HBO boxing commentator Max Kellerman described Terence Crawford as "probably the best lightweight in the world" before the undefeated switch-hitter's second appearance on the U.S. cable network in June 2013.
At the time, it was just Kellerman's usual hyperbole. The Omaha, Neb., native only had one solid victory on his resume, a 10-round decision over dangerous spoiler Breidis Prescott in a junior welterweight bout earlier in 2013.
Crawford didn't live up to Kellerman's words by stopping unknown-and-untested Alejandro Sanabria in his second HBO fight, or by shutting out Russian prospect Andrey Klimov in his third appearance on the network in October 2013. However, the 23-year-old talent is making Kellerman look clairvoyant so far in 2014. Crawford dominated Ricky Burns in the rugged Scotsman's hometown on March 1, lifting the WBO lightweight title by unanimous decision, and on Saturday, in his hometown, he dropped undefeated Olympic gold medalist Yuriorkis Gamboa four times en route to an impressive and thrilling ninth-round stoppage.
Crawford showed everything a boxer must possess in order to rule his division and eventually evolve to "elite" status in the sport — athletic ability, sound fundamentals, poise, a solid chin, recuperative powers, the ability to adapt in the face of adversity and the know-how of when to turn up his intensity in the ring.
Despite the many knockdowns Crawford scored, he needed all of those ring qualities to beat Gamboa, a former two-belt featherweight titleholder who has otherworldly hand speed, ultra-quick reflexes and very good punching power.
The fight began as a tactical chess match, one that was dominated by the more dynamic former amateur star. Gamboa got off first and often as he outmaneuvered Crawford during the first four rounds of the Boxing After Dark headliner. However, Crawford (24-0, 17 knockouts), who exhibited the patience of a veteran fighter, calmly switched to a southpaw stance and waited.
That composure paid off when Gamboa stepped up his agression and ran into a right hook that rocked him to his boots in Round 5. Crawford followed up with a left that put the Cuban down for the first time in the bout. Gamboa got up and went on the offensive, as he's always done during his pro career and paid for his big heart by getting nailed with 18 power shots during the round.
"I was warming up and getting used to his style in the first couple of rounds," Crawford told Kellerman after the fight. "Then I just made adjustments. I switched to southpaw because I thought I could catch him with my jab over his left. I knew I could catch him coming in because he was coming in wild."
Indeed. What began as a chess match morphed into shootout in the middle rounds. Gamboa (23-1, 16 KOs) came out of his corner firing powerful pot shots while on the move in Round 6. Crawford, however, kept his composure, landing his jab from a distance and counter punches and body shots when in close.
Gamboa remained game but he was reduced to loading up with one big shot at a time going into the late rounds and his lack of defense and fundamentals cost him. A right-left-right combination from Crawford produced a flash knockdown in Round 8, and when the two traded power shots in Round 9 (one of which seriously buzzed Crawford), Gamboa got the worst of it. An arcing left cross dropped Gamboa on his side in the middle of the round; a perfectly timed right uppercut put him down for the fourth and final time as referee Genaro Rodriguez wisely waved the fight off at 2:53 of Round 9.
"We were two warriors in the ring trying to get the victory, and he won," Gamboa said after the fight. "I was avoiding his punches early on but as time went on he got better. He recuperated from my punches."
That's what top fighters do.
Is Crawford the best lightweight out there, as Kellerman claimed one year ago? One can certainly make a good argument to support that opinion. However, Miguel Vazquez, the IBF beltholder and THE RING's current No. 1-rated lightweight, might disagree.
The two could settle the debate in the ring (and since Crawford is THE RING's No. 2-rated lightweight that bout would be for the magazine's vacant 135-pound championship), however, that's an unlikely scenario given that Vazquez signed with manager/adviser Al Haymon on Saturday, bringing in boxing politics that could keep the top two lightweights apart.
But that won't hurt Crawford's career because the boxing world learned three things about him on Saturday:
1. He's the real deal.
2. He's a regional attraction, as evidenced by the 10,000 fans who came to see him fight at the CenturyLink Center.
3. He can be in very entertaining fights.
Vazquez is the real deal but he can't claim those other two things.
"(Gamboa) caught me with a good shot (in Round 9) because I was flat footed," Crawford said of his one wobbly moment during the fight, "but I came back strong."
That's what the best do.
Email Fischer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @dougiefischer