The race to identify boxing’s next pay-per-view superstar started up just last week, when middleweight Gennady Golovkin and flyweight Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez both delivered brutal knockouts at Madison Square Garden. While both men were hefty favorites, they won like good favorites should, solidly outclassing legitimate contenders and finishing with exclamation points to ensure viewers will be back for more. There’s little doubt that both men will continue to be major draws and hold deserved spots atop the various pound-for-pound lists that infest the sport. (Indeed, Chocolatito sits atop perhaps the most respected list, that of Ring Magazine.) But neither will finish the race as the best fighter in the sport or assume Floyd Mayweather’s mantle as the sport’s next great crossover superstar. Those honors belong—or will soon belong—to 28-year-old junior welterweight Terence “Bud” Crawford, of Omaha, Neb., who fights Saturday night on HBO.
Fighters come in a variety of types. There are punchers, ranging from lumbering wrecking balls like George Foreman to those who, like Mike Tyson, simply have blindingly fast hands. Punchers are ferocious, but generally prove vulnerable to a technically or intellectually superior fighter, as Foreman was to Ali, or Tyson was to Holyfield. Then there are the great defensive fighters, the matadors, the guys who win by making you miss, like Pernell Whitaker, the purportedly retired Floyd Mayweather, and our own Charles Farrell’s pick for the top fighter in the sport, Guillermo Rigondeaux. There are technicians, like super middleweight Andre Ward, who would be a candidate to assume Mayweather’s mantle if only he could make time in his busy schedule to actually fight. Ward is not the most physically gifted fighter in the world, but seems to exist in a parallel universe a split second ahead of his foe: his ring IQ is so high that he’s figured out what his opponent will do before the opponent has. And there are guys who borrow from each of these archetypes, like GGG or Chocolatito, well-rounded technical fighters with the power to beat any opponent into submission. Finally, there are the anomalies. Bud Crawford is an anomaly.
Unlike most fighters, who can be classed more or less as one thing or another, Crawford is all-encompassing. He is the alpha and the omega, the yin and the yang, a real-life embodiment of the shape-shifting T-1000. He can fight as a conventional right-handed fighter, or a southpaw; he is preternaturally calm and disciplined when he chooses to be, but good enough to get away with things that would be considered downright reckless if attempted by mere mortals; he can out-think and out-box his foe en route to an easy decision, or he can wait until he feels like it and knock the poor bastard’s head off with one punch; he can fight going forward, going backwards, or standing toe-to-toe. In just the past 18 months, he’s gone from being virtually unknown to being regularly accompanied to the ring by fellow Omahan Warren Buffet. None of it seems to matter to him; nothing seems to matter to him, other than winning.
In the Bible it says, “what goes around, comes around”/Hommo shot me; three weeks later, he got shot down/Now it’s clear that I’m here for a real reason/Because he got hit like I got hit, but he ain’t fucking breathin’
—50 Cent, “Many Men (Wish Death Upon Me)“
There’s a popular anecdote about Bud, often repeated by the HBO commentators to underscore his calm approach in the ring. Back in September of 2008, just as he was transitioning from the amateurs to the professional ranks, Bud was shot in the head while sitting in his car. So level-headed was the then-21 year old Crawford that he drove himself to the ER for treatment, even calmly calling his family along the way to let them know what happened and where he was.
It’s a fun story, but it’s also only half of it. The other half begins earlier that night when Crawford and a rowdy group of friends were kicked out of a nightclub, then maced and beaten by security guards when they protested. Because he was fighting with his mother, whom he lived with, Bud didn’t want to go home. Instead, he found a local dice game and walked away the night’s big winner. Savoring his victory, Crawford sat in his car, auspiciously counting his cash, not paying attention as the gunman approached in the shadows and took aim. Boxing has lost its share of greats to gun violence—Hector “Macho” Camacho and Vernon Forrest in just the past few years—and Bud easily could have joined the list that night. If his window hadn’t been rolled up and partially deflected the bullet, Bud would be dead. But, of course, his window was rolled up, and Bud Crawford is very much still here.
