Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
- Bruce Lee
Terence Crawford is a boxer who should give boxing fans hope for the future. In an era of undefeated-yet-untested contenders and altogether unproven champions, Crawford stands as one completely unafraid of a true challenge. In fact, Crawford excels when he is challenged: in March of 2013 he broke onto the scene with a brilliant decision win over the heavily favored Breidis Prescott, coming back from a difficult start to outbox his opponent over ten rounds. Another feeling-out period followed by round after round of clever boxing earned Crawford his lightweight title against Ricky Burns in March of 2014. And most recently, Crawford knocked out Yuriorkis Gamboa in the fight of the year to defend his title for the very first time.
This Saturday, November 29th, Crawford faces a hard-hitting counter puncher by the name of Raymundo Beltran, who the TBRB rates as the number two lightweight in the world. Once again Crawford is pitting himself against a tough opponent, and the likelihood of his losing seems high. But Crawford excels under pressure, when the bright lights are on him. Nothing really says that as well as his knockout of Gamboa, and that's the fight we'reToday we will be breaking down that fight, and analyzing exactly what Crawford did to turn a challenging opponent into a sitting duck.
Though Gamboa had been relatively inactive prior to the bout, he was still a serious test for Crawford. Both men entered the fight undefeated with 23 professional bouts, and Crawford had boxed as an amateur from the age of seven. However his pre-professional accomplishments pale in comparison to those of Gamboa, who fought 250 amateur bouts and holds an Olympic gold medal as well as four national championships in--and this is important--Cuba.
That alone is the boxing equivalent of a loaded gun at Gamboa's hip; in boxing, nothing says "Don't mess with me," like a successful background in the Cuban amateurs.
So in the first rounds against Gamboa, it was no surprise that Crawford found himself soundly outboxed in classic Cuban fashion.
Immediately Crawford was faced with something he may not have expected--the faster, more accurate jab of a much shorter man. Gamboa quickly established his left hand, throwing it high and low, and accompanying it with a wide variety of feints.
The key to this, though it took Crawford another two rounds to realize it, was Gamboa's ability to penetrate the champion's stance with his lead foot. Repeatedly, Gamboa would take a deep step forward and to his own left, bypassing Crawford's lead foot and getting close enough to jab. And because the jab follows the lead foot, Gamboa's jab slipped right between Crawford's gloves time and time again, as in the GIF above.
More or less all of Gamboa's success in the first three rounds of the bout came as a result of his lateral movement. With nothing doing nothing to stop him, Gamboa circled to his left, both on offense and defense.
Crawford's intention was to find Gamboa with his own jab, but the Cuban stayed ahead of him with pivots and side steps, always moving to the left, always forcing Crawford to jab awkwardly across his own body. By round three, Gamboa began building combinations off of this movement, adding power punches to his tricky array of head and body jabs.
Above, you can see every element of Gamboa's tactic come into play. Crawford moves forward, jabbing, but can't find Gamboa as he cuts a tight pivot to his left and sticks his own jab into Crawford's belly. The American boxer tries a counter right, but Gamboa does an excellent job of changing levels as he goes to the body, and Crawford's punch sails wide of the mark. A missed right hand to the body from Gamboa is followed by a crisp three punch combination. Note that Gamboa throws his punches while stepping forward and to the left, once again penetrating Crawford's stance--and when Crawford counters, he fails to make his own similar forward movement, allowing Gamboa to slip away unharmed.
Essentially, Gamboa was using boxing skill to negate a very real size discrepancy between himself and his opponent. By constantly circling to his left, he made it difficult for Crawford to sit down on any meaningful punches, and consistently worked his away around the bigger man's left foot--and therefore around his long jab.
Crawford needed to adjust, or lose his brand new belt. He chose the former, and the change came midway through round three. Perhaps just testing the waters, Crawford switched to southpaw. HBO's commentary team were aghast at the decision--switch-hitting, though more prevalent today than ever before, is uncommon and, truthfully, difficult to do well. It is rare to find a boxer who can actually hit and move out of both stances with equal ease.
Terence Crawford, as it turns out, is such a boxer.
