DEPENDING on what happens this weekend, Terence Crawford may have to rethink his answer to a question he was posed recently. Asked to name his best moment in boxing, Crawford recalled the night he took the WBO lightweight title from Ricky Burns in Glasgow on March 1, 2014.
The unanimous points win at the Scottish Exhibition Centre brought Crawford his first world title and he sobbed as he was carried around the ring on his trainer’s shoulders afterwards, while the crowd sang the former champion’s name.
How good was the Nebraskan that night?
Burns remembered being outsmarted by a slick counter puncher who could switch stances instinctively.
What about Crawford’s chin?
Burns shrugged. He couldn’t answer the question. He hadn’t tested it.
Billy Nelson had brought the best out of Burns. Losses to Alex Arthur and Carl Johanneson suggested Burns had found his level, but after a switch to train with Nelson, he went on to win world honours at 130lbs.
On a memorable night at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall, Burns, a ‘Rocky’ obsessive with [i]There’s No Easy Way Out[i] from the fourth film tattooed down his spine, got off the floor in the first to topple Puerto Rican puncher Roman ‘Rocky’ Martinez and write his own ‘Rocky’ story.
Burns added WBO honours at 135lbs, but going into his fifth defence, there were signs he was in decline at the age of 30. He had looked vulnerable in defences against Jose A Gonzalez and Raymundo Beltran, the latter breaking his jaw in a controversial split draw, and the expectation was, if Crawford was as special as he was rumoured to be, the Scot may be beaten early.
But then Burns always was underrated. Nelson goes as far as to say he is “the most underrated British fighter of the last 20 years.
“People watched Ricky and thought they could deal with him, but it’s very different when you’re in the ring with him,” Nelson tells Boxing News. “We had good fighters come up to spar Ricky thinking he was a jabber and a mover and he would put them on the floor.”
There was a chance Crawford was making the same mistake.
Trainer Brian McIntyre told the Scottish press in the build up to the fight: “Crawford’s level is way, way past Burns.”
Confidence oozed from Crawford in the days before the fight, as Andy Scott remembered.
“I spent every day with Crawford in the week before and he really didn’t say much,” said Scott, who worked for broadcasters Sky Sports on the fight.
“He doesn’t say much now, but he said even less then. He had a quiet confidence. When he said things he said them with meaning and you found yourself thinking: ‘Who is this guy?’
“The promotional team who came with him didn’t have any doubts about his skillset. It was all about whether he could produce in the lion’s den. But he didn’t care what they screamed at him. His confidence never wavered. “
The opening rounds were tight, but it was noticeable that Crawford jumped through the gears whenever Burns had any success – and that Burns had to break off every exchange.
It was also noticeable that Burns struggled to land when Crawford switched to southpaw and listened to his corner’s advice: “Make him reach.”
Nelson said: “I knew from the second round Ricky wasn’t going to win. Ricky always hated fighting southpaws.”
Crawford made the switch to southpaw with around 30 seconds left in the opening round and did so whenever he sought to slow the pace down.
He was more aggressive when fighting out of the orthodox stance and started to step in behind his punches and hurt Burns from the fifth, leaving him cut over his right eye and his nose bloodied.
Crawford didn’t let him back into the fight, though Jim Watt, commentating for Sky Sports at ringside, wasn’t impressed by what he was watching. He felt the fight was playing out in that way because Burns had been left reluctant to engage by the titanium plate lodged in his jaw. He told viewers there was “something missing” from the champion and that “the Burns who beat Michael Katsidis and Kevin Mitchell would have beaten him… Crawford is nowhere near as good as I expected him to be.”
Perhaps Crawford had simply got Burns at the right time?
Nelson disagrees: “Ricky would have never beaten him. Crawford was a special fighter, the best I’ve seen live. His balance and shot selection from both stances was outstanding.”
Burns had escaped with a split draw against Beltran and told he needed a strong finish, Crawford drilled the Scot with hard shots. Burns showed heart to get through to the final bell, losing by scores of 116-112 on two cards and 117-111.
“Crawford has grown 60-70 per cent since the Burns fight,” said Scott. “I was there the night he beat [Julius] Indongo [at super-lightweight] and I don’t think anyone would have beaten him that night.”