WBO welterweight champion Terence ‘Bud’ Crawford is on the hunt for and in need of big names to solidify his standing as one of best American talents of the modern era but must first make do with a name hard to pronounce, one Egidijus Kavaliauskas, on Saturday night (December 14) at Madison Square Garden, New York.
Rest assured, this won’t be the fight that ensures Crawford cracks the big time. Nor will it get him the attention his ability deserves. However, in taking the fight against Kavaliauskas, a very capable number one contender, Crawford is once again putting faith in his talent and showing he is more than happy to take risks, whether against household names or ones tough to spell.
As low-key as his progress has been, last year was a good one for Kavaliauskas, 21-0-1 (17). It began with a sixth-round stoppage of David Avanesyan, who has since twice beaten Kerman Lejarraga in Spain, and included subsequent wins against Juan Carlos Abreu and Roberto Arriaza. These results put the heavy-handed Lithuanian on the map, made him one to watch, and had many suspecting he would make his way towards a world title in no time.
Then, of course, at the start of 2019 he found in Ray Robinson an opponent and style difficult to master. A frustrating night in Philadelphia saw Kavaliauskas and Robinson come away with a draw and scratch marks were soon applied to ‘Mean Machine’s previously unspoiled reputation.
Still, in his next fight Robinson hit the brakes on another undefeated fighter’s ascent, holding Sunderland’s Josh Kelly to a draw in New York, which, depending on your view of Kelly, can either be considered a testament to Robinson’s peskiness and underrated ability, thus making Kavaliauskas’ draw against him less of an issue, or an indictment of how backers of prospects can sometimes get carried away with flashy moves and good looks. Whatever your conclusion, this much is true: Robinson is a solid, dependable welterweight contender on the fringes and Terence Crawford, Kavaliauskas’ next opponent, is no Ray Robinson.
Crawford, in fact, is arguably closer to the old Ray Robinson than the new Ray Robinson, as blasphemous as that may sound. He is, at 35-0 (26), a dominant and at times masterful welterweight champion whose previous stints at super-lightweight and lightweight also garnered him world titles. In his 11 years as a pro, he has yet to be troubled by an opponent, much less have to pull through a crisis, and now seems to be entering his prime at 32 years of age.
His detractors, or at least the few that remain, suggest Crawford’s reputation as a three-weight world champion and pound-for-pound star is unjust and will point to a lack of wins against fellow superstars on his record as evidence. Others, though, believe Crawford’s genius will forever make tough fights appear easy and that big fights, ones against the likes of Errol Spence Jnr, the IBF welterweight champion, and Manny Pacquiao, the WBA champion, will happen in due course.
Until then, the switch-hitter from Omaha, Nebraska makes do with defending his current belt and fending off capable if unheralded challengers like Kavaliauskas, who follows previous welterweight opponents Amir Khan, Jose Benavidez and Jeff Horn, each of whom Crawford stopped.
This is Kavaliauskas’s big moment, his first as a headliner, and he will invariably experience every one of the pressures that come with that. Worse, though, he can expect to discover why Terence Crawford has yet to be sussed in 35 pro fights and why he just might be the best boxer in America right now.
The pick is ‘Bud’ retaining his belt on the scorecards – therefore finally going the distance as a welterweight – but there’s a case to be made, too, for the champion befuddling the challenger to such a degree that a late mercy stoppage is deemed the best way out.
Another intriguing fight on the New York card is the IBF lightweight title fight between champion Richard Commey of Ghana and Brooklyn hotshot Teofimo Lopez.
Commey, 29-2 (26), won the vacant belt earlier this year with a second-round stoppage of Isa Chaniev and then successfully defended it with an equally impressive eighth-round stoppage of Raymundo Beltran in June. He has now won his last four fights by knockout and seems determined to never again let a fight go to the scorecards following some tough decision losses earlier in his career (split decisions against Denis Shafikov and Robert Easter Jr).
Lopez, meanwhile, was similarly explosive in 2018 and for most of this year, racking up five stoppages in a row, including one against Diego Magdaleno. Then, however, he met the giant and unbeaten Japanese fighter Masayoshi Nakatani in July and struggled making a dent in him. It marked the first time Lopez, 14-0 (11), has had to go 12 rounds – first time he had gone beyond seven, in fact – and led to him having to sacrifice some of his knockout king reputation for some priceless experience.
Though some were quick to criticise, including Lopez himself, the trade-off will serve him well in the long run.
Finally, Michael Conlan gets his chance to gain revenge over Vladimir Nikitin, his old rival from the 2016 Olympics, in a 10-rounder.
Conlan, 12-0 (7), was last seen stopping Diego Alberto Ruiz at Falls Park, Belfast, and seems to have been steadily improving since joining forces with coach Adam Booth and relocating to London. He has wanted to erase the memory of losing to Nikitin for some time, and was scheduled to do so in August, but an an injury suffered by the Russian scuppered that plan.
Now, on Saturday in New York, they try again.
Twenty-nine-year-old Nikitin, for his part, has so far fought only three times since turning pro in July 2018. He has won all three fights – six-rounders – by decision and seems considerably behind Conlan in terms of his development. This could prove crucial in New York.