Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
Twice in a little over a year Ray Beltran has fought for, and fallen short of, a lightweight title in very different circumstances. In September 2013, he broke Ricky Burns’ jaw and knocked him down, only to be denied victory by highly questionable judging that contrived to conclude the contest was a draw. On Saturday night, he again ventured – as he had done 14 months ago – to the champion’s home town, and he again left empty-handed. The circumstances this time, however, were entirely different. Beltran fought hard and fought well, but he was utterly outclassed by an exceptional boxing talent whose future beckons extraordinarily brightly indeed.
The pattern was set early, Crawford pumping out a succession of southpaw jabs that began to mark up Beltran’s left eye before one quarter of the contest had passed; Beltran, needing to press the action to negate Crawford’s superior boxing skills, nonetheless seemed hypnotized by the threat and reality of that jab and found himself too often following his opponent around the Omaha ring.
Crawford’s boxing was a thing of beauty, as he stood in front of Beltran, his upper body constantly moving as he sized up his foe before suddenly lashing out with punches to head and body, betraying no tell-tale early movement that would indicate when a punch was coming or where it would land. Even though it felt as if the long-limbed Crawford would need extra space to throw his punches, and even though he frequently kept the fight at a distance that all but eliminated any chance Beltran had of landing blows of his own, Crawford proved perfectly adept at firing off rapid-fire sequences in close, as he did at one point in the sixth, after Beltran had backed him into a corner before the hometown champion fired off a flurry and then stayed in the pocket to fire off some more.
By the seventh, there was nonetheless a slight sense that Crawford’s previous outing, a Fight-of-the-Year-caliber knockout of Yuriorkis Gamboa, flattered to deceive: that, while a boxer of superlative skill, Crawford is a delight primarily for the purist, that he requires a willing dance partner to produce the kind of explosive performance that can help a boxer cross over into mainstream acceptance. But over the second part of the bout, the Nebraskan turned up the heat, not content with coasting to a points victory and looking to inflict punishment and secure a knockout.
Beltran’s worst periods of punishment came after his isolated successes: in round three, a straight right hand found Crawford’s chin, only for the champion to respond with a left hook that hurt the challenger and forced him into retreat. Toward the end of the seventh, Beltran scored with straight rights, but Crawford returned fire with such authority that Beltran spent the final 30 seconds of the round simply standing and looking without throwing a single punch.
That was Beltran’s high water mark; there was one more round – the ninth – in which he scored enough to maybe sneak the frame, but the following stanza was perhaps Crawford’s most dominant to that point. The championship rounds would be more dominant still, Crawford walking his man down, firing punches from all angles in rapid combinations. Miles ahead on the scorecards in the final three minutes and clearly the superior boxer, he could have been forgiven for easing off the accelerator and rolling downhill to the finish line, but instead he continued to search for a knockout. It didn’t come, and Crawford had to settle for a unanimous decision win by scores of 119-109 (twice) and 120-108; unlike the Gamboa clash, this was not a contender for fight of the year, but Crawford ends 2014 very much among the favorites to be crowned the year’s best fighter.