Roy Jones in particular was worried about Gamboa's right hand, a weapon which theoretically should have become more dangerous in an open stance (southpaw vs orthodox) scenario. His concern was legitimate: immediately after Crawford switched his stance, Gamboa nearly tagged him with the right hand you see above. But Crawford noticed something Roy didn't.
Take a look at Gamboa's feet.
Where is the deep diagonal step to close the distance? Where is the pivoting and side stepping to avoid a counter? Suddenly, Gamboa finds Crawford's right foot directly in front of his left, blocking the path he must follow to safely close the distance against his longer opponent. Denied that forward step, Gamboa immediately throws a wild right hand, throwing himself off-balance and nearly eating a counter in the process.
Suddenly Crawford had his answer, and he quickly went to work exploring his newfound openings.
To the commentators' credit, Gamboa did find substantial success with his right hand, throwing it both looping and straight, and catching Crawford cleanly throughout the remainder of the third round and most of the fourth. They failed to notice, however, that Gamboa's creative and varied offense all but disappeared as a result. He could land the right hand--at first--but he began to throw almost nothing else.
Gamboa became predictable, and despite some hiccups Crawford was able to avoid more and more of his punches as the fight wore on. Above, Gamboa closes out the third round by practically bumrushing Crawford with a rapid succession of right hands. Once again, he fails to move around Crawford, more or less moving forward in a straight line and loading up his right hand from long distance.
The Cuban simply wasn't comfortable moving laterally to his right--and Crawford knew it. Already, just a minute and a half after Crawford's southpaw switch, Gamboa's deadly jab became a nonfactor.
Crawford's jab, on the other hand, became more accurate and useful the more time he spent in southpaw.
Above, Crawford uses the same movements that Gamboa had previously used to such great success against him. Instead of trying to work his way into Gamboa's stance, however, Crawford steps to the outside of Gamboa's lead and uses his height to send sharp jabs shooting over Gamboa's shoulder.
By the mid-point of round four, Roy Jones was willing to concede that Crawford might in fact have some logic behind his southpaw choice. "He's sticking with the southpaw position," he remarked, "So he must see something. I hope it's not out of just him being stubborn." Of course, Crawford had seen something very telling indeed, and his adjustment paid off in a big way.
Nearing the final minute of round five, Gamboa once again seeks to land his right hand upstairs. Preceding his cross with a sweeping left hook, Gamboa leaps forward, once again moving in a straight line from long range. As he barrels forward, Crawford takes a small step back and counters with a right hook, easy to time because of the great distance Gamboa is attempting to cover with a telegraphed blow.
Staggered by the punch, Gamboa tries to recuperate, but ducks hastily into a Crawford uppercut, and hits the canvas.
Gamboa struggled mightily to win his way back into the fight, even stunning Crawford in round nine when the Omaha native grew overconfident in hunting down his wounded foe. Crawford refused to be bested, however, and set out to finish Gamboa once and for all.
With just forty seconds left in the ninth round, Gamboa makes a desperate bid to keep Crawford from recuperating--and stumbles directly into the same right hook that put him down in round five. On wobbly legs, he backs into the ropes, and Gamboa pounces with a cunning and craft that belies his age and experience. At the critical moment, Crawford shifts back to orthodox and cracks Gamboa with a left hook that the Cuban simply never saw coming.
Gamboa was absolutely flummoxed by Crawford's southpaw tactics, and yet it was a simple orthodox left hook that ultimately spelled his doom.
And again, look at the fighters' feet. Stepping forward and to the left, Crawford sends Gamboa to the deck from the exact same angle that allowed Gamboa himself to win the first four rounds of the bout. I doubt Gamboa appreciated the irony of this fact.
Terence Crawford is no defensive wizard. Neither is he the best, most technical boxer in the sport. What he is, is formless, shapeless, and--in a way--limitless. No man is more difficult to defeat than the man who changes shape to fit the needs of his circumstances. Ray Beltran may be able to do it, but given what Terence Crawford has accomplished so far, it seems doubtful that any lightweight on earth will be able to stay ahead of the champion for long.
For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. This week's episode features an interview with Steven "The Warman" Wright, trainer of UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks.