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Terence Crawford Hopes to Embellish His Case for No. 1 on Oct. 13 on ESPN

Bernard Fernandez

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Upon the conclusion of the College Football Playoff championship game on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif., one thing you won’t see is the losing team excitedly running around the Levi’s Stadium field, smiling players and coaches on the wrong side of the score thrusting a pair of fingers skyward and shouting, “We’re No. 2!”

Maybe even more so than in team sports, boxing isn’t big on the horseshoes-and-hand grenades premise that getting close sometimes is good enough. Going home with the consolation prize is never good enough for Super Bowl and World Series runners-up, and it damn sure isn’t enough for elite, championship-level fighters who don’t have to share the glory of victory, or the disappointment of defeat, with teammates. While promoters, managers and trainers provide a measure of group support, in the ring every fighter succeeds or falters on his own. The boxer on fight night, stripped down to shoes, trunks and padded gloves, is as nearly naked and isolated as any athlete can be.

WBO welterweight champion Terence Crawford (33-0, 24 KOs) defends his title against that sanctioning body’s 14th-ranked contender, Jose Benavidez Jr. (27-0, 18 KOs), in the ESPN-televised main event on Oct. 13 at the CHI Health Center in Crawford’s hometown of Omaha, Neb. It isn’t exactly a mismatch on the level of, say, Christians vs. lions in the Roman Colosseum, but it would be quite the stunner if the challenger were to upset someone who is regarded in some quarters (but not as many as he would like) as the finest pound-for-pound fighter in the world, and by most everyone else as a highly qualified aspirant to that designation.

Crawford is 30, still in the most productive phase of his prime, and although he saying all the right things – he is focusing solely on Benavidez, yada, yada, yada – there is a part of him that realizes he is and likely will continue to be embroiled in an ongoing quest with Top Rank stablemate Vasiliy Lomachenko for recognition of a higher sort than some alphabet organization’s bejeweled belt. He staunchly believes he is A-No. 1, king of the hill, top of the heap, and summarily dismissing the more than competent Benavidez is not apt to move the needle much toward his universal acceptance as the best of the best.

When the matchup with Benavidez was announced, Crawford said the intramural rivalry with Lomachenko, which is not apt to ever be settled inside the ropes, given their weight differences (Loma, the WBA lightweight champ, already has moved up two divisions and might not have the frame to go much higher), is only a figment of other people’s imagination.

“I am the best fighter in the world, hands down. If I have a vote, I vote for myself,” Crawford said with the finality of someone who is cocksure of his own ability and brooks no dissent.

During a conference call with the media on Thursday to discuss his first defense of the 147-pound title he gained with an almost perfunctory ninth-round stoppage of Australia’s Jeff Horn on June 9, Crawford did little to camouflage his feelings about the matter, even if he did sort of dance around it a bit in a nod toward false modesty and political correctness.

Asked about who should be the consensus pick for that coveted No. 1 spot, Crawford said, “It depends on who you ask. Some people rate me No. 1, some people rate me No. 2. I can’t complain if I’m in the top two in almost everybody’s ratings.”

From the perspective of Top Rank executives, however, the polls have closed and fight fans should pledge fealty to the company’s preferred candidate, Crawford, to assume the role previously held by such legendary pound-for-pound monarchs as Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Roy Jones Jr.

“Terence `Bud’ Crawford is the world’s best boxer,” Top Rank founder and CEO Bob Arum, who was not on the conference call, said some weeks back, a reversal of his previous endorsement of Ukrainian sensation as numero uno.

Top Rank president Todd duBoef, who was on the conference call, also cast his ballot for the Omaha, Neb., fighter, whom he described as “the gold standard in boxing” who has “just electrified everybody with both boxing skill and power. When Terence Crawford gets in the ring, it’s like Alabama in football. He is that dominant.”

The question of “Who’s really No. 1?” is, of course, always a matter of opinion. Maybe Lomachenko simply doesn’t concern himself with an unofficial and arbitrary title, even if he has already been awarded it on several fronts. Perhaps Top Rank is especially sensitive to stroking Crawford’s ego, which might be a sound business decision in light of the fact that there potentially are a raft of better and more profitable fights to be made in a deep welterweight division than for Lomachenko at 135 pounds.

