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Terence Crawford versus Jose Benavidez Jr: An Exercise in What Could Have Been

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If nine years ago you would had taken Jose Benavidez Jr — then months away from his pro debut and Terence Crawford — a promising fighter ten fights into his pro career, and said that nine years later one of them would win six world titles in three different weight classes and be seen as one of the best fighters pound for pound in the world and one would see their career hampered by violent crime, ninety-nine out of a hundred would have probably said it would be Benavidez who was the champ.

After all, Benavidez was seen as one of the best amateur boxers America had produced in a decade, the youngest ever National Golden Gloves champion and a silver medalist at the recent AIBA world amateur championships. He was given a rare exemption to turn pro at seventeen years old, a fat contract with Top Rank, and would be trained by Freddie Roach, then at the height of his career.

Yes, Crawford had been a good amateur and was undefeated as a pro, but he had already been shot once following a dice game in 2008, somehow escaping death, and he was still in Omaha, Nebraska, which hadn’t produced a top fighter in decades…

For a while, Benavidez was fulfilling everything everyone said about him. In his first two years as a pro he went 18-0 with 17 knockouts, fighting at a clip over every six weeks and handling most of his opponents with ease. He moved well, had a great jab, and power in both hands, yet it was his left hook that was a killer. But rumors about the young man begin to slowly surface. First it was hand problems. Then it was reports that maybe he wasn’t taking his training as seriously he needed.

Then he split with Roach in favor of his father, Jose Benavidez Sr, who was said to be a control freak. There were problems with managers. At a time when Benavidez should have been stepping up to find hand scrambled veterans in ten rounders as was the Top Rank formula, he was still tolling away in six rounders.

So, Top Rank took a gamble on him in December 2014 and pitted him against Mauricio Herrera, then the best spoiler in boxing in an interim WBA 140-pound title fight, and even though he was thoroughly outboxed by Herrera, Benavidez received a gift decision. But then he made the best of it in his only title defense, knocking Jorge Paez Jr in an impressive fashion six months later. Things seemed to be back on track.

But then the wheels fell off.

First, in his first fight as a welterweight against journeyman Sidney Siqueira, Benavidez missed weight by five pounds. Then came the violence. Jose Jr had made some of the wrong type of friends, rumor has it, and first he had one car shot up, and then in a second one burned and destroyed. Then on August 22, 2016, a month after he won a ten-round decision over Francisco Santana, Benavidez was shot in the knee while walking his dog. He would be out for eighteen months, although seeing the scar on Benavidez’s knee, it’s a wonder he can fight at all. It was rock bottom for the man who had America’s top prospect and in an insult to injury, he had to watch his brother David became the youngest super middleweight champion ever, at just age 21, and get much of the adoration that should have been his.

Meanwhile, Crawford became America’s greatest active boxer, a switch-hitting boxer puncher with a mean streak and ice in his veins. We saw that in his going over to Scotland and dominating Ricky Burns for his first title. We saw it when he overcame a slow start to dominate undefeated Cuban Olympian Yuriokis Gamboa in his breakthrough performance in June 2014. We saw in his beatdowns of Diery Jean, Hank Lundy, Felix Diaz, John Molina Jr, and Julius Indonogo. Everything that the experts thought Benavidez would get Crawford went out and earned with his fists, wrecking people, often the cheers of his adoring fans in Omaha, Nebraska, the site of this Saturday’s fight. Nine years ago, there was no way Crawford would have been the favorite. But he is now.

Yet now Benavidez, who had to endure fighting on Crawford’s undercards for two of his last three fights, can cash in all of the promise he had a decade ago if he becomes the first man to beat “Bud.” He has fought twice since the shooting, the last being a one round blowout of unknown undefeated Venezuelan Frank Rojas. We know that he is still technically gifted, but it seems unlikely that with his knee injury he can have the movement or punching power he showed as a young man. Yet, Benavidez has sure talked trash like he believes he was the fighter he was four years ago, mercilessly riding Crawford and his manager Brian McIntyre. That guy might have given Crawford trouble. But now…

What makes Benavidez task even harder is that no one has even established what the formula is to beat Crawford. Swarmers get counter punched to death. Boxers get walked down, jabbed consistently, and assaulted to the body. The only fighters to give Crawford issues are boxers who throw quick combinations and get out. Benavidez was once capable of that, but it is doubtful he has the legs to do that anymore. If that would even work in the first place.

Whatever plan Benavidez chooses to put forward Saturday night, it is important for him to remember how incredible it is that he even has this opportunity. The thought of him challenging for a world title against one of the best fighters in the world on ESPN was an impossible just two years ago. Maybe that will fuel Benavidez to a logic defying performance this Saturday. Maybe he can finally be the fighter we dreamed of him being all of those years ago.

Yet this isn’t a Rocky movie, it’s reality. And in reality, boxing is often a bitch.

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