Spence vs Crawford: The “IT” Factor

It’s taken almost five years, but the superfight we’ve been yearning for, Spence vs Crawford, is finally here. Saturday sees two of boxing’s finest practitioners square off in a showdown that will crown an undisputed, undefeated welterweight champion. Errol “The Truth” Spence, 28-0 with 22 KOs, brings the IBF, WBC and WBA belts to the table, while Terence “Bud” Crawford, 39-0 with 30 KOs, and already a former undisputed champ at 140 pounds, brings the WBO strap. The best fighting the best; all the belts on the line. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

For far too long, it seemed Spence vs Crawford was destined to pass us by. With Spence’s unflinching allegiance to Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions, and with Crawford’s ties to Bob Arum’s Top Rank placing him “on the wrong side of the street,” a deal appeared to be all but impossible. Even as Crawford became a free agent and the contracts seemed on the verge of being signed, haggling over purse splits and “A-side” status again scuppered a deal.

Spence vs Crawford
Spence vs Crawford: It’s about time!

Finally, the two fighters took it upon themselves to personally get in contact and iron out the remaining obstacles. It seems both men came to recognize that their legacies depended on one another, and a clear mutual respect has developed in the build-up. “Errol could have easily moved up to 154 and said, ‘Man, I’m not fighting that dude,'” said Crawford, of Omaha, Nebraska. “I commend him for staying at 147 and doing what he said he was going to do… I respect him for that.” Spence, fighting out of Dallas, Texas, was similarly effusive: “He’s a great fighter; I’m a great fighter… Terence is my dancing partner. I feel like we’re going to make each other great.”

Crawford has been calling for the fight since ripping the WBO welterweight title from Australian Jeff Horn back in 2018. The victory, making Bud a three-weight world champion, was nevertheless bitter-sweet: Horn’s highly disputed win over Manny Pacquiao likely cost Crawford a shot at the Filipino legend, in a fight that could have catapulted him to superstar status. It was not to be, and instead he had to make do feasting on the likes of former world champions Amir Khan, Kell Brook, and Shawn Porter, along the way winning all seven of his welterweight fights by stoppage.

Crawford vs Khan
Crawford humiliates Khan in 2019.

Meanwhile, Spence had the luxury of squaring off against a deeper roster of PBC rivals, with big events against former champs Danny and Mikey Garcia, and unification fights against Shawn Porter and Yordenis Ugas. However, it has not all been plain sailing. A serious car crash in 2019 kept Spence out of the ring for over a year and threatened to derail his career. And like Crawford, he also missed out on a money-spinning match against Pacquiao, after he was forced to pull out of their scheduled fight due to a torn retina. Again, he fully recovered, though the eye surgery led to another 16-month hiatus from the ring.

As such, Spence has made just six defences in the six years since winning his first world title, with only two fights since beating Porter way back in September 2019. Crawford’s activity level has been only slightly better, with just one fight in each of the last three years. Hardly ideal preparation for either man going into their biggest ever bout.

Porter and Spence gave us a fight to remember.

After “marinating” for five years, there’s also a concern Spence vs Crawford is coming slightly too late. Aside from the injuries and inactivity, with Crawford at 35 and Spence at 33, they are no spring chickens. As Mayweather, Pacquiao and others have shown though, these days champions do compete successfully well into their 30s. If Spence or Crawford are a shade past their athletic peaks, there’s been no evidence of decline so far in the ring. And while Mayweather vs Pacquiao failed to deliver fireworks between the ropes, Spence vs Crawford promises to be a more explosive clash of styles.

Crawford is the naturally smaller man, having moved up from lightweight and super lightweight, though he has developed into a vicious-punching welterweight with a devastating killer instinct. Not only this, he carries his power late into fights, scoring stoppages in the ninth, tenth and twelfth rounds during his 147 pound reign. He is unquestionably one of the best finishers in the sport, as Spence is only too well aware, telling Showtime’s All Access: “Terence Crawford, he’s a mean fighter. He’s a guy that, [if] he gets you hurt, he’s gonna go for the knockout.”

Spence vs Crawford
Crawford showed his killer instinct against Benavidez.

If there is a weakness to Crawford’s game, he is sometimes drawn into a firefight a bit too easily, leaving himself open in his eagerness to “get even” after being caught. But then again, that is also what makes him such a fierce competitor. He is also usually a slow starter, taking time to find his range and switching stances as he gauges the best route to attack. Effective leading with either hand and a super quick counter puncher, Crawford is the more dynamic and reflexive fighter of the two. Given his subsequent run of knockouts, it’s funny to think he was once criticized for his “safety first boxing style,” en route to a lopsided decision over Viktor Postol, in a dangerous 140 pound unification fight. But it is well worth remembering that he can box to such a disciplined strategy when required.

As the natural, career-long welterweight, it’s somewhat surprising that Spence actually starts as a slight underdog. Style-wise, he is a more methodical boxer than Crawford, pressing forward behind a solid southpaw jab, employing a consistent body attack and a super high work rate. And though lacking Crawford’s more dynamic shot selection and one-hit KO power, Spence is a more fundamentally sound technician, breaking down opponents with his steady but unrelenting assault, and equally capable of gutting it out in a serious dogfight when needed.

Spence vs Crawford
Spence battered Kell Brook in 2017.

Interestingly, CompuBox stats rank Spence number one among all top active boxers for punch output and power punches landed, averaging per round a massive 70.9 punches thrown, and 15.8 power shots landed, compared to Bud’s 45.5 and 10.2. On the other hand, Crawford is ranked highest in terms of his power punch connect rate, getting through with a huge 47% of his power shots to Spence’s 45.4%. In other words, Spence throws and lands more power shots, but Crawford is more accurate and efficient with his. Overall, the more impressive plus/minus ratio (that is, the difference between the amount a fighter gets hit and how many they land, a measure of how effective they are at “hitting and not being hit”) also belongs to Crawford, scoring +13.5 to Spence’s +9.3. In a fight of this calibre, where the margins for error are so fine, that difference could be crucial.

Will this be the crowning win for “The Truth”?

Given Spence’s higher punch output and Bud’s tendency to start slowly, we should not be surprised if Spence takes an early lead, but Crawford must be careful not to end up in a hole that he cannot dig himself out of on the scorecards. We also should not be surprised to see Crawford’s quicker, more accurate shots find greater success down the stretch if the fight goes deep. Whether Spence can maintain his typical work rate faced with such a fast-twitch counter puncher, or whether Crawford will be able to find a way to blunt Spence’s sustained offense, will be fascinating to see. Both are highly intelligent boxers, but it’s also hard to envisage either man backing down if a dogfight breaks out, which should make for an enthralling finish, however long this duel lasts.

Or will “Bud” add to his Hall of Fame credentials?

Who will win? It may well come down, as Spence’s trainer Derrick James suggested, to “mental fortitude”, to who can absorb the other man’s punches yet still persist with enforcing their own game plan and imposing their will. Spence’s own words may also turn out to be prescient: “You can call it the ‘IT’ factor. If you got it, you got it. Something’s just gotta be in you. It’s just something that certain fighters got, certain fighters don’t got. And it shows in the ring.”

Both are clearly special fighters, but my feeling is that Terence Crawford just has that extra layer of something special, a touch more savvy and a little bit more spice – call it the “IT” factor, if you like – that will show in the ring and see him through to victory. “This is one of them fights that will be talked about forever,” predicts the champ from Omaha. He could well be right.          — Matt O’Brien  

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