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Andre Ward Is The Second-Best Fighter in the World

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Andre Ward Is The Second-Best Fighter in the World – Great boxing is relative to the beholder. Some enjoy exciting fighters like Manny Pacquiao, or give and take sluggers. Others take pleasure in watching pure boxers like Floyd Mayweather do their thing. There is no clear answer for pound for pound supremacy in boxing because unless the best fighters fight, the argument is an exercise in pure opinion. Yet the fundamental purpose for any boxer seeking victory is to hit and not get hit. Historically, thrilling, blood splattering type exchanges have not been a prerequisite for victory. In this sport, those that succeed at being hard to pin down with the greatest amount of skill typically win.

In that case, on Saturday, Carl Froch deserved no shame in losing to the second best fighter in the world. Moving directly behind Mayweather and ahead of Pacquiao, Marquez, or anyone else because of his ability to make damn-good opponents look ordinary, Andre Ward is the second best fighter in the world today. He is leading the next generation of fighters in boxing with class and intelligence in the ring.

During the unanimous decision victory over Froch for the 168 pound championship, ring announcer Antonio Tarver interestingly compared Ward’s fighting style to hall of fame fighter Pernell Whitaker.

Now, I have followed Ward for some time, probably more than most scribes, but never heard such a qualified judgment. Sweet Pea Whitaker was arguably the most gifted defensive fighter in the last fifty years. He slipped and counter-punched his way towards titles in multiple weight classes and pound for pound greatness from the 80s until the mid 1990s. The Whitaker comparison is a compliment to Ward’s ability to make us question his greatness.

At 25-0 with 13 knockouts, some say the 27 year-old Ward has little knockout power, while others praise his elusiveness in the ring, and there are those critics that reduce his accomplishments for various other reasons. Whitaker, a fighter who was never known for KO power, stopped only 17 opponents in 40 victories.  In a short span, Ward has followed a similar trajectory but holds a greater knockout percentage. His punches are potent, not powerful.

Ward has said, “Looking for a knockout is like chopping down a tree with a dull axe. I am a sharpshooter. My shots are like lasers. I’ll zap you. I pick and choose when to fire.”

Two things are clear after Ward’s win on Saturday over Froch. One, we watched one of the best fighters in the world make it look easy. Two, he has never been in a close fight as a professional. Think about that last point for a second. Not once has Ward had to squeak out a close decision, or have a come from behind victory. All of his fights have been one-sided, and more recently he’s handled the best the 168 pound division has to offer with ease.

If pound for pound is about dominance and advanced skill over strong competition then Andre Ward is only behind Floyd Mayweather in the mythical rankings.

Today, Manny Pacquiao, the generally recognized number two fighter in the world behind Floyd Mayweather, is not nearly as dominant as Ward at this point in his career. Pacquiao’s achievements, and moving up to 154 pounds from 130 in just 26 months are fantastic. But some of the fights had catch-weight agreements which arguably gave Manny an advantage on fight night, and his last seven opponents, De la Hoya, Hatton, Cotto, Clottey, Margarito, Mosley, and Marquez lost a fight within 26 months before they fought him. Coming off of a loss does not boost confidence. Besides,  many boxing media and fans think Pacquiao lost his last fight against Juan Manuel Marquez in November. Boxing is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ sport. Last month Pacquiao’s invincibility slipped.

Meanwhile, in a hotly contested tournament against elite champions, Ward controlled almost every round of his fights.

Ward and Hunter believe in skills above knockouts. Ward, like Whitaker, brought immense skill to the table.

“After he beats his opponent they are never the same and question themselves. They change their trainer, take time off, or lose a step,” Virgil Hunter told me that when Andre Ward was a 13-0 prospect. Long before his fighter was champion, long before Ward shocked Mikkel Kessler to become a super middle weight champion and more recently bewildered Carl Froch on Saturday night en route to the Super Six Tournament victory and super middleweight supremacy, Hunter spoke true.

Ward creates doubt for his opponents. “Nobody wins after they fight us. They lose,” said Hunter. Looking back at Ward’s last five notable opponents (Edison Miranda, Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green, Sakio Bika, and Arthur Abraham) they in fact have not been the same fighter after getting beat by S.O.G.

Miranda switched trainers twice and is 3-2 since Ward. Kessler got a new trainer and his career is on and off because of injury, Green found a new coach and lost by knockout to Glen Johnson, Bika beat a journeyman in his only fight after Ward, and Abraham left the 168 pound division. To Hunter’s point, Andre Ward has not been in a close fight as a professional. He wins – not with power, speed, defense, or quickness but with superior boxing skill.

I covered Ward’s quest for super middleweight supremacy from the beginning. Unexpected for most who follow the sport, there have not been many bumps along the way. The Super Six winner that started as a 5-2 underdog going into the tournament did not get much positive publicity from the media before the competition.