Going to the scorecards, as it were, it would appear that Lomachenko is slightly ahead in the chase for No. 1. He has the top spot to Crawford’s No. 2 in the Boxing Writers Association of America P4P ratings, as well as those listed by The Ring magazine, ESPN and Boxing News. Boxingscene.com has Crawford at No. 1 and Lomachenko second, with the outliers being World Boxing News, which has Loma first and Crawford an almost-unfathomable fifth, and Newsday, which places Loma first and Crawford third.

Moving forward, Crawford would appear to have the better chance of enhancing his claim to No. 1 if – and it’s a big if – Top Rank is able to tear down some of the barricades that presently separate the Nebraskan and fellow welter champs Errol Spence Jr. (IBF), Keith Thurman (WBA “super”) and Shawn Porter Jr. (WBC).

Porter claimed the vacant WBC title with a close unanimous decision over Danny Garcia on Sept. 9 in Brooklyn, whereupon Spence, who appeared at the postfight press conference, said it was “unlikely” he would ever swap punches with Crawford because, being affiliated with Premier Boxing Champions honcho Al Haymon, who deals almost exclusively with Fox and Showtime, he was “on the other side of the street” from Crawford, who is under contract to ESPN. Thurman is now with British promoter Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Boxing and Porter with PBC, making for an obstacle-strewn path to making bouts that a lot of fight fans would want to see. Compounding matters is the fact that Arum has cast Haymon as his newest arch-rival, sliding into the spot previously occupied by Don King and then Richard Schaefer.

But duBoef said that where there’s a will, there probably is a way to get a deal done. He said he and Top Rank are ready to storm all enemy battlements if by doing so it would gain Crawford the sort of marquee opponents that would make him as big a star as his obvious skills suggest.

“I want to make this crystal-clear,” duBoef said. “With our re-signing of Terence, regardless of (any other fighter’s affiliation), we will take on all comers. That’s it. We don’t care where you are, what you do, we will take on all comers.

“Terence is an elite fighter. When there was a nice welterweight fight in early September (Porter-Garcia), all they did was talk about Terence Crawford. Terence wants to fight the biggest; we want to provide him with the biggest. We’re going after all those (other welterweight champions). If they want to do it and we want to do it, let’s just get it done. We’ll figure out a solution.”

Step one involves Crawford, who has become his home state’s best feel-good sports story when measured against the utter collapse of the University of Nebraska’s proud football tradition, which looks and smells like No. 2 of another sort, getting past Benavidez. It should be a relative gimme, but if history means anything there is this to consider.

The path to No. 1, like that to love, never runs smooth.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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Berchelt TKOs Valenzuela in Mexico City

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt hammered his way to a decisive knockout victory over fellow Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in a non-title light fight on Saturday.

After nearly nine months off, WBC super featherweight titlist Berchelt (38-1, 34 KOs) unraveled a withering body attack including numerous low blows but Valenzuela remained upright in front of a sparse TV studio audience until he could take it no longer.

Berchelt used a seven-punch combination to knock the senses out of the very tough Valenzuela who hails from Sinaloa. The referee saw enough and stopped the fight with Valenzuela leaning against the ropes with a dazed look.

The champion from Cancun used a triple left hook in the first round to floor Valenzuela and it looked like the fight would not last more than two rounds. But Valenzuela, a sturdy veteran, bored into Berchelt to keep him off balance and was able to stop the momentum.

It did not last.

A vicious attack to the body sapped the energy from Valenzuela who has fought many elite fighters in the past, but none like Berchelt. He was able to batter the veteran round after round.

Valenzuela sought to reverse the momentum with some combinations of his own. Berchelt opened up with some combinations from the outside and cracked his foe with some skull-numbing blows that clearly affected Valenzuela’s senses. The referee wisely stopped the fight at 1:03 of the sixth round to give the win to Berchelt by knockout.

The victory opens the door to a potential clash with featherweight world titlist Oscar Valdez of Nogales, Mexico who has a fight of his own planned next month. Both champions are promoted by Top Rank.

Other Bouts       

Omar Aguilar (18-0, 17 KOs) bushwacked veteran Dante Jardon (32-7, 23 KOs) within a minute of the first round to win by technical knockout. A barrage of blows by Ensenada’s Aguilar opened up the fight and a four-punch combination forced the referee to stop the super lightweight fight with Mexico City’s Jardon against the ropes.

