By Eric Raskin
Hundreds of pro fighters have walked through the doors of Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club over the past 21 years, and the Hall of Fame trainer has worked the corner in too many title fights to keep track of them all. So Roach can be forgiven for occasionally getting fuzzy on the details. Like that time not long ago when he was sitting with Viktor Postol and referred to him as “my best Russian fighter.”
“Thank you, but I’m from Ukraine,” Postol corrected.
Postol’s fight with Terence Crawford atop an HBO Pay-Per-View bill on July 23 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas is a bout designed to elevate one man past the point of people getting the details wrong. It’s a collision of two undefeated rising stars, vying for recognition as the true junior welterweight champion of the world, and one of them is going to make The Leap. If it’s Postol, the boxing world will know for sure which country he’s from (just like we know the Klitschkos are Ukrainian, Sergey Kovalev is Russian, and Gennady Golovkin is from Kazakhstan). If Crawford prevails, Omaha stops being just somewhere in middle America and starts being the hometown of a major boxing force. For now, the names “Terence Crawford” and “Viktor Postol” don’t ring too many bells among the sports mainstream. Saturday’s showdown is the kind of fight that can change that overnight.
It’s also the kind of showdown that fans dream of because it matches the clear top two fighters in a division and answers all questions about global supremacy in that weight class. Look at the notable media outlets that rank fighters: The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board has Postol first at junior welterweight, Crawford second; ESPN.com has Crawford first, Postol second; The Ring magazine has Postol first, Crawford second; Boxing Monthly magazine has Crawford first, Postol second. The lineal championship at 140 pounds has been vacant since Danny Garcia left the division. Saturday’s fight crowns a new champion, clearing up a picture currently muddled by countless alphabet title claimants.
Ones and twos aren’t the only numbers Crawford and Postol have in common. They boast identical records of 28 wins, zero losses (though the knockout counts differ—Crawford has 20 to Postol’s 12). Boxing records are frequently misleading, but in this case, the matchup might just be that dead even.
“You got the 1 vs. 2 unification fight. On paper, everybody says it’s 50/50,” Crawford said at the press conference announcing the fight. “But in my eyes, I’m looking at going in there and destroying this man. After July 23, my record will be 29-0 with 21 knockouts.” In his ever-improving English, Postol is talking just as tough: “I am looking forward to destroying Crawford — destroying his perfect record and destroying his reign as world champion.”
You don’t normally think of a fighter with a 43 percent knockout rate as a destroyer, but Postol has made strides in that direction since hooking up with the historically offensive-minded Roach four fights ago. In two of his last three fights, Postol has produced late knockouts of fighters who’d never been stopped before: Selcuk Aydin and, in a career-altering upset, Lucas Matthysse. It was the 10th-round KO of Matthysse last October, when the popular Argentine was riding high off a win over Ruslan Provodnikov, that not only earned Postol this crack at Crawford but made the fight against a rising pound-for-pounder feel reasonably close to a coin flip. Postol might never be the kind of fighter who eviscerates his opponents with his power in the first or second round (he has just two first-round stoppages on his record and goes an average of 7.5 rounds per fight), but he’s emerging as a better finisher than his slender build and modest knockout rate would suggest.
“Getting him working behind his left jab has been one of the major keys,” Roach told Inside HBO Boxing. “He has a great left hand, he throws it quick and hard, he has a long reach advantage on most people and that helps a lot, but he wasn’t using his jab enough to set up the big right hands. Now he’s working his way in with that jab. He’s being very patient, he doesn’t rush things, he doesn’t try to take you out in the first round. We’ve been working on setting the knockout up. We’re going to the body, taking the legs away, and breaking fighters down. There’s a science to it. He breaks people down, and when he gets people going in the later rounds, he will take them out.”
It’s all been working brilliantly so far for the 32-year-old Ukrainian, but that doesn’t mean it will work against “Bud” Crawford, one of the most gifted and unflappable boxer-punchers in the game. Since claiming his first title via decision over Ricky Burns in Scotland, Crawford has stopped four of five opponents, most notably Yuriorkis Gamboa in a 2014 Fight of the Year contender. Last time out, in February, the 28-year-old Crawford took on the only opponent he shares with Postol, Hank Lundy, and did what “The Iceman” couldn’t, forcing the referee’s intervention.
“I feel, all around, I can do whatever I want in there,” Crawford said recently. “If I have to box, I box. If I have to brawl, I brawl. If I have to trade, I trade. In those types of fights, I have the power to back you up. All in all, I feel like my IQ is what takes me to the next level.”
Some would say the most “next level” aspect of Crawford’s game is the way he switches stances so seamlessly. He’ll typically start fights as a right-hander, then hop to southpaw a few rounds in — which usually precipitates him doing serious damage. “I don’t even think about [making the switch]. I just like to let things flow,” he said in April on the HBO Boxing Podcast. “I love it when I can dissect a fighter with either side. It don’t matter what side I get the job done, long as I get the job done.”
Postol has been sparring with a mix of one orthodox fighter and two lefties, and Roach doesn’t seem too concerned about him being thrown off by Crawford’s ambidextrous tendencies. “We’re not going to be surprised by anything he brings,” Roach said, adding that Postol’s sparring partners earn a $1,000 bonus if they knock him down. “Crawford switching stances, it’s not the first time it’s been done in boxing and it won’t be the last. All of a sudden because a guy from Nebraska’s doing it, it’s like the newest move in the book. It’s not. There’s no surprise. I do think he’s stronger from the southpaw side, that’s for sure.”
Crawford is also more exciting from the southpaw side — and in fact, both of these fighters have emerged as more action-oriented than they were initially reputed to be. Yes, Postol holds sometimes when his opponents get in close. Yes, Crawford can be a slow starter. But all in all, this is a fight where the skills and the thrills have the potential to emerge in perfectly equal measure.
And Crawford-Postol got an extra shot of adrenaline several days before the fight, when promoter Bob Arum announced that Manny Pacquiao intends to fight again in October or November — and that Manny will be watching this fight very closely. There is a certain corner conflict that makes Pacquiao-Postol highly unlikely to happen, but if Crawford can win on Saturday night, he might just move to the head of the renewed Pacquiao sweepstakes. The stakes were already pretty high here, with the legit 140-pound championship of the world on the line in both Postol’s and Crawford’s pay-per-view-headlining maiden voyage. Now they’ve gotten even higher.