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

Bernard Fernandez

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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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Will U.S. Olympic Boxers Fare Better in Tokyo Thanks to Yesterday’s Ruling?

Arne K. Lang

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The road to the medal round for U.S. boxers at the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics just got easier. But maybe not.

“Russia Banned From The Tokyo Olympics” screamed yesterday’s headline, but reading between the lines there’s more to the story. A more carefully worded headline would have read “Russian Olympic Athletes in Limbo.”

We have been down this road before. WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, recommended banning Russia from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The agency accused Russian authorities of a massive cover-up that erased hundreds of positive test samples.

WADA then did something of an about-face and decided to evaluate each case individually. Ultimately, 278 Russian athletes were approved to compete in Rio; 111 were denied. All 11 Russian boxers who survived the various qualifying events made the cut.

This new ban (which will be appealed) also emanates from WADA which alleges that the Russian authorities continued the massive cover-up using the “disappearance methodology.” But, if upheld, it’s a more severe penalty in that it bans Russia from major international sporting events for the next four years. That would include the World Cup, the biggest sporting event in the world by far. The next edition of the World Cup is slated for 2022 in Qatar.

“There’s still…the possibility of clean athletes to compete in the Games,” Svetlana Romashina, a five-time Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming, told Moscow correspondent Andrew Roth of The Guardian. “I believe the punishment of clean athletes to be unacceptable,” continued Romashina. “We have done nothing wrong.”

The reality, as it now stands, is that Russian boxers and other Russian athletes, if deemed clean, will be able to compete in Tokyo, just not under the Russian banner. As is common in some wrestling tournaments, their affiliation will be “unattached.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a big fan of amateur boxing and other combat sports, won’t be there. The ban prohibits Russian officials from attending major international sporting events if their team has been expelled.

—–

Historically, the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team has excelled in the Summer Games. But that’s yesterday’s news. In the last three Olympics, U.S. male boxers won only three medals, one silver and two bronze. By contrast, during the same period, Russian boxers walked off with 10 medals including three gold.

The prognosis for the 2020 U.S. team looked dim once again when the U.S. contingent earned only one medal (a silver by lightweight Keyshawn Davis) at the recent AIBA men’s World Championships in Ekaterinburg, Russia. The host team garnered four medals, including three gold. If one conjoined the Russian squad with former Soviet Union satellites Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the count grows to seven gold medals (of a possible eight) and 15 medals overall.

Russia’s gold medalists at the World Championships were welterweight Andrey Zamkovoy (pictured), middleweight Gleb Bakshi, and heavyweight Muslim Gadzhimagomedov. Zamkovoy and the heavyweight (who will badly need a new name if he ever turns pro) are outstanding amateurs and may have been favored to win their divisions in Tokyo.

Zamkovoy, 32, represented Russia in the 2012 and 2016 Games and medaled in 2012 where he defeated Errol Spence Jr en route to the semi-finals. The heavyweight (a cruiserweight by pro standards) is an ever-improving, 22-year-old, six-foot-four southpaw who has already amassed an amateur record of 60-5.

The competition for the U.S. team at overseas tournaments has gotten a lot tougher in the last two decades as several Eastern European countries have become more like Cuba, investing state resources into their amateur boxing programs with an eye to building a powerhouse. Perhaps the WADA edict will aid the U.S. boxing team in shaking the doldrums in 2020, but that assumption seems premature.

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HITS and MISSES from a Weekend Spearheaded by a Biggie in Saudi Arabia

Kelsey McCarson

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The fate of Anthony Joshua’s future rested on how well he performed against Andy Ruiz on Saturday in Saudi Arabia. Billed as the “Clash on the Dunes”, Ruiz vs. Joshua 2 was the most hotly anticipated rematch of 2019 and one with huge ramifications at stake far beyond the careers of the two principal participants.

Could the fairly new over-the-top streaming service DAZN survive losing three of the four major heavyweight alphabet titles to a rival organization? And might the PBC have been on its way to creating its own branded heavyweight championship if Ruiz could somehow stave off Joshua one more time?

The stakes surrounding Ruiz-Joshua 2 on DAZN really couldn’t have been higher.

