When Ricky Burns won the WBO super-featherweight title in 2010 nobody expected him to have a long reign, yet here we are four years and eight successful fights later with Burns, who's now a two-weight champion, making the fifth defence of his WBO lightweight title. On Saturday night he faces unbeaten American prospect Terence Crawford in what looks on paper to be the toughest fight of both boxers career. The Coatbridge man will have to be at his best if he's to upset the odds yet again.
Not many thought Burns would beat Roman Martinez to win the title and even less fancied him to beat Michael Katsidis when he moved up a division a year later. Burns produced near perfect performances to beat both men, proving that whilst he wasn't the most glamorous name in boxing, he was an established at world level performer.
Having battered Kevin Mitchell in four rounds at the back end of 2012, Burns looked to be moving into his peak. A switch of promoters after the Mitchell fight looked like it would put Burns on the verge of a big unification fight, in fact, 2013 turned out to be the most testing year of his career. He was losing widely against Jose Gonzalez when the Puerto Rican inexplicably retired at the end of the ninth round after Burns had started coming on strong in the previous couple of rounds.
Gonzalez cited a wrist injury as the reason behind his sudden withdrawal but with him well ahead on the cards in a world title fight, and in no obvious pain, it looked a poor decision. It was pretty clear to all that watched the fight that he'd lost his nerve having faced a bit of adversity after having it all his own way earlier on.
Looking to put the disappointment of the Gonzalez performance behind him, Burns faced Raymundo Beltran four months later. Beltran's a good fighter but looked like the perfect opponent for Burns to look good against – a short, come forward fighter who can be too face-first at times. What occurred was a relatively one-sided beating, Burns had his jaw broke in the second round, was dropped heavily in the eighth round and won no more than four rounds on the most generous of cards. Alas, boxing being boxing, he managed to escape with a draw, with one judge (named and shamed – Andre Van Grootenbruel) scoring the bout 115-113 in his favour, which is one of the worse judging performances I've witnessed.
Burns showed tremendous bravery in getting through his fight with Beltran, he was clearly in increasing discomfort as the fight wore on but bit down on his gum shield and gutted it out. He can't afford to have another off night like he did twice last year, you can't win world title fights on bravery alone, he'll need to show his earlier world title form if he's to beat Crawford.
Omaha born Crawford has looked sensational at times during his twenty-two fight career, he's outboxed both Breidis Prescott and Andrey Klimov – hardly losing a round against them, and he's shown his punch power in stopping the tough and somewhat underrated Alejandro Sanabria in six rounds.
Whilst Crawford is untested at world level, he's shown he possesses almost every quality needed to succeed at that level. He's slick, quick, hard to hit, judges distance beautifully and carries respectable power in either hand. His style is tailor-made to give Burns nightmares, Burns likes his opponents to come forward, he's nowhere near as effective when he has to pursue an elusive target.
If Burns can establish his jab, which is his most potent weapon, then he's always going to be in with a chance of winning any fight, the trouble is that Crawford holds advantages in both reach and hand speed. Crawford will be looking to box in and out, hoping that he can pick Burns off with the jab before cleanly catching the reacting Burns coming in, which is a strong possibility with Burns' upright style and his tendency to attack in straight lines.
After the judging in the Beltran fight, it'll be interesting to see if Crawford is more aggressive than normal, believing he has to win rounds clearly or even stop Burns to get a victory on foreign soil. One hopes that won't be the case, it is, however, easy to understand a fighter having that mentality having seen what's happened previously. Judging is bad everywhere, Crawford shouldn't change his game plan because of that, he should do his job and hope the judges do there's correctly. I don't believe the usually deafening Glasgow crowd will affect Crawford but it could sway the judges in a close round, which you can live with as a fan. It's when the clear rounds get scored wrongly that it becomes intolerable.
It's a possibility that Burns has already reached the highest point of his powers and that he may be on the downward slope if his last two bouts are used as a guide to future performances. It'll also be interesting to see how Burns looks in what will be his first fight since breaking his jaw – an injury that's required him to have a metal plate inserted into his jaw. An injury like that must be a major worry for a boxer, there's bound to be some trepidation about how the jaw will hold up under hard shots.
Burns likes being the underdog, he's a tenacious fighter who thrives when his back's to the wall, but it's hard to see him having enough to beat Crawford. It's unlikely that Burns can outbox Crawford, so he'll have to bully him – push him back to the ropes, rough him up, hit him with body shots to slow his legs down and drag him into a battle, something that Crawford has yet to deal with. That said, Crawford's footwork and speed is very impressive and Burns will find it difficult to pin the American down long enough to drag him into a war.
Crawford is the real thing, there's no doubt in my mind about that, and this should be the night he comes of age. Burns won't go down without a scrap, and he'll make the fight closer than some believe, but Crawford should be able to win widely enough to get the decision.