On Saturday, the opponent across the ring at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas for Terence Crawford will be Jeff Horn, the WBO welterweight champion.
The reality, though, is that Crawford will really be competing against Vasiliy Lomachenko.
Crawford and Lomachenko, or Lomachenko and Crawford, are the two best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Both are promoted by Top Rank, whose chairman has compared Lomachenko to Muhammad Ali and Crawford to Sugar Ray Leonard.
Crawford and Lomachenko are in different weight classes and almost certainly won’t ever fight. But Crawford is driven by the comparisons to Lomachenko and believes he is the one who should be widely regarded as the best in the world.
At a media luncheon in Los Angeles 10 months ago on the afternoon of Lomachenko’s bout with Miguel Marriaga, Crawford sparred with reporters about their pound-for-pound rankings.
He’s subsequently noted how frequently Arum has compared Lomachenko favorably to Ali, and that has lit a fire under him.
“That is absolutely, exactly correct,” Arum said. “All of the really great fighters are tremendous competitors, and he’s no different. He’s a fierce competitor and believes he’s the best and guys like that, if they have the ability, will raise their games in situations like this to make that point.”
Crawford hasn’t fought since knocking out Julius Indongo in the third round on Aug. 19 to become the undisputed super lightweight champion. He opted to move up to welterweight after that and stepped into what could be boxing’s finest weight class.
Crawford and IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr. each are widely regarded among the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Danny Garcia, Shawn Porter and Keith Thurman aren’t far off that pace. Horn, who defeated Manny Pacquiao last year, is 18-0-1 and is a big, physical fighter who isn’t going to be easy to get out of there.
Crawford’s development has been a steady rise, and he’s added something to his game just about every bout.
He was extraordinary against Indongo, who was perceived to be a threat, and Red Spikes, his assistant trainer, said Crawford still has room to grow.
“I have been with Terence throughout his maturation as a professional boxer, and I believe we have not seen the best of Terence yet,” Spikes said. “You all should look forward to seeing him on Saturday.”
Partially, that’s going to be because of the slights, real or imagined, he perceives. He doesn’t believe he’s been properly recognized for his greatness, and so he’s continually added to his game as a way to prove his point.
He’s rarely hit much anymore, and he laughed at the notion that his bout against Yuriorkis Gamboa in 2014 could provide some sort of blueprint for Horn to follow, as Horn trainer Glenn Rushton suggested.
“Everybody keeps resorting back to the Gamboa fight,” Crawford said. “If you look at the Gamboa fight, that was in 2014, and it’s 2018 right now. They can’t label me as being hurt. I felt like I went in that fight, and I made an error in that fight and he made me respect it. It’s not like I didn’t learn from that moment. It hasn’t happened since, so if they want to go back to that Gamboa moment, then so be it.”
Former welterweight champion Timothy Bradley, who will be calling the fight for ESPN+, is a close friend of Crawford’s. And while he has first-hand experience of how good Crawford is from their times sparring together, he believes Horn will, at least for a while, make life difficult for him.
Horn is a big, physical welterweight who punches from awkward angles and never minds if an inadvertent elbow or two slips in. Bradley said he suspects Crawford will use the early rounds to scope out Horn.
“I see the fight starting off kind of rough, honestly,” Bradley said. “I think Horn, being a bigger guy, likes to move in quick, likes to get inside early, likes to work the pace and dictate the pace. I think he’s going to try to close the gap on Terence really early and show him that, ‘Hey, this is a different weight class. This isn’t 140 pounds now. This is a different weight class and different type of weight.’ I think he’s going to try to push Terence back. Honestly, I think he is. I think Terence is going to struggle in the beginning only until he finds his rhythm.
“Once Terence finds his rhythm, meaning Horn’s rhythm, then I think things will open up and Terence can control the distance from the outside and time Horn as he comes in. At the end of the match, I think it’s going to be Terence Crawford with his hands raised. I think that Horn will put up a good fight, but I think Terence Crawford has too much precision, too much boxing IQ. He’s a great counter puncher. He can punch in between shots. There are just so many dimensions to him as opposed to a guy like Jeff Horn.”
Don’t underestimate his desire to outdo Lomachenko. Lomachenko was sensational in a 10th-round knockout of Jorge Linares in a lightweight title fight in New York last month, and Crawford will no doubt be looking to deliver a similar kind of statement performance.
To Arum, who’s caught between these two superstars, that’s a good thing.
“You want guys who want to be great and who want the challenges and who push themselves, and that’s what Terence does,” Arum said. “He’s got a huge opportunity here and we’ll see what he does with it.”
More from Yahoo Sports:
• CharlesRobinson: Kap’s legal team looks to turn tables on Trump
• This might be the craziest blooper in MLB history
• Dan Wetzel: Cavs have totally wasted the LeBron era
• Chris Mannix: Are the Warriors taking the fun out of the NBA?