By Hamilton Nolan
Terence Crawford is a fighter whose world class talent was recognized only recently. Yuriorkis Gamboa is a fighter whose world class talent was recognized years ago. Their styles are dissimilar, and their careers have followed vastly different paths. But for each man, beating the other is vital to proving that he is what everyone estimated him to be.
The ascendance of Terence Crawford (23-0 16 KOs) seemed to come out of nowhere. This was an illusion, of course; by the time he stepped into the ring last year as a late fill-in against Breidis Prescott, he'd already had a decorated amateur career and assembled a 19-0 record as a pro. But Crawford had the (business) misfortune of being from Omaha, Nebraska, which had sentenced him to a career spent fighting journeymen outside of boxing's major media centers. He was--though he should not have been--an unknown quantity to most fans.
His disassembling of Prescott changed all that. It became apparent to everyone that Crawford was not some fledgling prospect, nor some raw talent waiting to be honed for several more years; he was a polished, exacting, and lethal boxer who mixed a stylish defense with nonstop footwork and a determined commitment to attacking that separated him from more run-of-the-mill slick boxing types. He was, at the age of 25, a finished product. After beating Prescott, he went on to TKO Alejandro Sanabria, and then turn in decision wins over Andrey Klimov and Ricky Burns, confirming his rise to the top of the lightweight division. In the space of a single year, Crawford proved that he is probably the most skilled 135-pound fighter in the world. All he lacks is a win over a true A-level fighter to show that he belongs among boxing's elite.
Enter Yuriorkis Gamboa, the most frustrating fighter in the world. Not only for his opponents, but for his fans as well. Gamboa's ethereal athleticism, talent, punching power and speed have been salivated over for years; and yet, at age 32, all he has to show for it is a 23-0 record with a signature win over... Orlando Salido? Some of this is due to the fact that he had to defect from Cuba (after winning a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics), and didn't begin his official pro career until 2007. But more of it is due to the poor management of his career. Even five years ago, Gamboa had the ability to fight anyone in the world. Instead, promotional miscues and contract disputes slowed his career to a painfully slow pace, failing to produce a single matchup with a truly world class opponent who could force Gamboa to work hard and show everything that he has. Until now.
It's about time. Gamboa's last two fights, against Michael Farenas and Darleys Perez, proved to be lackluster affairs in which Gamboa went through the motions for decision victories that were much less pretty than they should have been, given the matchups. It is Gamboa's curse, and allure, to be so good that he grows bored in the ring easily. He rarely flashes his ability to throw crushing dozen-punch combinations unless he has to. When he is not challenged, he seems content to move and jab and throw the occasional right hand, winning rounds while looking completely average. It is only when he is challenged or hurt with a punch that he unleashes the offensive whirlwind that keeps boxing purists coming back to his fights time and again, even after one too many disappointments.
That makes this fight all the more interesting. Crawford is not only a fighter who can hit Gamboa--he is a fighter who can hit Gamboa and not get hit back. He is a fighter who can at least have a chance at controlling Gamboa with his jab, winning rounds and staying away from counterattacks with sterling footwork. He can, and probably will, use Gamboa's weaknesses against him in a way that no one has before. Yes, Gamboa has been hit before, and dropped before, mostly due to his own laziness. But he has never before been truly outboxed--set on his heels by someone whose skills were at least in the same ballpark as his own. Given Crawford's consistency and tendency towards intelligent and methodical fighting (and the fact that Crawford is the bigger man), this seems quite likely to happen.
And then what? Will Gamboa fold against a sharper and more technical boxer? Or will the frustrations inherent in fighting Crawford inspire Gamboa to--at last!--display every last bit of his talent in a single fight? His ability to encircle opponents in two wide steps; his blazing hand speed and tornado of combination punching that no man can withstand; his Roy Jones-esque ability to keep his hands down and still bowl over opponents with hooks. That is the Yuriorkis Gamboa that the world has been waiting to see. The only question is whether that Yuriorkis Gamboa is still lurking within, waiting to come out.
If it doesn't, Terence Crawford will get the win of his life.
The undercard pits two undefeated but untested international middleweights against one another. Matt Korobov (23-0) is a combination-punching Russian southpaw with wins over respectable gatekeepers like Derrick Findley and Grady Brewer. Jose Uzcategui has slightly flashier numbers (22-0, 18 KOs), but he's fought exclusively in Mexico and has yet to be tested. Uzcategui has long reach and a bomb of a right hand, but Korobov's experience makes it his fight to lose.