Then, focus was on his slow climb up the ranks instead of his undefeated record. Ward said the most media attention he received before the Super Six Tournament was after he tore the ACL in his left knee in 2008. Not exactly the interest an Olympic gold medalist comes to expect. In fact, Hunter said the knee did not fully heal until weeks before the Froch fight. The trainer said Ward generated power from one leg for more than three years. They needed to ice the knee constantly after training to keep it fresh.

Now all is good and he is healthy, just in time to prepare for the large target that has grown on his back. The Bay Area native has not lost a fight since he was nine years-old. Everyone in or around 168 pounds besides Bernard Hopkins, who Ward has always looked upon as a mentor, wants to break that undefeated streak. But who’s next?  Whoever it is must try to make it competitive first against the second best boxer in the world.

Follow Ray on Twitter @RayMarkarian

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Crawford Ends it Like a Champ

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This past weekend WBO welterweight titleholder Terence Crawford 34-0 (25) retained his title stopping Jose Benavidez 27-1 (18) in the 12th round. Crawford was cruising along dominating the fight from the sixth round on, then came out hard in the last round and went for the kill against a tiring Benavidez. It ended abruptly when Crawford jarred and dropped Benavidez with a right uppercut to the chin. Benavidez beat the count but was immediately overwhelmed by Crawford as soon as the fight resumed and it was halted.

Prior to the bout Crawford was considered the best pound for pound fighter in boxing by many. His performance against Benavidez more than likely further endorses that sentiment. Unless Benavidez being competitive during the first five rounds is enough to make some re-think their position? For those who weren’t aware, Benavidez was the fifth undefeated opponent Crawford has defeated in a title bout over three weight divisions and he’s now 12-0 (9) in world title bouts.

The Benavidez fight was Crawford’s first title defense since winning it from Jeff Horn this past June. And it started in typical Crawford fashion. For the first two rounds Crawford surveyed Benavidez (who may be the biggest and longest welterweight in the division) while Jose was looking to apply his physical advantages. Crawford fought from a conventional stance through the first round and then as it was winding down he reverted to fighting as a southpaw and stayed in that stance for the rest of the fight. In the second Crawford did a little of everything but was mostly trying to get a read on Benavidez’s long jab. He tried leading and countering both on the move and in flurries but wasn’t initially met with overwhelming success. Benavidez forced Crawford to work as Jose moved in from a slight crouch hoping to lure Crawford into going first, and he did. However, Crawford disrupted his plan by slamming him to the body.  In return, Jose also went to the body but the difference over the first five rounds was Crawford’s quicker hands and more imaginative offense.

By the time the sixth round rolled around, Benavidez, who initially showed up to win, was reduced to accepting that he can’t outfight Crawford. Thus, he was reduced to doing just enough to keep Crawford from brutalizing him and to save face. During the mid-rounds when Crawford was killing his body and then flurrying with right hooks to the head – the only thing Benavidez could offer back was a shrug of his shoulders. In other words Jose was trying to con the judges into thinking Crawford was fighting his rear off yet he couldn’t do any real damage. Muhammad Ali applied the same con job against Joe Frazier during their first fight, and like Frazier, Crawford ignored it and kept working the body and mixing things up.

By the eighth round, Benavidez was slowed to a walk and his punch output was reduced to just doing enough so Crawford couldn’t go at him with total impunity. However, that was about to change. Crawford raised the rent in the 10th round and started to plant more and forced Benavidez to retreat after whacking him with straight lefts and counter right hooks to both the head and body. The more Benavidez refused to engage and shrugged his shoulders trying to convince Terence he couldn’t hurt him – Crawford knew better and in turn stayed focused and kept going at Benavidez when he knew he really was done fighting and hoping to go the distance. The problem was the bad blood between them was something Crawford wouldn’t let go of nor was he about to show his thoroughly drained and beaten opponent any mercy….it’s not in Crawford’s DNA.

Finally, after a pretty spirited fight, and winning all but maybe two rounds going into the 12th, Crawford had Benavidez where he wanted him – and that was right in front of him, tired and defenseless with little punch or resistance left. It was obvious as the fight wore on Crawford wanted a stoppage victory and wouldn’t be happy until he separated himself from his lanky opponent and the only way to achieve that was by ending the fight inside the distance.

“It was coming,” Crawford said. “It was just a matter of time. He slowed down tremendously. He was tired. That’s when I seen my opportunity to take my uppercut shot. Every time I’ll feint, he would pull back. So I was like, ‘Now is not the time.’ But once he slowed down, I seen that I can catch him with it and then that’s what I did.”

