By Nat Gottlieb
Call this fight the Ricky Burns Playoff.
Both the unbeaten lightweight sensation Terence Crawford and his opponent Saturday night on Boxing After Dark (10:00 PM ET/PT), Ray Beltran, traveled to Scotland during the past two years to fight then-champion Ricky Burns. Only one came away with a victory. That was Crawford last March.
Beltran, on the other hand, dominated Burns for most of their fight last year but flew back home with a bitter-tasting draw that everyone, including the British press, thought should have been an unquestionable victory. Robbery was a popular word in boxing circles after that fiasco.
Now both fighters believe the belt is rightfully theirs. But this tug of war is not going to be decided by debate. The argument will be settled in the ring in front of Crawford's rabid hometown fans in Omaha's CenturyLink Center.
"Beltran feels I have something – a world title belt – which belongs to him," Crawford (24-0, 17 KOs) says. "He thought he beat Ricky Burns and I thought Beltran won too. But he didn't and I did."
The 33-year-old Beltran (29-6-1, 17 KOs) knows he's getting a second chance at the belt that eluded him, and is determined to make the most of it. "I see this fight as an opportunity for me to achieve the recognition in the boxing world and the public's eye," Beltran says. "This fight is Champion vs. Champion."
Beltran is clearly facing an uphill battle. Not only will he have to deal with the 10,000-plus hostile fans expected to jam the Nebraska arena, but Crawford is a very formidable foe, one already being hailed as a future superstar.
If a trainer wanted to build the perfect fighter, he would look a lot like Crawford, who's coming into this bout off a brilliant demolition of the previously unbeaten Yuriorkis Gamboa. The 27-year-old Omaha native is the equivalent of a boxing work of art. To say he's the complete package is to trivialize. If there is something he can't do in the ring, it will be big news to those who have watched him fight.
When Beltran squares off against Crawford, this is what he will see standing in front of him: a beautifully compact fighter with superfast hands, power, great reflexes, remarkable poise and focus, and a defense that is close to impenetrable. And almost to rub salt into the wounds of opponents, Crawford, while an orthodox fighter, is also a switch hitter. So if by chance the crafty veteran Beltran is able to figure Crawford out, the Omaha boxer is liable at any time to change to a southpaw stance. It almost seems unfair.
Longtime Southern California boxing writer, William Trillo, who has seen both fighters up close, understands the degree of difficulty Beltran is up against. But he also has covered hundreds of Mexican boxers and knows what they're capable of doing when their backs against the wall. "Beltran is your prototypical Mexican fighter who has more grit than talent," Trillo says. "He certainly deserves a shot at the title, but on paper this is a huge mismatch. That being said, Beltran is one tough SOB, so counting him out is ill-advised. With roots at the Wild Card Gym, he has the confidence to attempt to take it to the next level."
While Beltran does have six losses on his record, a change in trainers to Pepe Reilly has propelled the Mexican to four straight "credited" victories over good opponents, and another one over Burns that unfortunately is not in the books.
Both fighters' bouts with the slick Burns provide a glimpse of what we might see of them in the ring together on Saturday.
In September of last year, Beltran lost a few early rounds while figuring out the elusive Scot, then dominated his opponent almost the rest of the fight. It was such a clear-cut victory for him that the British press—generally known to root for the home team—called it the following way in the Daily Telegraph: "Boxing The Victim of Outrageous Judging As Ricky Burns Gets 'Home' Draw Against Raymundo Beltran."
During that fight, Beltran broke Burns' jaw in the second round and that raises some questions. One is could you make the argument that the courageous Burns would have fought better and possibly won the fight if he wasn't in constant pain? Then again, maybe Beltran set the table for Crawford's easy victory by breaking Burns' jaw six months earlier. Against Crawford, Burns fought with a titanium plate in his jaw, and perhaps the painful memory of what can happen to your face when it gets into the path of an incoming missile.
Still, Crawford's victory over Burns was more impressive than Beltran's. Crawford thoroughly outclassed the Scot, looking like a young Floyd Mayweather as he boxed circles around his opponent, and never at any time being threatened.
Even though he is a big underdog, Beltran is undaunted by the task ahead of him and unfazed by the hoopla surrounding the champion. "Crawford is talented, has skill, but I have the ability to adapt and will be ready for what he brings," Beltran says. "The situation against Burns made me stronger. I felt the love of the crowd and all of their respect that night."
Crawford, at least verbally, is not taking his opponent lightly. "Beltran can fight," Crawford says. "We know that. I am going to fight him like a bad dog, fight fire with fire. Let's see if he really has the will to win in Omaha. My will to win is off the charts."
To come away with a victory, Beltran is going to need more than just the will to win. He's going to have to find a way to deal with Crawford's hand speed, which often makes it near impossible to see his shots coming. The Mexican will also need to find a clear target to hit, because Crawford fights like a phantom menace. The Omaha boxer is never quite "there" for you to tag. In addition to constantly changes angles, Crawford's head and upper body movement are so good that he can duck and slip punches without bothering to use his gloves to deflect them.
This will probably be Crawford's last fight at lightweight. Although he made the 135-pound limit for his beat down of Gamboa, he weighed 152 pounds when he stepped into the ring that night. Should Crawford defeat Beltran his team will likely move him up and turn him loose on the loaded 140-pound and welterweight divisions. After what he has shown so far, Crawford could be a terror amongst terrors at the higher weights.