Spence, Crawford, and the brooding spectre of Hagler overseeing their fight for greatness

The hype, such as it has been, is no longer necessary. The talking, what little of it we have heard, is over. Several years of wishing, hoping and waiting for a fight boxing both wants and needs ends tonight when Terence Crawford and Errol Spence finally meet in a time capsule of a fight that could set a benchmark of skill and ferocity for future generations.

We have wanted this contest for so long because both fighters are that good. We have also craved it because we felt it could deliver what Spence and Crawford have both promised: fireworks.

A quiet and otherwise unspectacular build-up quickly gathered pace this week with a bad-tempered press conference on Thursday followed by a respectfully sinister weigh-in with one day to go.

In front of a huge, loud crowd that had come to see Spence and Crawford meet a final time before they swap leather, the fighters got in their last words – even shook hands – but there was fire, ambition and an old school grit in their eyes.

Fighters knew.

“This is one of the coldest exchanges I’ve ever heard/seen at a face off,” tweeted Andre Ward. Deep respect, but they both are going to try to hurt each other tomorrow night. You can see it in their eyes. The wait is over.”

“Bud” Crawford looked relaxed; at peace; jiving to music in his most extroverted moment in front of the cameras from the past 12 weeks. Spence looks like he feels he is the second favourite. He boasted an unbridled stare and looked more than ready to throw hands.

The moment the fighters shared on the stage, with Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson clearly getting into it in the background, was later acknowledged by Spence.

“No drama, beef or crazy storyline,” he wrote on social media. “Just two daring to be great and the people appreciate it.”

There has been just the right amount of venom. It has not been stage-managed. It has been contained. Typically, with both fighters, words have not been wasted unnecessarily. The feelings are legitimate. Everything about it is legitimate. The two best welterweights? Tick. Two of the best fighters of this era? Tick. In or near enough their primes to make it enthralling? Tick. Both coming in off the back of fine performances? Tick.

If you’re trying to find fault with it, or even if you try to find fault after it, you’re looking too hard because this is one to savour.

And because of the personalities involved, as former super-welterweight champion Austin Trout said yesterday, “It’s a matchlight away from exploding”.

They both have the deadmen’s eyes but you can sense the chaos in their minds and the turbulence building in their fists. The pressure; the pride; the stakes and the drive to prove they are the best. One could sense Marvin Hagler enjoying the brooding vibes of menace both project and the quiet devastation they are looking to inflict. Hagler had that same desire to prove himself The Man.

For this is why we are here – and it is why Spence and Crawford are here.

The making of this bout only finally got back on track via a phone call from boxer to boxer, discussing how they must do it and do it now. The minutia was hammered out in the first 35-minute call but more talks followed.

Spence, Crawford, and the brooding spectre of Hagler overseeing their fight for greatness

photo credit: Esther Lin / Showtime

They were based on respect, but also based upon each other’s belief that they can win at the highest level of the sport, and that’s something they want to prove because neither have had the dance partner to take them to the wire. Neither have had to venture out of fourth gear – to dig into their reserves or their souls to be in a fight-of-the-year-type fight. They have been too good for that. The hope is that they push one another to levels of excellence unique even for them in a combined 67 fights.

There are regardless key points to address. The 33-year-old Spence has been far from active, with one fight in almost three years. He’s also survived two horrendous car crashes and a detached retina. While you could say he is better preserved from not having boxed hundreds of rounds in sparring and fights over the past two or three years, it is hard to argue that his lifestyle outside of the ropes has assisted his longevity – even if he does seem to want to make the most of his life, talent and career now.

Sure, the southpaw Spence does not switch the way that the 35-year-old Crawford so effortlessly does and he might not have that same versatility or the same predatory finishing skills, but he can grind a man down; he can keep throwing; he can make a smooth fighter who finds boxing comfortable very uncomfortable.

Spence said he is definitely moving north to 154lbs after tonight. Crawford has been discussing his retirement strategy for a year, and said he has no interest in, at 39-0, pursuing Floyd Mayweather’s 50-0. But what of the 28-0 Spence and the weight? Is he looking to move up because he has found making ‘47 an increasingly strenuous task after 10 years? Or is it his pursuit of fresh challenges and the chance to make new history as a two-weight champion?