The full version of the story is much more telling than the abbreviated one. Bud is complex, neither a cautionary tale nor a role model. He contains multitudes. He’s an anomaly.
The shooting was, Bud’s co-manager Cameron Dunkin told me, a turning point for the young fighter. Even worse than the brush with death was its aftermath: Bud missed a planned fight that would have been his television debut while he convalesced. The message was delivered. Bud had always been a genuinely nice guy, but it was time for him to clean up his act outside the ring. A devout Christian, Bud took another lesson from the near miss: someone or something was protecting him, watching over him, placing an invisible barrier between him and the bullet with his name on it. It’s a belief that has underlain his calm, even carefree, demeanor ever since.
Not long after the shooting, Dunkin sent Crawford to spar with Timothy Bradley one of his more accomplished fighters. Bradley was preparing for a bout with Devon Alexander, a southpaw, which he hoped would set the stage for a showdown with Manny Pacquiao, also a southpaw. While Crawford was a natural right-hander, Dunkin knew Bud was equally comfortable fighting as a southpaw and figured the sparring would be good for both of his charges. But if anyone was expecting Bud to play the conventional role of a sparring partner—deferential, subservient, just happy to be there—they were sorely mistaken. Bud went there to knock Timothy Bradley out.
Bradley and his camp were impressed. Bradley’s wife, Monica, pulled Bud aside and told him he was different than the other fighters who sparred with her husband. Bradley phoned Dunkin and told him that he had a future world champion on his hands. The two intensely Christian fighters bonded, and their pairing produced the desired results: Bradley went on to beat Alexander and then Pacquiao. Bud went on to become, well, Bud.
Crawford began to attract attention in 2013 when he easily outpointed Colombian slugger Breidis Prescott, known for destroying the mystique of Amir Khan in just 54 seconds back in 2008. Bud’s management had tried to convince their man to avoid the fight—Prescott was too big, too proven, and too dangerous for a neophyte like Bud—but he insisted on it. The results spoke for themselves: Bud won every round on one judge’s scorecard and nine of ten on another.
He began 2014 with an even more dangerous test, fighting the Scottish champion, Ricky Burns, on Burns’s infamously biased home turf. (Burns was coming off a fight that was inexplicably scored a draw against the Mexican-American Ray Beltran, in which Beltran had broken Burns’s jaw, knocked him down, and generally dominated the fight.) Against Crawford, however, even bad judging couldn’t save Burns. Crawford started slowly, awkwardly, switching from conventional to southpaw, looking sort of like a 5’8” 135 lb. version of Peter Parker: slowly becoming aware that he’d acquired superhuman abilities but not yet certain how to harness and employ them. By mid-fight, however, Bud was in control and the first flashes of true brilliance began to shine through. He won easily and returned to the US with Burns’ lightweight title in tow.
Crawford fights Ricky Burns, March 2014. Photo via Getty
It was, however, Crawford’s next fight, on HBO, versus the widely hyped Cuban super prospect, Yuriorkis Gamboa, in which Bud truly arrived. Gamboa, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist, had reeled off 23 straight wins since defecting and turning pro in 2007. But Gamboa’s career seemed to abruptly dry up after he signed on with rapper 50 Cent’s burgeoning (and ultimately failed) promotional company in 2012, and he’d been away from the ring for almost a full year when he stepped in to meet Crawford in June 2014. Not only did he have to contend with ring rust, but Gamboa was also giving away two and a half inches to Crawford. Still, to a number of boxing fans, myself included, Gamboa seemed the more talented, more polished fighter going into that fight.