Plus, there was bountiful boxing action from other places around the world, including the fourth title defense for rising junior featherweight star Emanuel Navarette on ESPN+ and the continued showcase of newly-crowned WBC middleweight titleholder Jermall Charlo on Showtime.

Here are boxing’s biggest HITS and MISSES from the first weekend in December.

HIT: Anthony Joshua Floats Like a Butterfly in Career-Defining Reclamation Project

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so it’s a good thing Anthony Joshua was still just 30 years old heading into his rematch against Andy Ruiz on Saturday in Saudi Arabia. Because Joshua boxed brilliantly over the course of 12 rounds in a way most people believed him to be incapable.

There are two common paths someone can take after suffering as humiliating experience as Joshua did when he was knocked down four times and stopped in seven rounds by Ruiz in June in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.

Joshua could either have doubled down on his past mistakes, which included training more like a spokesperson and Instagram model than a professional fighter. Or he could rethink his entire approach and take the long way back up the mountain, which entails employing the single-minded approach of focusing all his efforts on reclaiming his heavyweight titles each and every day until the moment he steps back into the ring.

Joshua chose the latter, and it was immediately apparent as soon as he disrobed for the fight. Here appeared a man living the life of a true prizefighter now, and he went on to prove it by dominating al 12 rounds of action against the suddenly inept Ruiz.

MISS: The Predictable Failure of Andy Ruiz

If you needed a reminder about why Top Rank cut ties with the talented but discipline-challenged Ruiz at the end of last year, you saw it in Saudi Arabia. This isn’t to pile on Ruiz over the 15 extra pounds he entered the second contest carrying. In a way, that was sort of expected the moment Ruiz scored the stunning upset the first time around.

People who struggle with something like staying focused on training usually don’t suddenly become better at it unless they’re forced into it.

Humbling failures and huge successes both have a unique ability to bring out the best and worst in people. But failure often provides the opportunity for someone to accept their faults, whereas success leaves room for someone to keep denying the truth about all the things they could probably do better.

Ruiz wasn’t very competitive in the rematch. Part of it was Joshua’s newfound approach of no longer foolishly giving up his eight-inch reach advantage, but the piece that Ruiz could control in future fights would be to train seriously enough to be able to consistently apply pressure for 12 full rounds. He could hardly do it for one round on Saturday, so hopefully, the lesson has now been learned for good.

Ruiz is talented, affable and a very special fighter. It’s time for him to start treating himself that way.

HIT: Critical Heavyweight Contender Matchups on Ruiz-Joshua 2 Undercard

Boxing’s glamour division was featured mightily by promoter Eddie Hearn on the undercard of Ruiz-Joshua 2, and it’s about time a promoter did that. There’s no more important division in boxing than the action that happens above 200 pounds. Moreover, the heavyweight division is as deep and as talented as it’s been in a good 20 years or so.

So why don’t we see more heavyweights in important matchups on big fight cards? That must be what Hearn was wondering when he was putting this card together. That or it was just blind luck on his part.

Whatever the case, Filip Hrgovic appears to have all the tools to be a real contender someday, and he proved it by stopping veteran title challenger Eric Molina in the single biggest win of the 27-year-old from Croatia’s career. Hrgovic needed just three rounds to stop Molina, the same amount of time it took Joshua in 2016 and six rounds faster than Deontay Wilder did it the year prior.

Moreover, both former titleholder Alexander Povetkin and the once-beaten American Michael Hunter showed why they should figure heavily into the future of the stacked division. The 40-year-old Povetkin and 31-year-old Hunter fought to a split draw in a fun, competitive fight that showed why both deserve the chance to fight their way into world title opportunities.

MISS: ESPN’s Low-budget Treatment of Emanuel Navarette vs. Francisco Horta

It wasn’t the most compelling action of the weekend, but how could ESPN expect people to care about WBO featherweight champion Emanuel Navarette’s fourth title defense against Francisco Horta in Mexico on Saturday night if they didn’t even bother to send any of their crew over there to cover the fight?

That’s what I was wondering on Saturday when I saw ESPN’s Bernardo Osuna and Tim Bradley calling the Top Rank on ESPN+ card from the studio. That kind of thing makes sense for lesser cards from the other side of the world sometimes, but it didn’t seem to fit this case. Puebla, the city in Mexico where the card took place, is on this side of the planet and has its own international airport. What gives?