If it is the former, and the strain of making 147 hurts him, then it is advantage Crawford, who has organically gone up through the weights from lightweight to junior-welterweight to here – the biggest welterweight fight in eight years. If Spence has toiled to make the weight that will make a difference late on – and that could mean that Crawford will set about his body early. But Spence could look to deploy that same strategy – working downstairs to try to take Crawford’s gifted footwork away from him.

If both have that in mind – and you can’t attack the body without putting yourself in harm’s way – then consider Trout’s proverbial matchstick launched on to a brimming petrol canister.

Crawford is convinced he has the skills to make things straightforward. Spence is clearly all-in for something incredibly taxing.

One of Spence’s lines is “Man Down”, and maybe there will be a man down. The draw always looks like a financial oasis in a fight like this – it’s always ridiculously bold and almost never happens but with many predicting Spence to be faster out of the blocks and Crawford to perhaps figure him out later, it’s frustratingly tempting to perch on the fence.

While we are so busy talking about a close fight, you could see Spence’s swarming aggression making a breakthrough in the first half of the fight or you could see Crawford’s skill and rhythm dictate terms as soon as he’s settled – and to the point that whatever Spence tries is nullified.

I realise I’m covering a lot of bases, but with a fight like this you think of every eventuality – and then you think of the less plausible reasons

There’s no give in this battle of near-peak stars, yet you almost feel that something has to. They can’t both win, implement their game plans, and do everything they want to do in the Las Vegas cauldron. There will need to be fight plan adaptions and the ability to think with a cool head, but in the heat of battle I’m not sure either of them will.

Yesterday, when asked for a last word of what he needed to do to win, Crawford said: “Be me.”

Spence was asked the same thing. “Be me,” he replied.

Being “me” won’t be enough for one of them.

One of them will wake up on Sunday not being who they thought they were and knowing that what they thought they had was not enough. But going into the fight they absolutely believe they possess the antidote for each other.

There has been a common consensus that Spence will get off to the faster start. Crawford often surrenders early rounds “taking a look”. The question, then, is can he either claw back the deficit in time or even figure out Spence clearly enough to unlock the Texan and pick him apart with shots late on? Spence has a chin. He also has the engine that can both keep him out of harm’s way and keep him upright in a crisis.

Spence’s fast start could see everything else made redundant, and this is what a portion of fight connoisseurs are curious about. Knowing the personalities involved, if Spence comes out blazing, Crawford will likely blaze back. Then the chances of a distance fight rapidly deteriorate as the excitement needle will be cranked up to thrilling levels.

“If he pushes me, I’ll push him even harder,” Spence said earlier this week.

We can only dare to dream of what kind of legendary mayhem they might concoct if that is how they propose on going about things. These are two terrific fighters who have complete belief in themselves, and to the extent that they might start ignoring words from outside the ropes – from Derrick James who coaches Spence and Brian McIntyre who handles Crawford – and just concentrate on beating the man in front of them rather than focusing too much on how.

“I’m coming for his fucking strap,” said Spence, who holds the WBC, WBA and IBF belts.

There is no consensus pick. Spence has collected a lot of support from journalists and oddsmakers this week, but Crawford is still the narrow favourite. I wonder what happens if his flashy skills don’t work against Spence. What will he do? What is plan B? If Spence’s pressure can reduce Crawford’s balletic movement – prevent him pivoting this way and that – and if he’s made to work in a furnace that’s even hotter than Vegas has been, can Crawford, at 35, hack that pace and go with it?

Spence’s desire, ability and work-rate will compress Crawford’s superior skills early on, and I don’t think Crawford will be able to close the gap in the later rounds. He will surely have his moments. It is likely they both could. There might even come a spell late in the fight when Spence is under heavy duress. 

But in the end, with as much certainty as the coin toss that decided Crawford will walk second, Spence’s volume will see him home on the scorecards and leave us all salivating for the rematch we’ve already been promised.