By Graham Houston
After two struggling performances in a row, Ricky Burns knows he will need to be at his absolute best when he defends his WBO lightweight title against mandatory challenger Terence Crawford in Glasgow on Saturday (TV on Sky Sports in the UK., AWE in the U.S.). This fight is, potentially, about as tough and as tricky as it gets. Burns will have a roaring Scottish crowd behind him at the Scottish National Exhibition Centre, and he’s the more experienced and perhaps the physically stronger fighter; Crawford is unbeaten, fast, clever and a sharp puncher, and, at 26, he’s the younger man by four years.
As an amateur Crawford boxed in the U.S. Olympic trials and was a runner-up in the National Golden Gloves. He’s stopped 16 opponents in 22 consecutive wins. The fight with Burns, though, is a big step up for Crawford, especially considering he will be away from home and can expect a hostile reception from the Glasgow fans.
Lately we’ve seen champions with an advantage in big-fight experience turning back ambitious, younger challengers. Burns has been the 12-round distance eight times and he’s unbeaten in nine WBO title bouts in two weight divisions. We know that Burns (36-2-1; 11 KOs) can dig deep when the going gets tough. He came back from a first-round knockdown to defeat Rocky Martinez to win the WBO junior lightweight title, weathered stormy moments to outscore Michael Katsidis to become champ at lightweight and, in his last fight, displayed enormous grit and mental toughness to survive a broken jaw and a heavy knockdown to earn a draw — disputed though it was — with Raymundo Beltran.
With the fight slipping away from him against Puerto Rican switch-hitter Jose Gonzalez, Burns just kept pressing forward and finally broke his opponent’s spirit.
Burns will need all of his toughness and character, and all of his boxing ability, if he is to overcome Crawford. It does seem, though, that Burns relishes the task. Being the underdog suits him just fine, Burns says, and he talks of putting on a great performance for the Glasgow fans.
Crawford is talented and he’s a sharp boxer-puncher who switches fluidly between the orthodox and southpaw stances, but he’s never faced the type of pressure that he’s likely to encounter in Glasgow, and we can’t be sure how well Crawford will hold himself together when the heat is on and Burns is bringing the fight to him with fierce intensity.
So far, Crawford has had things all his own way. Even when moving up to junior welterweight to face the bigger and supposedly more powerful Breidis Prescott, Crawford was in control of the contest to the point that he made it look easy — one judge gave Crawford every round.
Crawford’s last two opponents — Mexico’s Alejandro Sanabria and the Russian Andrey Klimov — had only one loss between them in 51 bouts, but Crawford outclassed them both, knocking out Sanabria in the sixth round and winning every round against Klimov, who had beaten big-hitting John Molina in his last fight but boxed as if intimidated against Crawford.
One thing we know about Burns is that he won’t be letting Crawford have things all his own way. Burns will, I think, be seeking to let Crawford know very early that the American boxer is in deep water in this fight.
There are faint echoes of Jim Watt’s lightweight title defence against Howard Davis Jr. about this fight. Davis came to Glasgow in 1980 as an undefeated Olympic gold medallist but Watt was too seasoned, too strong and too much of a solid professional for Davis to handle. Crawford, though, seems to be a more dangerous, more durable fighter than Davis, who, although a fast, skilled boxer had been knocked down four times.
Crawford has been training in Colorado Springs, a mile above sea level, and in Las Vegas. “I think Terence is a special talent,” Crawford’s manager, Cameron Dunkin, told me over the phone from Las Vegas. “I believe in him and I believe he can overcome the road trip and get it done. Burns is a good fighter, a tough guy — I thought the fight with Beltran was a dead-even fight that could have gone either way. On the road, you’ve got win rounds really decisive — and I think Terence will.”
While Crawford has the talent and perhaps the temperament to win this fight, the location could be a big factor. Burns is going to be tough to beat at home. I’m swaying towards Crawford to win by decision, but so much depends on how well he will be able to handle not just a very determined champion but also the big occasion and the emotion-charged, pro-Burns atmosphere in Glasgow, and we won’t know this until the fight starts.