As he had with Burns, Crawford started out deliberately, fighting mostly out of a southpaw stance, his long slender arms held out just in front of his stomach, bent at the elbow, making Bud look almost like a marathoner setting himself up to break away for a quick wind sprint. Gamboa came out as a whirlwind of undisciplined activity, winning the early rounds but exhausting himself in the process. None of Gamboa’s sound and fury seemed to faze Bud, who was coolly biding his time, noting the flaws in the flamboyant Cuban’s game, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, beginning to cock back his left hand.
The first knockdown, midway through the fifth round, happened so quickly that Gamboa briefly tried to argue that he had been pushed to the ground. The replay told the truth however: as Gamboa had recklessly charged at Crawford, Bud had ever so slightly torqued his chiseled midsection, sending a perfectly timed left hand into Gamboa’s chin. Gamboa buckled and started to fall but crooked his arm around Bud’s neck. Bud tossed aside Gamboa’s arm and hit him once more for good measure as he fell to the ground.
Crawford fights Yuriorkis Gamboa. Photo via AP
The second knockdown, in the eighth round, was harder to miss. As an increasingly battered and desperate Gamboa tried to work his way inside, Bud caught him with a three-punch left-right-left that left Gamboa crumbled on the canvas. Gamboa again popped up quickly, but this time with a look of true discouragement across his face. It was a look that admitted too much: the undefeated gold medalist’s face seeming to cry out, “I don’t belong in a ring with this guy.” As the round came to a close, Bud caught Gamboa with a two-punch combination that left the Cuban clumsily slumped onto him, as if he was hopelessly drunk and trying—unsuccessfully—to maintain his composure. With what appeared to be little more than a dismissive shake of his head, Bud wriggled free of Gamboa’s clumsy grasp and walked triumphantly back to his corner.
The end came in the ninth. Knowing that he needed a knockout to win, Gamboa sloppily chased Bud around the ring, while Crawford—now in complete control—whipped long punches at his desperate foe. The first knockdown came on a winging left hand that sent Gamboa tumbling to the mat. Gamboa managed to get up by the count of eight, but he wasn’t all there: When the ref asked him to demonstrate that he was okay by walking forward, he stumbled backwards instead. This being boxing, that was deemed good enough, and Gamboa was allowed to continue. As he mounted one last suicidal charge, Bud seemed to momentarily lose his balance and stumble backwards, Gamboa followed—prey being suckered in by a momentary display of weakness from the predator—and BANG, a giant right hand left Gamboa on his back. The ref had seen enough. He stopped the fight without even bothering to count.
Crawford has fought twice more since that. Against Ray Beltran, he fought a patient, cerebral fight, winning every round and settling once and for all the question of who deserved to be the rightful heir to Burns’s former title. In his most recent fight, against Thomas Dulorme, Crawford took the opposite approach. For five rounds, Crawford laid in wait, looking supremely confident and in control, but doing next to nothing. Then, on his corner’s instruction, he turned it on in round six. A single punch turned it all around: a picture perfect right hand that seemed to separate Dulorme from his sense of spatial orientation. Dulorme backed into the ropes and Bud swarmed. Dulorme tried to duck but his legs, which has lost their connection with his brain, gave way and he went to the ground instead. For reasons that defy logic, he got up, and Bud resumed his onslaught. Slow motion replay shows a look of abject terror on Dulorme’s face, almost begging the ref to protect him, as Bud mercilessly beat him down to the ground a second time. Dulorme again got up but his heart wasn’t in it. Bud charged and unloaded a wild bevy of blows, leading Dulorme to take a knee. It was a moment of pure submission. In just a matter of minutes, Dulorme had gone from handily winning the fight to giving up completely.
