Because the world is a straightforward, uncomplicated place and because nuance and consideration are for suckers and Democrats, it should come as no surprise that we, as an undivided boxing nation, awoke Sunday morning to yet another fully formed, collective realization: Vasiliy Lomachenko is the best fighter on the planet, and if you think otherwise you’re an idiot, a fanboy or, by process of elimination, Warren Buffet.
It wasn’t possible that three-division titlist and current welterweight hoss Terence Crawford (36-0, 27 KOs), after appearing vaguely mortal for a handful of rounds against Egidijus Kavaliauskas (21-1-1, 17 KOs) Saturday night at New York’s Madison Square Garden, could ultimately brutalize the Lithuanian into a 9th round stoppage win while remaining respected as perhaps the finest operator in the sport today. Think about it: Before Saturday, Crawford had been the subject of furious debate among casual lunatics and hard-core basement-dwellers over boxing’s strictly empirical and not-at-all-theoretical pound-for-pound title. For some, Crawford, 32, held a position behind Lomachenko — or at least was a firm 1B to Loma’s 1A. Others still doubted Crawford’s stature over Errol Spence — even after the slick-but-unproven Texan, who went life-and-death with Shawn Porter, soared ass over elbows from a cartwheeling Lamborghini he’d been driving after having been served a few too many barley pops.
Or maybe — and just humor me for a moment — maybe there’s a place, a realm in some parallel dimension, where Crawford and Lomachenko can be viewed simultaneously as the best the sport has to offer. Maybe on “Avatar” or in the Land of Make-Believe, Oleksandr Usyk, Naoya Inoue and Canelo Alvarez can even join Bud and Loma, all of them judged worthy of inclusion among a group of exceptional and supremely watchable fighters in the 2019 wing at Boxing Valhalla. Here, the sum of these fighters’ gifts, experiences and relative measurables won’t be jammed, like Steve Buscemi into a woodchipper, through some mush-minded algorithm based on arbitrary standards that are in perpetual dispute. The lot of these fighters will simply be appreciated for their skill, intelligence and valor in the ring.
But enough science fiction.
Despite entering Saturday’s matchup as an unbeaten, in-his-prime contender, Kavaliauskas, 31, was supposed to serve as a chew toy for Crawford, passing the time during his purgatory outside all the business that matters at 147 pounds. Purse payouts aside, the fight was a lose-lose prospect for Crawford. With Spence on the mend and the other cream of the welterweight crop bound by dipshit promotional omerta to all but deny Crawford’s existence, Bud was left to prove the unproveable against Saturday’s challenger: demonstrate unassailable greatness against a second-rate opponent.
But back on “Avatar,” we’d be able to agree on this: Kavaliauskas is not an also-ran. Or, at least, he didn’t fight like one against Crawford. The Lithuanian’s light resume (further undermined by a wobbly performance against Ray Robinson his last time out) cast doubt on an impressive record and knockout rate. But in the early rounds Saturday, “Mean Machine” didn’t merely withstand Crawford — he countered, puzzled and, at one point, hurt him.
Patient without being gun-shy, Kavaliauskas gave Crawford, working out of a southpaw stance, a wide berth to pump his jab — but without ceding the outside foot or absorbing any meaningful damage. Late in Round 2, the challenger beat Crawford to his jab, setting up a crunching right hand to Crawford’s left eye to mark the first heavy shot of the fight from either man. It wasn’t quite a Take that shit back to Omaha moment, but by the end of the second, Kavaliauskas had established himself as an opponent not to be overlooked.
The fighters continued to take measure of each other to open the 3rd. Then Kavaliauskas threw away a range-finder jab to the body and, after a beat, followed up with what looked like another. Whether it was enough to draw just enough of Crawford’s attention, the screaming overhand right from Kavaliauskas that came in behind the feint undoubtedly did. The punch landed flush on Crawford’s temple, sending him pitching forward, grabbing at Kavaliauskas’ hips and, briefly, to a knee. Although he was positioned behind Kavaliauskas, referee Ricky Gonzalez oddly ruled the fall a slip. No feet had been tangled. No shove was evident. No infraction of any kind. Crawford just got caught.
In many ways, it was the defining blow of the fight. It meant respect for Kavaliauskas. It personified a champion’s privilege. And it was the switch-flip Crawford needed to wake his ass up. It’s also the momentary lapse the mouth-breathers will need to build a comprehensive anti-Bud narrative. One slip, brother — that’s all it takes to be fan-banished from the delicate ecosystem of boxing’s elite.
The irony is, almost from the moment Crawford had his balance and wits about him again, he has rarely looked more dynamic against such a live foe. After being dropped, Crawford began closing distance, increasing his punch rate and ferocity, and showing a greater willingness to trade. We’ve seen plenty of Slick Bud. But it isn’t often that Pissed Bud comes out to play.
In the 4th, Crawford began setting his feet more frequently, bursting through or around Kavaliauskas’ guard to land heavy jabs and hooks from the right side. There was a price, but Crawford paid it and was rewarded with the reddening of the challenger’s left eye and what seemed to be the slightest waning in Kavaliauskas’ will.
Now consistently pressing, Crawford walked through more leather to land power shots from both hands — uppercuts, straight left hands and funky, terrifying combinations from an ambidextrous puncher. By the end of Round 7, Crawford was winning more exchanges than not, then suddenly switched to orthodox. Within seconds, after a series of you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine slug-offs, Crawford wheeled around with an overhand right that forced the challenger to his knees. Kavaliauskas survived the round, and he continued to look for counter openings and unexpected opportunities. But he was gradually faltering, and as Crawford cut off the ring, unloaded from every angle and yapped away, Kavaliauskas no longer had any interest in bringing the fight to him. When Crawford opened the 9th with a flush right uppercut and a long left hook-right cross, followed by another head-snapping uppercut to send Kavaliauskas curling under the bottom ring rope, the end was nigh. After the challenger rose to his feet and Gonzalez turned the fighters loose, Crawford fired a single, perfect roundhouse right hand to the ear, around Kavaliauskas’ guard, to put him back down. Gonzalez wisely called it a night then and there.
In the reality we live in — where perfection is a myth, variables matter and styles really do make fights — Crawford deserves to be celebrated rather than downgraded. Is he better than Lomachenko? Spence? All any of us can say is … How the hell should I know? Pretend fan polls are fun, but they are at the same time, to put it gingerly, a wagonload of bullshit. What we do know — what we can see straight through any biases — is this: an athlete who switches fluidly from one side to the other. A fighter who morphs from boxer to slugger. A walking smartbomb who strikes with timing and accuracy. An OG who walks through fire to burn down an opponent where he stands.
If a better fighter than Crawford exists, then, simply put, all the better for boxing.
(Egidijus Kavaliauskas, left, Terence Crawford, right; via)