Regardless, Navarette has enjoyed a fantastic 12 months. Over his last five fights, which began when he shockingly upset Isaac Dogboe in December 2018 for the title, Navarette has solidified himself as a must-watch star. That’s a hard thing to do for someone weighing only 122 pounds, and probably even harder to accomplish in today’s world where its common to see four or five full cards airing over different networks every single weekend.

That last bit about all the other options available is why ESPN shouldn’t cheap out on its fight coverage. Either a card is important enough to show us, or it isn’t. This one deserved better coverage.

HIT: Jermall Charlo’s Emphatic Middleweight Title Defense Against Dennis Hogan

If there’s any middleweight right now who deserves a big fight against a notable opponent, it’s Jermall Charlo.

Charlo, younger by one-minute to twin brother Jermell Charlo, is a two-weight world champion who just can’t seem to get another top middleweight in the ring. So, Charlo had to be content on Saturday to dominate and stop former 154-pound world title challenger Dennis Hogan in seven rounds in the main event of the Showtime card in Brooklyn.

Charlo is the reigning WBC middleweight champion thanks to the elevation of Canelo Alvarez to whatever that organization’s “Franchise” championship is supposed to designate. Regardless, the 29-year-old remains undefeated and ready for a bigger opportunity.

One fight that makes a ton of sense is a title unification against WBO titleholder Demetrius Andrade. There’s a PR narrative pushed by Andrade’s handlers that suggests their fighter has never been able to snag a big fight against a top name because he’s so dangerous and avoided.

Of course, that isn’t the entire story. After all, Andrade was set to face Jermell Charlo in December 2014 before dropping out less than a month away from the scheduled bout after finding out how much more money Charlo was making.

Now it seems Andrade would be a good fit for the other Charlo, and everyone should hope a fight like that gets made for both fighters. That’s especially true for Charlo, who hasn’t yet been afforded a chance to prove how good he can be since stopping current unified junior middleweight champion Julian Williams back in December 2016.

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Three Punch Combo: Breakout Fighters, Crawford-Kavaliauskas and More

Matt Andrzejewski

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Three Punch Combo: Breakout Fighters, Crawford-Kavaliauskas and More

THREE PUNCH COMBO — Back in January, I wrote about three potential breakout candidates for 2019. In no particular order, those fighters were Shohjahon Ergashev, Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov and Ruben Villa. Here is a quick look at what each accomplished in 2019 as well as a look ahead for each man.

Shohjahon Ergashev

Ergashev, who will soon turn 28, competes in the 140-pound division. The former Uzbekistan amateur star won both his fights in 2019 to move his record to 17-0 with 15 knockouts.

In February, Ergashev faced off against then unbeaten Mykal Fox in a nationally televised 10-round bout on Showtime. Fox, who stands over 6’3” tall and fights from the southpaw stance, posed some issues for Ergashev with his awkward style and massive height advantage. But Ergashev (pictured) found a way to scrape out a unanimous decision even if the performance was not up to par by his standards.

Some in the industry began to jump off the Ergashev hype train following this performance, but that effort looks better now than it did in February because Fox, in his next outing, pulled a major upset, scoring a 10-round unanimous decision against then unbeaten Fazliddin Gaibnazarov. Gaibnazarov, a 2016 Olympic Gold Medalist who defeated unified 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez as an amateur, was a well-hyped prospect in his own right.

In August, Ergashev bounced back from the less-than-stellar performance against Fox with an impressive knockout over Abdiel Ramirez.

Looking ahead to 2020, Ergashev has a date in early January against 11-0 Keith Hunter in a bout that will be televised on Showtime. The winner of that fight will become mandatory challenger for the 140-pound title currently held by Mario Barrios.

Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov

Tajikstan’s Rakhimov, 25, competes in the 130-pound division. In 2019 he fought twice, winning both by KO. That moved his record to 15-0 with 12 knockouts.

It was an eventful year. After a tune-up win in March, he traveled to South Africa to face 14-0 Azinga Fuzile in his backyard in an IBF eliminator fight to become Tevin Farmer’s mandatory challenger.

