By Jason Hirthler: Fans were treated to a stacked card this past Saturday night at Madison Square Garden and on ESPN PPV. It was a rare main card full of current champs and rising talent. Youthful featherweight Shakur Stevenson chastened Christopher Diaz for 10 rounds, taunting and flaunting his superior skills, dancing and landing from a distance, dropping Diaz once, and generally showcasing the southpaw speed and accuracy that have him pinned to the billboard of future superstars.
Stevenson landed 49 percent of his power shots. He also won the trunk-and-glove award with bright gold trunks crested with “Newark” and matching gold gloves that glittered as they flashed into Diaz’s unwitting mug. After Stevenson’s animating display, lightweight prospect Teofimo Lopez (13-0, 11 KOs) entered the ring, happy to be fighting at home in NYC, and with fearless disregard for his Scandinavian opponent, Edis Tatli (31-3, 10 KOs), whom he probed for several rounds before dropping the former two-time European champion with a hard straight right body shot. The Finnish fighter stayed on his knee for the full ten-count, despite ESPN analyst Timothy Bradley’s contention that he had not been hit in the liver, was just out of breath, and could have continued. But Lopez had landed 51 percent of his power shots, softening Tatli up over the first four rounds. Still, it was a curious end to the bout, and fans had certainly hoped for another highlight reel knockout from “The Takeover” such as the face-plant he delivered to Diego Magdaleno in February. Lopez immediately began campaigning for a title shot, either against WBA and WBO Lightweight Champion Vasiliy Lomachenko (13-1-0, 10 KOs) or IBF Lightweight Champion Richard Commey (28-2, 25 KOs), two fighters he openly disdains, seeing nothing in their arsenals that would present a problem for the Brooklyn native.
Shortly thereafter the night’s most polished fighter slipped through the ropes into the spotlight. WBO Welterweight Champion Terence “Bud” Crawford (35-0-0, 26 KOs) commenced a short-lived demolition of British former lightweight champion Amir Khan (33-5, 20 KOs). Khan promoted his fantasy of a return to glory for weeks leading into the fight. Crawford, in most joint interviews, sat morosely, shoulders slumped, bored of listening to the Brit con his questioners into believing he stood a chance against the Omaha native. Crawford also seemed reluctant to say good things about Khan, finally allowing he had a good track record of wins against tough fighters (and some stellar losses). In any event, the supposedly slow-starting Crawford quickly dispatched Khan to the canvas with a right-left combination in the first round. Khan looked completely crestfallen as he assured the referee that he was fine to continue. From there until the fifth, Crawford stalked Khan, delivering a rich mix of body blows and clean head shots. Khan was able to land several lurching rights to Crawford’s face, but his reaching posture meant there was little on the punches to threaten the champ. By the fifth, Khan’s face was scratched and bruised. Then came a low blow from Crawford that Khan appeared to have jumped into, which hit Khan’s left upper thigh. Khan curled over, went to his corner, doubled over several times, shaking his head in despair to trainer Virgil Hunter. Rather than wait the full five minutes to recover, Hunter, seemingly at Khan’s behest, called the fight. Crawford stood in a neutral corner, arms relaxing on the ropes, staring in bemused disgust at Khan’s corner. The end elicited boos from the 14,000 attendees and Crawford did his best to appear pleased with the outcome, even though, as he said in pre-fight interviews, he was hoping to deliver real punishment to Khan, a plan he was in the middle of executing to perfection when the bout was stopped. Given the chance to speak, Khan almost immediately claimed he was no quitter, which only seemed to confirm that he had just quit. In the post-fight interviews, Crawford even enjoined Khan to admit it, but Khan fell back on his “low blow” defense, technically true, but highly suspect to the naked eye.
The past couple of weekends have been fairly entertaining, largely because the first- and second-ranked pound-for-pound fighters in the world competed eight days apart. Last weekend, in a fight he neither wanted nor was particularly excited to take, Vasiliy Lomachenko dismantled Anthony Crolla (34-7-3, 13 KOs) in short order. In so doing, he threw down the proverbial gauntlet for Terence Crawford in the ongoing debate on who is the pound-for-pound king of boxing. The estimable Ring Magazine has the duo one and two, respectively. Lomachenko, his shoulder healed, threw hard and fast shots, penetrating Crolla’s weak defensive stance, and finally depositing the Englishman face-first on the canvas with a thunderous right to the side of the head. His mastery of Crolla was not so much predicated on the sidestepping angles he is famous for, but rather more for the accuracy and searching power of his shots. Like a detective with a clue, he pursued Crolla’s vulnerable spots with a forensic intensity. Four quick rounds of total annihilation.
On Saturday, Crawford was lined up to match “The Loma Effect” and keep pace or surpass the brilliant Ukrainian. But his fight against a speedy former champion was cut short when Khan’s corner staged the controversial retirement. In the end, Lomachenko retained his ESPN pound-for-pound number one ranking, and Crawford retained the second slot. Both boxers looked frankly invincible in their fights, though Khan caught Crawford a handful of times with puff shots. Neither was in against a fighter of the caliber they deserved, and were thus denied the chance to fully explore their mastery of the sport. Neither fighter could hide their frustration in pre-fight promotional interviews, where both struggled to express enthusiasm for their bouts. It was obvious that neither felt truly challenged.
Only when Lomachenko fights and beats Mikey Garcia, Richard Commey, or Teofimo Lopez, or all three, will he elevate himself into the pantheon of historically great lightweights. And only when Crawford takes on Errol Spence, Jr., and probably Shawn Porter and Keith Thurman, will he be able to add his signature to the list of generational superstars. Bob Arum, ever the amiable pitchman, blamed the roadblock to Crawford vs. Spence on the elusive Al Haymon, for whom Spence fights under the Premier Boxing Champions label. Arum is likely in no rush to make that fight, however, since he has Lopez and Stevenson, among others, to showcase in the meantime. But Loma and Bud are both thirty-one years old, nearing the backside of their physical peak. They need to move quickly to consolidate their divisions and cement their status. Boxing history is rife with tales of men who had to wait too long, by hook or by crook. Gennady Golovkin had to wait too long to fight Saul Canelo Alvarez. Manny Pacquiao had to wait too long to fight Floyd Mayweather. Marvin Hagler had to wait too long to fight Sugar Ray Leonard. And a whole host of heavyweights, from Ezzard Charles to Joe Louis, fought Rocky Marciano too late in their careers. Khan was too late for Crawford, although he’d not have been able to best the Nebraskan at any age. The only question that remains is whether we will see both these P4P studs clean out their divisions before their quests are called off prematurely, thanks to another low blow from Father Time.
Jason Hirthler is a writer and veteran of sports marketing. In recent years, he has led digital promotions of numerous boxing and mixed martial arts fights, including the landmark crossover bout between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor. He lives and works in New York City.