Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Evolution of Terence Crawford

When Terence Crawford emerged on the world-level boxing scene in 2013 and 2014, he was a consummate boxer-puncher. He possessed fast hands, excellent feet and the ability to control an opponent in a conventional or southpaw stance. Many of his fights during this period of his career were one-sided domination, with Crawford patrolling the ring and his opponents lucky to win a round or two. With the exception of his shootout against Yuriorkis Gamboa in 2014, Crawford rarely faced duress in the early part of his career. When he did get touched up, which was usually in the orthodox stance, he would switch to lefty, where he would remain more defensively responsible. Unanimous decisions were more frequent than knockouts, with bouts against Prescott, Klimov, Burns, and Beltran going the distance. 

By 2020, Crawford has transformed into a much different fighter than the earlier version. Instead of using his legs to command the ring as he did against Burns or Postol, Crawford now resides mostly in the pocket. And as he has moved up from lightweight to junior welterweight to welterweight, a funny thing happened; he started knocking everyone out. Belying traditional trends in boxing, not only has Crawford's knockout percentage risen later in his career, but he has stopped everyone he has faced at welterweight, his highest weight class. After knocking out Kell Brook in the fourth round of Saturday's fight, Crawford is on an eight-fight stoppage streak, and his KO percentage is now over 75%, with 28 knockouts in 37 fights. 

Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Crawford possesses five attributes that lead to his knockouts: power, punch variety, hand speed, accuracy and confidence. It is this last factor, confidence, where he has grown the most over his professional career. No longer shying away from contact, he has become comfortable with the give-and-take of the pocket. He believes enough in his chin and his abilities that if an opponent lands something, he can connect with a shot or a series of punches that are more incisive and destructive. 

However, as Crawford has transformed into a knockout artist, the attendant risks that accompany the style have manifested. Since moving up to welterweight, facing bigger and longer guys, Crawford hasn't been hard to hit. Part of this is a temperament issue in that he does not fear incoming fire, but another aspect is that he has been sacrificing defense for offense. 

At welterweight, Crawford has been touched up by Benavidez, Kavaliauskas (who should have been credited with a knockdown in their fight) and now Brook. Although Crawford reigns as one of the supreme finishers and the sport, it's worth devoting more attention to the defensive side of his equation. After all, he has yet to face an elite welterweight in the sport or one who can really punch. 

After Saturday's victory, I kept looking at Crawford's left eye during his post-fight interview. The eye had a significant amount of swelling. And let's remember that the damage only occurred through three-and-a-half rounds. That was concerning to me. Brook landed a number of jabs in the first two rounds and a couple of menacing right hands in the competitive third round. However, it's not as if Brook landed dozens and dozens of punches throughout the fight. Yet the damage was there to see on Crawford's face.   

Many of the sport's best recent boxers, from Mayweather to Hopkins to Lomachenko, often gave up some early rounds to opponents. After sizing up their foes, they figured out weaknesses and controlled the second half of the fight. Crawford falls squarely in this tradition. In fact, with the exception of the Indongo fight, Saturday's result was the fastest stoppage he has recorded on the world level. Usually he does most of his damage from the fifth or six round and later. 

What's worrisome about Crawford's evolution as a fighter is that he's letting opponents not just win rounds early but land big shots at the outset. It's one thing to let an opponent squeak by in some early rounds due to punch volume; it's another thing to have them connect with their Sunday Best repeatedly. A fighter can only take so many big shots with this approach. To date, Crawford hasn't come close to losing a fight on the scorecards with letting a few rounds go by early in fights, but I'm more concerned with his potential of being knocked out if adjustments aren't made. 

Crawford and Brook mixing it up on the inside
Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank

A limited offensive fighter like Mean Machine Kavaliauskas should not be landing knockdown blows on Crawford. After that bout, Crawford admitted that he didn't necessarily fight the way that his trainers wanted him to. In addition, I don't know why Crawford didn't start the Brook fight in the southpaw stance, where he remains more defensively responsible. As soon as he switched in the third round, the fight became a lot easier for him. Interestingly, Crawford fought almost the entirety of the Mean Machine fight in the orthodox stance. 

What we are seeing with Crawford is an arrogance and a lack of respect for his opponents. Much of this is good. We want our best fighters to have destructive attitudes and seek knockouts. Crawford will never be accused of not going for it. However, he may be a knockout waiting to happen if he doesn't respect his opponents more. Clearly his defense in the orthodox stance has deteriorated and it's not a question of who's touched him recently, but who hasn't. In addition, the old axiom "the other guy gets paid too" applies here. Crawford can only take so many flush shots from big punchers. And with him, it's not a lack of defensive fundamentals; he just has dispensed with them. 

Terence Crawford is one of the best boxers in the world. There can be no argument about that. He has won titles in three divisions and was also the undisputed champion at junior welterweight. However, he has left the girl with whom he came to the dance. The boxing part of his game – the hit and not be hit – is now firmly in the past. He has won a shootout at lightweight against an undersized Gamboa, but could he prevail in the same type of battle against a top welterweight? Wouldn't it be much easier to box and move against a guy like Danny Garcia than to try to outslug him in the pocket? Would it not benefit him to be more elusive against Errol Spence than exchange bombs at mid-range? 

Perhaps Crawford will remember his boxing skills the next time that he faces elite competition, but I have a sneaking suspicion that some bad habits have crept into his ring persona. His power won't always be able to bail him out. Giving away early rounds can come back to be deadly on the cards. And his defense in its current iteration won't be sound enough against guys who can really crack. 

All of this, his strengths and some potential weaknesses, make Crawford a must-watch fighter. He's great television. The days of him being called boring against Klimov are now in the distant past. He's now in the big money stage of his career and knockouts certainly do bring eyeballs and attention. 

But ultimately self-preservation needs to play a role as well, not to mention the pursuit of all-around greatness. There is now some sloppiness that has become a part of Crawford's game. He's been getting his tactics wrong to start fights. He's more hittable than he's ever been. In short, he's now beatable for the right type of opponent. And Crawford's slippage cannot be attributed to too many wars or Father Time suddenly taking over, but an overall contempt for his opponents. He fights angry. He wants to wreak havoc. He doesn't care whom he's up against. To him, his opponents are all beneath him. And recently, that has certainly been the case, but they all won't be. In addition, even these lesser opponents have had some very good moments against Crawford recently. 

If Crawford has his way, he will be facing an elite opponent in 2021. I worry if he and his team realize that what he has been giving us in the ring recently, while electrifying, is far short of his best all-around performance. Crawford sure loves being the destructor, but will that be his undoing? 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
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