A battle between super bantamweights saw the taller Alan Picasso (14-1) out-hustle Florentino Perez (14-6-2) in an eight round clash between Mexican fighters. Mexico City’s Picasso fought effectively inside against the shorter Perez of Monterrey and was able to maintain a consistent pace. Neither fighter approved the use of a jab but Picasso was more effective inside with body shots and uppercuts and dominated the last half of the fight.  The six judges scored in favor of Picasso.

The WBC instituted the extra judges as a means of tabulating score cards efficiently. Three judges scored from the television studios and another three judges scored from the USA. It was the second time WBC judges officiated remotely and all six scorecards were official.

Photo credit: Zanfer Promotions

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Big Baby Miller, Roberto Duran and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller just can’t keep his hands out of the cookie jar. It was announced today (Saturday, June 27) that the jumbo-sized heavyweight from Brooklyn tested positive for a banned substance, forcing him out of a July 9 fight at the MGM Grand “Bubble” against Jerry Forrest. The story was broken by Mike Coppinger of The Athletic who breaks more hard news stories than any other boxing writer.

Miller, needless to say is a repeat offender. He failed three different PED tests in a span of three days for three different banned substances leading into his planned June 2019 match at Madison Square Garden with WBA/IBF/WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. That cost him the fight and a reported $5 million-plus payday. Andy Ruiz filled the void and scored an historic upset.

When the first test came back positive, Miller wailed that he was the victim of a faulty test. “My team and I stand for integrity, decency and honesty and will fight this with everything we have,” he said in a prepared statement. He later changed his tune. “I messed up,” he said.

In a story that appeared on these pages, Thomas Hauser noted that Big Baby had a history of PED use dating to 2014. In that year, he was slapped with a nine-month suspension by the California Athletic Commission following a kickboxing event in Los Angeles.

Counting this latest revelation, it’s five strikes for Big Baby. He’s taking quite a roasting right now on social media. Some of the harshest criticism is coming from his fellow boxers.

Assuming that Top Rank can’t find a replacement for Miller, this is another tough break for Jerry Forrest, a 32-year-old southpaw from Virginia with a 26-3 (20) record. Forrest was scheduled to fight hot prospect Filip Hrgovic on April 17 on a card at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a show swept away by the coronavirus outbreak. Forrest has been matched very soft throughout his career, but he acquitted himself well in his lone previous TV appearance, losing a split decision to undefeated Jermaine Franklin on “Showtime: The New Generation.” The decision was controversial.

There’s talk now that Carlos Takam is angling to replace Big Baby. The French-Cameroonian, a former world title challenger who turns 40 in December, was billed out of Henderson, Nevada, in his last ring appearance that saw him winning a unanimous decision over fellow greybeard Fabio Maldonado in Huntington, NY.

—-

When it comes to Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”), there’s no sport quite like boxing. Just ask Bob Arum. The most mouth-watering matchup in his ESPN “summer series” fell out this week when Eleider Alvarez suffered a shoulder injury in training, forcing a postponement of his July 16 date with Joe Smith Jr. The match between Alvarez (25-1, 13 KOs) and Smith (25-3, 20 KOs) would have been a 12-rounder with the winner guaranteed a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, a diadem that Alvarez previously owned.

Joe Smith Jr, a Long Island construction worker once dismissed as nothing more than a club fighter, won legions of new fans in his last start, a one-sided (to everyone except one myopic judge) win over Jesse Hart in Atlantic City.

Cancelled matches have become a recurrent theme in ESPN’s semi-weekly boxing series. The very first card in the series lost what shaped up as its most competitive fight when Mikaela Mayer tested positive for COVID-19, scuttling her bout with Helen Joseph. In subsequent weeks, the manager of Mikkel Les Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 as did WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring. Those bad test results forced the postponement of two main events. Then earlier this week, hot lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno was lopped off Tuesday’s card after feeling sick after coming in overweight at the previous day’s weigh-in.

