Photo: Ed Mulholland/Top Rank
By Eric Raskin
Terence Crawford could shadowbox in Omaha and draw 10,000 fans. The Nebraska native has headlined the CenturyLink Center four times and worked his hometown fans into a frenzy in each of his four victories there. But there’s some uncertainty about what he can do in New York City, where he'll face Felix Diaz on HBO World Championship Boxing this Saturday at 10:15 p.m. ET/PT.
Crawford resonated nicely the first time he fought there, drawing a sellout crowd of 5,092 in the small room at Madison Square Garden last February. This Saturday night he steps up to the big room, the main arena, where Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier, where Roberto Duran and Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto heard the roar of nearly 20,000 diehards. To crib from a handful of musicians, this ain’t somewhere in middle America, where it’s the heart that matters more. This is where dreams are made. Where you prove you can make it anywhere. Where Terence Crawford, the rising star attraction, is put to the test.
And it’s where, if Felix Diaz has anything to say about it, Terence Crawford, the fighter, is put to the test as well.
Crawford vs. Diaz straddles two worlds: It’s a star showcase, designed to gauge and then increase the visibility of a man who might be partially counted on to carry boxing in America over the next several years; it’s also a real fight, one in which a legit lineal title is on the line and the challenger is an Olympic gold medalist who’s never lost as a pro in this weight class (junior welterweight).
Not insignificantly, it’s a fight that challenger asked for, called for, almost begged for.
“I called out Terence because Terence is the best in the division,” Diaz said on a recent conference call. “It is a big opportunity for me to fight at Madison Square Garden against him. … I am definitely motivated that I am being overlooked and that I am the underdog. But I have my own plans.”
In 2008, Diaz became the first boxer (and only the second athlete, period) from the Dominican Republic to win an Olympic gold medal. But as a pro, he’s operated somewhat under the radar. The southpaw has fought only 20 times in eight years, and never for a major title before. He made a big leap against Lamont Peterson in 2015 and came up just short, losing a majority decision on his opponent’s home turf, but he bounced right back with a close win over previously unbeaten Sammy Vasquez. At 19-1 with nine KOs, Diaz, on paper, doesn’t look much different than Dierry Jean or Thomas Dulorme or any number of other B-level fighters Crawford has breezed through. But a closer look at the NYC-based Dominican’s skill set – his blend of boxing know-how and steady pressure – suggests Crawford could be pushed on Saturday night. And the champ seems to recognize that.
“It’s gonna be a real fun fight,” the Nebraskan said. “I’m real excited for this fight. I’m real up for it. … He’s got the skills, he’s a good fighter, he is an Olympic gold medalist, and this is the fight that a lot of people were calling for, and we are here now.”
Crawford respects the challenge – but he’s the prohibitive favorite for a reason. Diaz is a southpaw, which might give him an edge against some opponents. Not this one. Crawford is a switch-hitter who instinctively senses the perfect times to go lefty and open up better angles for delivering his offense, particularly his money-shot straight left hand. He possesses exceptional footwork that also makes those angles possible. Crawford (30-0, 21 KOs) can’t be rattled in the ring; his body may be 29 years old, but he has the mental wherewithal of a much older fighter.
Since “Bud” beat Yuriorkis Gamboa in a 2014 Fight of the Year contender to establish himself as one of the sport’s must-watch warriors, he’s gradually inched his way up the pound-for-pound lists. When Crawford outpointed Viktor Postol last July, it was both a crowning moment and a mild letdown. Crawford claimed the lineal junior welterweight title that evening, but for the first time in quite a while, he took his foot off the gas down the stretch and left observers unfulfilled.
Diaz is out to take Crawford out of his rhythm and show Crawford’s backers what a real letdown for their man looks like.
“I know how good Crawford is,” said Diaz’s promoter Lou DiBella. “Felix knows how good Crawford is. The media knows how good Crawford is, but he is not God, he is not unbeatable. He’s had tough fights with guys like Gamboa, who was a little guy, and Diaz has a lot of the same attributes when it comes to pressure and style which could make it a very difficult night for Bud.”
Diaz doesn’t have Gamboa’s exceptional hand speed, but at 5-foot-5 against the 5-foot-8 Crawford, there are indeed similarities to the Cuban build-wise. Diaz isn’t hard to hit, but he doesn’t seem to mind it. If the 33-year-old Dominican is able to walk through Crawford’s heaviest artillery and keep applying pressure, this fight could get more stressful than any Crawford has had since Gamboa.
And that’s to say nothing of the baked-in stress of being the headliner and trying to fill boxing’s most famous arena.
“Obviously, we could have taken the fight to Omaha and had a massive sellout like we always do,” said Crawford’s promoter Bob Arum, “but we decided that we wanted to showcase Terence at the ‘Mecca of Boxing,’ Madison Square Garden. There is no place else in boxing – with all due respect to Las Vegas and other arenas – there is no place in boxing that has the symbolism and the history of Madison Square Garden.”
Crawford’s mission is to write his name in concrete among the best of his era. Diaz’s mission is to make sure he has to go through the jungle to get there.
Co-Main Event Preview: Beltran vs. Maicelo
One of the many who has tried and failed to upend Crawford, “Sugar” Ray Beltran, attempts to keep his “I can beat anybody not named Terence Crawford” tour rolling in the co-feature, as the Phoenix-based Mexican veteran meets New Jersey’s Jonathan Maicelo in a 12-round lightweight bout. Beltran (32-7-1, 20 KOs) would be undefeated over the last five years if not for running into Crawford. Last time out, on the undercard of Crawford’s fight with John Molina, Beltran took apart prospect Mason Menard, schooling and stopping him in seven rounds. Maicelo (25-2, 12 KOs) is on a four-fight win streak, but he’ll either need to find another gear or pray that the 35-year-old Beltran suddenly hits the wall if he wants to extend it to five.