Crawford met Benavidez, who attempted to stem the tide, at the start of the final round. Terence unloaded on Benavidez to the head and body, wasting few punches. Crawford worked with the intent to finish his younger and beaten opponent. Crawford landed a jarring right uppercut that had Benavidez go down, nearly in a half somersault. Once they resumed engaging, Crawford flurried and the bout was stopped with 18 seconds to go in the fight.

The showing was impressive on Crawford’s part because he was troubled early due to Benavidez’s size and somewhat unconventional style. Jose had his moments and found moderate success with his jab and a few right hands he landed when Crawford retreated sometimes moving back in a straight line with his hands low. But other than that the fight wasn’t close and the fact that Benavidez realized he couldn’t win by the fifth round, he did what he could to prevent Crawford from beating him up but not much else.

Due to the fight going almost the entire distance, some observers feel Crawford was underwhelming; I don’t. And the reason is, Benavidez is better than most thought and he is the bigger man and it was pronounced seeing them in the ring together. In beating his bigger foe Crawford emptied his toolbox. He boxed during the periods he was devising an attack strategy, he moved and forced Benavidez to use his legs and work…..and then countered when Jose tried to be assertive. Crawford’s body punching to both sides was impressive and truly paid dividends down the home stretch. And the right uppercut that dropped Benavidez shows that although Crawford isn’t a life-taker when it comes to power, he consistently lands clean shots that his opponents never see coming.

Crawford closed the fight like the champ he is and once again exhibited why he’s the most diverse and stylistically versatile fighter in boxing. He answered mostly all of Benavidez’s punches with his own which is a staple of his style. Terence showed he’s capable of fully concentrating while fighting mad and seems to have an answer for anything and everything he’s confronted with. Crawford has no real weakness other than him not being a big welterweight.

There isn’t one welterweight in the world on his level as a fighter and technician. For Errol Spence, Keith Thurman or Shawn Porter to beat him – they have only one option. They better hope and pray that their physicality along with the ability to apply it can be a game changer…because if they can’t overwhelm him physically, they’ll be picked apart and totally outfought and out-thought starting around the third or fourth round when they eventually meet.

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com

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Terence Crawford Has Conquered the World, and Now He’s Won Over Nebraska

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It was a day of even more anguish for Nebraskans, making for a night of even more exultation in a state where boxing – or, at least a particular boxer – is emerging as a hero and much-needed source of pride for citizens left wondering about the sorry state of the once-mighty Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Hours after those Cornhuskers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, blowing a 10-point lead in the final 5 minutes, 21 seconds to fall 34-31 in overtime at Northwestern and begin a college football season 0-6 for the first time in program history, WBO welterweight champion Terence “Bud” Crawford defended his title with panache and power, stopping previously undefeated challenger Jose Benavidez, Jr. in the 12th round to buttress his argument that he is the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. There are still pockets of resistance to his claim to that designation, of course, but none coming from the ESPN broadcast crew of Joe Tessitore, Timothy Bradley Jr. and Mark Kriegel, all of whom intermittently offered their opinion that the switch-hitting Omaha resident has now firmly established himself as best of the best.

The 31-year-old Crawford’s latest bravura performance was met with shouted hosannas of approval from the sellout crowd of 13,323 in Omaha’s CHI Health Center, a record for a boxing event in Nebraska, and a stark contrast to the burgeoning sense of panic among Cornhusker partisans, who have to be wondering who these impostors in the red-and-white uniforms are.

Crawford grew up in a poor section of Omaha as an avid Nebraska fan, and after his latest demonstration of nimble footwork, fast, accurate hands and surprising power you could hardly blame his fellow home-state citizens from wondering if he might be persuaded to enroll at NU and play quarterback for his floundering favorite team. The ability to finish strong, taking the fight even harder to Benavidez in the final round when the more prudent move might have been to simply run out the clock, stamps Crawford as the pugilistic equivalent of Tommie Frazier, the option master who led the Huskers to back-to-back national championships in 1994 and ’95. But even the legendary Frazier wasn’t perfect; he was 43-3 as a starter during his four-year college career. Crawford, now 34-0 with 25 wins inside the distance, has a vision of someday retiring undefeated, a goal that at this stage seems entirely reasonable.

Top Rank founder and CEO Bob Arum, Crawford’s promoter, cited the fighter’s 12th-round mugging of Benavidez, the key blow being a ripping right uppercut that he had hidden up his figurative sleeve like a card sharp’s ace, as proof that the three-division world champion is indeed separate and above the madding crowd.

“Most fighters today, in that position, having clearly won the fight, would back off in the 12th round, not take any chances and run out the clock,” Arum said. “Not him. He’s a performer. He wanted to close the show, and that’s what he did. That’s what makes him special. That is not the mindset most (other fighters) have. But Terence is a showman. He wants to make a statement.”