The undercards of the Tuesday/Thursday ESPN fights have left something to be desired, but that’s understandable. As Bob Arum noted in a conversation with veteran boxing scribe Keith Idec, Top Rank’s matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman have had a hard time fleshing out the cards because with so many gyms closed there’s a shortage of boxers who are in shape to fight on short notice. Then there are the COVID-19 travel restrictions and (something Arum did not acknowledge) budgetary restrictions more severe than an ordinary Top Rank card. Most of the undercard fighters have come from neighboring states such as Utah, saving Top Rank the cost of air fare. Fighters from faraway places, with some exceptions, were already training in Las Vegas.

Kudos to the entire Top Rank staff for keeping boxing alive during these challenging times.

It’s old news now, but Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, 69, tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized in Panama City with a viral infection. There’s been no update on his condition but his son Robin Duran wrote on Instagram that his father is not having any symptoms beyond those associated with a common cold. We will update you when new details become available.

Duran’s hospitalization came just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in what would say was Duran’s finest hour. They met on June 20, 1980 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Duran won a unanimous decision. Converting the “10-point must” system into rounds, Duran prevailed by scores of 3-2-10, 6-5-4, and 6-4-5. As Yogi would have said, you could look it up.

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Fast Results from the Bubble: Jason Moloney TKOs Baez

Arne K. Lang

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Top Rank was back inside the MGM Grand “Bubble” tonight for chapter six of their semi-weekly ESPN summer series. Jason Moloney, one-half of Australia’s Moloney twins, accomplished what his brother Andrew Moloney was unable to accomplish in this ring on Tuesday night, adding a “W” to his ledger and looking good doing it. It came at the expense of Mexicali’s Leonardo Baez.

It was Jason Moloney’s second start on U.S. soil after coming up just a tad short in a bid for the vacant IBF world bantamweight title at Orlando in October of 2018. Against Baez, he fought a smart tactical fight, blunting the Mexican’s superior reach by fighting him at close quarters. Baez fought from the third round on with a cut over his right eye and then suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round. By then the fight was becoming increasingly one-sided and Baez’s corner did not let him come out for round eight.

Jason Moloney improved to 21-1 with his 18th knockout. Leonardo Baez, who took the fight on short notice after Maloney’s original opponent Oscar Negrete was forced to withdraw with a detached retina, slumped to 18-3.

Co-Feature

In the 10-round co-feature, Abraham Nova advanced to 19-0 with a unanimous decision over Philadelphia’s Avery Sparrow but won no new fans with a lackadaisical performance. Nova, born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic and raised in Albany, NY, showed little but his jab through the first seven rounds until hurting Sparrow with a big right hand in the eighth. The judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 99-91.

Sparrow (10-2), whose lone previous loss was by disqualification, was making his first start in 15 months. He was slated to fight Ryan Garcia in Los Angeles last Sept. 14 but never made it to the weigh-in after being arrested by U.S. marshals on a charge of threatening a woman with a gun after she threw his clothes out the window…

Other Bouts

In an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Orlando Gonzalez advanced to 15-0 with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Luis Porozo (15-3). The scores were 76-74 and 77-73 twice.

Gonzalez wasn’t particularly impressive although he did score two knockdowns. He decked Porozo near the end of round two with a left hook following a straight left and decked him again near the end of round seven with a left uppercut to the body.

In a rather ho-hum fight, welterweight Vlad Panin improved to 8-1 with 6-round majority decision over San Antonio’s 36-year-old Benjamin Whitaker (13-4). Panin, a Belarusian who grew up in Las Vegas and earned a BA in English from UCLA, has a good back story but seemingly a limited upside in the fight game.

In an entertaining 6-round welterweight clash, Filipino campaigner Reymond Yanon improved to 11-5-1 with a split decision (59-55, 58-56, 56-58) over Clay Burns. A 33-year-old ex-Marine from Fort Worth, Burns declined to 9-8-2.

The opener, a heavyweight bout slated for six rounds, matched two Phoenix-based fighters in a rematch. Kingsley Ibeh, a former standout defensive lineman for the Washburn College Ichabods, avenged his lone defeat and improved to 4-1 with a fourth-round stoppage of Waldo Cortes (5-3). Ibeh, who at 286 had a 39-pound weight advantage, softened Cortes up with a series of uppercuts and Cortes was on his way down when he was tagged with a glancing left hand. He got to his feet, but referee Vic Drakulich waived it off. The official time was 1:41.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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