlessly from Spence, he audited his every move.
Why would Crawford, known as the better technical boxer of the two coming in, need to rely on outslicking his toughest opponent to date when he could instead stand right in front of him and routinely deliver quick and powerful counter shots to score a trio of knockdowns while slowly beating the fight out of his world class foe? This wasn’t just comparable to modern thrashings in high profile bouts like Mayweather dismantling Diego Corrales in 2001 or Bernard Hopkins exposing Felix Trinidad the same calendar year, Crawford’s performance set an all-new standard for impressive in a fight this big.
If the eye test wasn’t enough, let’s take a closer look at the CompuBox statistics. Over nearly nine complete rounds, Crawford almost doubled Spence in terms of landed punches (185 to 96) yet it was his percentages of punches landed — including 50% of overall shots and an absurd 60% of power connects — that make his performance truly one of one in terms of historical comparisons.
The only way to properly compare what Crawford did on a stage so bright in the biggest boxing superfight in nearly a decade to team sports would be if a basketball player scored 75 points in an NBA Finals game or a quarterback tossed eight touchdown passes in the Super Bowl while carving up the second best team in the league.
So all of this begs the question: should we have seen this coming? The answer is more of a gray area than it is black and white.
Has Crawford, a three-division champion, shown us throughout this current 11-fight knockout streak that a performance even close to this was possible? Given his P4P ranking coming in and the critical respect boxing experts have for his overall skills, the answer is yes. Crawford was not only a slight betting favorite over Spence, many believed if either fighter could win this showdown in a wide fashion, it was more likely to be the native of Omaha, Nebraska.
All of that, however, doesn’t necessarily explain how a performance this sublime against such a dangerous opponent was even possible. Most of that comes down to the comparison of their resumes beginning with Crawford’s full-time move up to 147 pounds in 2018.
Not only did Crawford not have access to elite welterweights during his time when he was promoted by Top Rank, he fought just four times over the past four years. And, with the exception of his 2021 win over Shawn Porter, one of two common opponents he had with Spence, most of his victories came against second-tier fighters or former champions (Amir Khan, Kell Brook) who were well past their best days. Crawford was even knocked down surprisingly in a 2019 TKO win over Egidijus “Mean Machine” Kavaliauskas.
None of the matchmaking in recent years was Crawford’s fault, unless you took sides after the initial shot at making this fight in 2022 fell apart, leading to Crawford taking a one-off bout under the BLK Prime banner for lucrative money against the somewhat underwhelming David Avanesyan. Spence, meanwhile, over the same time period, defended his welterweight title six times while unifying three belts in all, including wins over elites like Porter, Mikey Garcia, Danny Garcia and Yordenis Ugas.
Yet there’s an old adage in boxing, similar to the idea that you are only as good as your last performance, that often times greatness can only properly be viewed through the prism of the quality of opponents you do it against. So the idea of Crawford somehow raising his game to an all-new level against a foe this durable and experienced among the welterweight elite, just didn’t seem likely.
That’s why fights aren’t won on paper, however. And that’s why the best actually fighting the best is the most crucial part of boxing’s sustained health in the mainstream sports world (and a major reason, thanks to fights like Inoue-Stephen Fulton Jr. and Gervonta Davis-Ryan Garcia, why 2023 has been such a special year for the sweet science).
It takes great opposition for a great fighter to raise his game to a level no one else has yet to see. And when it mattered most, Crawford was able to prove Saturday that even in the tail end of his absolute prime at 35, he has not yet finished painting the masterpiece of how great he can truly be.
Crawford told us he was this good, we just needed to see it. Needless to say, this is what greatness truly looks like.