He especially wanted to make it, and as loudly as possible, against the mouthy Benavidez (27-1, 18 KOs), who has been talking smack about Crawford for months and gave him a hard shove at Friday’s weigh-in, which precipitated a retaliatory right hook from the champion. It missed, thankfully, but no matter. Crawford landed plenty of shots that did when it mattered, smoothly alternating, as always, from an orthodox stance to southpaw and back again.

“We just took our time today,” Crawford said, referring to himself in the plural rather than the singular, a nod toward his support team, most notably manager-trainer Brian McIntyre. “Everything that went on this week, he was trying to get in my head, wanting me to have a firefight with him. I knew if we got in a rhythm we could do whatever we wanted, and that’s what we did.

“He made me work in the early rounds. He was trying to counter me, working on my distance. I couldn’t figure it out at first. But once I got my distance, it was a rout from there.”

Maybe the rout evolved methodically and in a controlled fashion because that’s what Crawford, who had vowed to “punish” Benavidez for his impertinence, had in mind all along. He is a man of his word, and, also as he had vowed, he declined to touch gloves with Benavidez or to offer even a halfhearted hug after the final bell. No surprise there; like fellow Omaha native Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Fame pitcher, he regards all opponents as the enemy and thus off-limits to fraternization of any kind.

What about that kept-in-reserve uppercut, which sent Benavidez tumbling awkwardly to the canvas and in obvious distress?

“I’d been seeing it rounds and rounds ahead of time,” said Crawford, who is now 5-0 in Omaha and 6-0 in  Nebraska, counting a sole appearance in Lincoln. “I seen him pulling back,but then he stopped pulling back so I started leaning more and more because I was touching him to the body. Then I threw the shot, and it landed.”

For those with a need to crunch numbers, official scorecards through 11 completed rounds all had the overwhelming wagering choice – Crawford went off at minus-3,000, or a 1-to-30 favorite – winning big on the scorecards tallied by judges Levi Martinez (110-99), Robert Hecko (108-101) and Glenn Feldman (107-102). Punch statistics furnished by CompuBox also were conclusive if not necessarily off-the-charts, with Crawford landing 186 of 579, a decent but not overly so 32.1 percent, to 92 of 501 (18.4 percent) for the outclassed but game Benavidez. But boxing is basically  an art form, not math, and like all artists Crawford is more about aesthetic impression than raw data.

For his part, Benavidez, who had promised to “shock the world” by “exposing” Crawford, figured he had done as well, if not better, than most of Bud’s previous victims.

“I gave him a hell of a fight,” Benavidez reasoned. “But I got tired. Boxing, you know. I was pretty impressive. I wanted to give the fans a fight that they paid to come watch. I know he didn’t think I would be that good.

“I take nothing from him. He’s the best of the best for a reason. He’s a good fighter, you know? But I’m a good fighter, too. I had that fight close.”

In the co-featured bout, 21-year-old featherweight Shakur Stevenson (9-0, 5 KOs), a silver medalist at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, was much more dynamic than he had been in scoring a relatively pedestrian eight-round unanimous decision over Carlos Ruiz on Aug. 18 in Atlantic City, blasting out Romanian veteran Viorel Simion (21-3, 9 KOs) in one round. The southpaw Stevenson’s weapon of choice was the right hook, which he used to telling effect to floor Simion three times, prompting referee Curtis Thrasher to wave the bout off after an elapsed time of three minutes.

Simion, a 36-year-old Romanian whose previous losses were to former world champions Lee Selby and Scott Quigg, was penciled last in as a replacement for the injured Duarn Vuc, had never been stopped in his 12-year pro career and he looked askance at Thrasher, as if disbelieving that he would not be given the opportunity to fight his way out of trouble in the scheduled  10-rounder.  But, his legs still wobbly, he was not pleading a winnable case.

“My power was here tonight, and my speed,” said Stevenson, who claimed the vacant WBC Continental Americas 126-pound title. “Ain’t too much more that I can work on, but I’m going to keep staying sharp and get right back in the gym.”

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Close Early, Then All Crawford

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Terence “Bud” Crawford stopped Jose Benavidez, Jr at 2:42 of the 12th round. Benavidez came in with an unblemished record of 27-0. That run of success came to a screeching halt tonight. For the first half of the bout, Benavidez didn’t fight like the 20/1 underdog that the odds reflected in gaming shops across the globe. He made a good accounting for himself during the first six rounds, however the same can’t be said for the remainder of the fight, as Crawford dominated from the midway point on. It was the beginning of the end with Crawford landing a picture perfect uppercut that found it’s mark late in the final stanza. While Benavidez deserves credit for getting back to his feet, he only managed to prolong the inevitable for a handful of seconds more. Crawford goes to 34-0, with 25 by KO.

Story to follow.

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