Terence Crawford is an unlikely figure to rule boxing in any year, even one as dire as 2014. Away from the ring, he is plain — as plain as, well, the plains of his native Nebraska. He just arrived on the national scene last year, and then only as a late replacement to face Breidis Prescott on HBO. That year, he was saddled by many with the “boring” label for performances that allegedly matched his personality.
Yet the talent was always there, outward appearances aside; Nebraska, after all, is nestled in the Great Plains, and even those drab cornfields are tinged with gold in the sunlight. And something changed for Crawford in 2014. While his personality never surpassed room temperature, he was plenty radiant between the ropes in more than just the talent department.
Fittingly, he was slow to warm in a daring voyage overseas to face Ricky Burns on his home soil in Scotland, a place where Burns had benefited from favorable judging against Raymundo Beltran. (Whatever Crawford has lacked or still lacks, bravery and self-confidence he does not — it was a comparable act of daring to step up from his level of opposition on short notice at a new weight to face Prescott.) For all his speed, for all his bursts of power, for all his evident boxing schooling, there was a fear that Crawford was a “do what it takes to win, and nothing more” type. Against Burns, that approach would’ve been fatal, given how a close decision was likely to go Burns’ way. But after a too-cool start, Crawford heated up and there was no chance the ringside judges could’ve missed Crawford’s breakthrough victory over the fading Scotsman.
As it happened, Crawford was just getting going. He came home a hero to Omaha, in front of an adoring crowd of nearly 11,000 — a shocking number for a state whose last boxing idol was Ron Stander in 1972, who made a comically enthusiastic ringside showing for Crawford’s return. The opponent was yet more dangerous than Burns: the ultra-gifted, if underachieving and undersized, Yuriorkis Gamboa. Unlike Burns, Gamboa posed more of a threat to Crawford than the judges or Crawford himself. Before Crawford switched from the orthodox to southpaw stance, Gamboa was winning every round with his speedy, unconventional flurries. And he remained threatening until the final bell, even after getting dropped in the 5th and 8th round. He hurt Crawford in the 9th, forcing him to discover an essential quality of the greats: the ability to respond to adversity. Crawford knocked out Gamboa that very round, delivering a trifecta of “best ofs” nominations for 2014: best fight, best knockout, best round.
By the time Crawford stepped into the ring for a third time to fill the (true) lightweight championship vacancy against Beltran, his identity was now firmly established: He had wedded his talent to his character to become a formidable boxer, one of the best in the world today. Beltran put up as much of a challenge as he was capable of, which was nowhere near enough.
That Crawford built a Fight of the Year campaign came against the kind of opponents he faced — aging, too small, outclassed — in a division as weak as lightweight, speaks to how dark a year it was for boxing. Yet it would be wrong to discount him entirely. He burned his name onto the shortlist of talented young American fighters who could, theoretically, one day take the mantle of the best the United States has to offer; he has already established himself as one of its biggest ticket-selling attractions. And he shone more brightly than anyone else did in 2014.
(Photo: GLASGOW, SCOTLAND – Crawford celebrates his victory over Burns at the Glasgow SECC on March 1 Credit: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)