After being thoroughly out-boxed for seven rounds, Rakhimov rallied in round eight to score a dramatic knockout. But there was controversy. Video evidence shows Rakhimov’s trainer administering some sort of product under Rakhimov’s nostrils between rounds. Any use of a stimulant would, of course, be impermissible. Rakhimov’s team have countered with their own suggestions of improprieties by Fuzile’s promoter and the commission that governed the event.

As of this writing, there is no indication the above matter has been resolved. I would not be surprised to see the IBF order a rematch.

Ruben Villa

Villa, 22, competes in the featherweight division. He went 3-0 in 2019 winning all three of those fights by unanimous decision to move his record to 17-0 with 5 knockouts.

It was a progression year for Villa. He took a noticeable step up in class with the three opponents he faced having a combined record of 44-1.  But even with the jump up in class, Villa continued to dominate and he seems poised to make an even more sizable leap in 2020.

Looking ahead, expect to see Villa in with a top ranked contender at some point in the coming year. He has jumped to number “5” in the WBO rankings at featherweight and just below him at “6” is former world title challenger Miguel Marriaga. That would be just the type of opponent for Villa in 2020.

Down the road, keep in mind Villa has a pair of amateur wins over Shakur Stevenson. It seems inevitable that they will meet again one day in the pro ranks.

Don’t Sleep on Kavaliauskas

On Saturday, Terence Crawford (35-0, 26 KO’s) defends his WBO welterweight title against Egidijus Kavaliauskas (21-0-1, 17 KO’s) on ESPN. While most in boxing have already penciled in a win for Crawford, I would caution against jumping to that conclusion.

Admittedly, I have been high on Kavaliauskas for quite some time. This is someone with a deep amateur pedigree having represented his native Lithuania in both the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. While his amateur background is what first made me look into him when he turned professional in 2013, it was the raw power that he showed in those early years as a pro that turned my head. The power coupled with the skill learned from his amateur days made me believe that he was destined for greatness.

True, some of his recent performances have not been all that stellar. But digging a little further, he was matched against some opponents that have a history of making their opposition look bad.

Take, for example, Kavaliauskas’ last fight against Ray Robinson. Many years ago, 2010 to be exact, Robinson, a defensive slickster, made Shawn Porter look ordinary. And two months after the Kavaliauskas fight, Robinson gave heralded prospect Josh Kelly all he could handle in a fight that ended in a majority draw.

I believe that Kavaliauskas learned a lot from the Robinson fight and will incorporate some subtle changes to his game in light of that experience. In particular, I believe he will cut the ring off much better against Crawford than he did against Robinson.

Something else to keep in mind. Kavaliauskas is a big strong welterweight with one punch power in both fists. He has fought his entire pro career at welterweight. Crawford is the naturally smaller man having started his career at lightweight.

This is perhaps the most dangerous fight for Crawford since he turned pro. Kavaliauskas should not be underestimated.

Under The Radar Fight

The Crawford-Kavaliauskas card is absolutely loaded with quality fights that may get overlooked. One in particular, a battle between unbeaten super middleweights Steve Nelson (15-0, 12 KO’s) and Cem Kilic (14-0, 9 KOs) should not be missed. ESPN+ will live stream this bout and several of the other undercard fights.

Nelson, 31, is a stablemate of Crawford’s and may be known more for his elaborate ring entrances than anything else. But aside from putting on a show entering the ring, he has proven to be a very capable fighter. He would best be described as an aggressive boxer-puncher who possesses an excellent stiff left jab and heavy handed power. Nelson is not the most athletic fighter but possesses excellent timing inside the ring.

Kilic, 25, had a solid amateur background but has been moved relatively slowly as a pro. Like Nelson, Kilic is an aggressive boxer puncher. His left jab may not have the ferocity of Nelson’s, but he has the quicker hands and is probably the sharper puncher of the two. Kilic likes to work his right behind the jab and that is a punch that Nelson has shown some susceptibilities to in the past.

This is a very difficult fight to handicap. Both are skilled fighters with similar styles with Nelson being the stronger of the two but Kilic the quicker. Neither man moves his head all that much and that should lead to a lot of eye-popping exchanges.

This is a fight that is going to be competitive with each finding plenty of opportunities to land on the other. Don’t miss it.

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