By Oliver Goldstein
This Saturday sees Terence Crawford look to defend his recently-won super lightweight title against Dierry Jean in Omaha, Nebraska on HBO World Championship Boxing at 9:30 PM ET/PT. Jean, from Montreal by way of Haiti, gets his second go at a title belt, having lost to Lamont Peterson in January 2014, but sees the odds stacked squarely against him this weekend.
It’s not hard to see why. Crawford, unbeaten in 26professional bouts, is the fighter most expect to replace Floyd Mayweather at the top of American boxing's rankings, and has been talked about as a possible opponent for Manny Pacquiao's return next year. He switches orthodox to southpaw, moves elegantly around the ring, defends slickly, and punches quick and hard. Crawford guarantees a long night for anyone.
Or a short night too, depending on his mood: “Bud,”who started out boxing like so many before him as a troubled kid, is a slippery fighter to catch, yes, but he’s also real horrible to stop when throwing. Crawford, after all, is one of the few fighters for whom there lies no real transition between defending and attacking (at least when fighting well), and though he’s often been termed a counterpuncher, the moniker boxer-puncher surely fits better. For like the best of the former, he maintains distance in precise angled fashion, but like the best of the latter he collapses it with purpose when looking to finish.
This all sounds pretty overwhelming, whether for Jean or anyone, and indeed if Crawford is truly all those things then he likely will be. The trouble for Crawford, even as 2014’s Fighter of the Year, is that he’s not yet acquired the ledger to prove himself so. Yuriorkis Gamboa is his best win, and a very good one at that, but the Cuban was also fighting at a huge size disadvantage on the back of a long ring absence. As for Breidis Prescott, Andrey Klimov, and Alejandro Sanabria, they’re all dutiful fighters but little else, and you could say the same about Ricky Burns, Raymundo Beltran and ThomasDulorme, from Crawford’s better wins, too.
Jean first caused ripples on cable television when he beat “Mookie” Pendarvis in 2013, delivering in thrashing style on a promise to “chop his body and then finish him.” Cut in the third, Jean had quietly been catching Pendarvis on the end of his right hand’s extension throughout, before finally middling one in the fourth to turn his opponent’s lights out. Against Peterson some months later, he seemed to go searching for the same shot a little too much, the American’s instructions being specifically to take the right hand away from him. Since then, he’s won four, three by stoppage, though against mediocre competition.
So what chance does he stand? At first glance Crawford looks an unfortunate match-up for the Canadian, who’s a tough fighter no doubt (against Pendarvis, a nasty flowing cut just served to get Jean going), but whose toughness looks largely incidental to a fighting style that’s not essentially all that aggressive. Jean holds his left low to set up counters, drops his hands to try dodging, and tends to fight more in occasional spurts than a regular flow. Peterson was partly able to deter Jean because he threw single punches far more than combinations, and given Jean’s tendency in that fight to retreat upright with his hands high when pressed, a similar performance won’t make for a good look against Crawford.
So what must Jean do? For most combatants, boxing’s a sport of radical confidence, and it’s no surprise as a result to hear fighters talk of trusting their own skill-sets before a contest where their skill-sets quite obviously won’t do. After all, there’ssurely no sport whose competitors are often so close to precariousness at the same time as they’re so close to great riches (not to mention more grave conclusions). But for a fighter to maximize his earnings he’s obliged to invest in deep risk. Eighteen when he started boxing, Jean is now 33, and if he’s to win on his first tilt at the big stage, the Canadian will have to trust in skills he might not want to exhibit. Crawford won’t be outsped and he won’t be out-countered, so Jean will have to trust that he can be outlasted and in all likelihood outslugged. That no one’s taken Crawford into deep water is a testament to his talent — but the depths of that talent remain unprobed.
And ultimately Jean will have to hope that the comparisons of Crawford to Mayweather, sidewise as they often are (and indeed should be), are too generous, too rich in their praise. Before Mayweather moved up in weight he’d defended his belt against Genaro Hernandez, Angel Manfredy, Diego Corrales, Carlos Hernandez, Jesus Chavez and others. Crawford’s record isn’t half asimpressive.
But to hear Crawford speak, quiet and eloquent, to watch him measure an opponent up, as he did Dulorme earlier this year, and above all to see him finish, swift, methodical and not a little graceful, it’s impossible not to be impressed. While other pretenders to Mayweather’s seat so often fall by the wayside, whether failing to find their own identity, or mistaking the “Money” lifestyle for a training regimen, Crawford is undoubtedly a serious fighter with serious ambitions. “I don’t party, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke,” he once told HBO’s Kieran Mulvaney. “When I have nothing else left to gain, that’s when I’ll retire.” He’s certainly not there yet, but Saturday night should see him take another step closer to the top.