Crawford’s trajectory in some way mirrors that of another recent fighter managed by Dunkin, Kelly Pavlik. Pavlik, a bald-headed and skinny guy out of Youngstown, Ohio, with a punch like a mule, seemed to appear out of nowhere in 2007, blowing out feared punchers Jose Luis Zertuche and Edison Miranda before upsetting Jermain Taylor to claim the undisputed middleweight title of the world. Briefly, it looked like Dunkin was holding a winning lottery ticket: a white, Midwestern knockout artist? That’s pure unobtanium in the boxing world. But it turned out that Pavlik was a supernova, a powerful explosion of pure energy that totally destroyed the star in which it originated. The next year, he was upset by elder statesman Bernard Hopkins in a performance that illuminated the hundreds of theretofore-latent defects in Pavlik’s game. Drinking problems followed, then a persistent staph infection, and Pavlik never recaptured the glory of 2007. He retired in 2013 and was last seen being arrested for assault at a Foo Fighters concert earlier this year.
Dunkin isn’t worried about a replay of that with Bud. Pavlik, you see, was a type, a pure puncher who had trouble fighting while going any direction but straight ahead. A good technician, even an aged one like Hopkins, was able to exploit those flaws and take him apart. That’s not an issue for Bud. He can fight any way that makes sense, and even a few ways that defy common sense. If you come at him, he’ll dissect you like he did Gamboa. Stand still, and he’ll take your head off like he did to Dulorme. Try to box with him, and go down without a whimper, as Beltran did. Besides, on top of his in-ring limitations, Pavlik had personal demons. He didn’t seem to ever be at peace. He didn’t have a protector watching over him, deflecting bullets and other obstacles that could knock him off his ordained path. Bud is impervious.
Crawford’s opponent on Saturday is Dierry Jean, a hard-punching Haitian fighting out of Montreal. Jean’s only professional loss came in the form of a close decision taken by Lamont Peterson, a perennial contender who has something of a history of winning controversial decisions. In a boxing world that’s increasingly divided into exclusive promotional cartels, Jean makes for a credible foe, but don’t mistake this fight for anything but what it is: a coronation. An audition for the role of the next pound for pound king. One of the last chances anyone will have to see Bud do his thing without having to plunk down $59.99 for the privilege. His people know where he’s headed: Bruce Trampler, the long-time matchmaker for Bud’s promoter, Top Rank, and widely regarded as perhaps the keenest eye for talent in the sport, told me, “If Bud remains on course … I think he will be recognized as the best of his time.”
If Bud wins on Saturday, and he is the overwhelming favorite to do so, he moves onto the short list of potential opponents to face Manny Pacquiao next year, where he’d be competing with familiar names like Amir Khan, Juan Manuel Marquez, and his own honorary big brother, Timothy Bradley, for the richest, highest-profile opportunity in boxing, one that could launch him into the stratosphere. But don’t hold your breath in anticipation of that fight. “I doubt that Freddie Roach will let Pacquiao in with Bud,” Charles Farrell recognizes. “There’s no way Manny wins that fight at this stage of his career (if he would have won it at any stage).”
In some ways, though, the best fight for Bud is one that likely will never happen. Floyd Mayweather managed to avoid the most dangerous opponents for most of his career, particularly while those foes were in their primes. His signature wins came against largely faded versions of Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, and Manny Pacquiao. Even so, we saw him struggle at times with southpaws, with fighters with strong jabs, and with fighters who could smother him in a barrage of punches—against fighters like Crawford, in other words. Would Crawford have been the fighter to snatch away Mayweather’s prized undefeated record? It’s too early to say, of course, and even if Bud matures into everything that he looks to be, we’ll never really know for certain how he would have matched up against the best version of Mayweather, who was a true defensive virtuoso. Fight fans can debate that forever. That’s part of the joy of being a fight fan. Hypothetical fights have an infinite number of hypothetical endings, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
My opinion? I’d pick Bud. Even though he’s young, even though he’s unproven, and even though his most impressive foe to date was a smaller man hopelessly mismanaged by a guy whose promotional enterprise went belly-up a few months later. Mayweather may have been the best defensive fighter of the past generation, but that’s still a type. Bud is an anomaly. He is just better than everyone else.
Daniel Roberts is a longtime boxing fan and occasional contributor to Deadspin. He can be found on Twitter @drobertsIMG or at drobertsIMG@gmail.com. Top photo via Getty Images