NEW YORK — A pound-for-pound star defending his world title against a hungry, unbeaten foe, a second title bout in the co-feature involving one of boxing’s hottest young fighters in a match in which nobody seems to be able to pick a winner with strong conviction, and an opening fight that is a professional rematch designed to, at long last, clear the air over what happened in one of amateur boxing’s most controversial decisions.
There’s something for everyone on the loaded year-ending Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card at Madison Square Garden on Saturday (ESPN and ESPN Deportes, 9 p.m. ET), which immediately follows the network’s telecast of the Heisman Trophy presentation, the most prestigious award in college football.
In the main event, welterweight world titlist Terence Crawford, ESPN’s No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter, will make his mandatory defense against Egidijus “Mean Machine” Kavaliauskas.
Lightweight world titlist Richard Commey makes his second defense in the co-feature against Teofimo Lopez Jr., the gifted 2018 ESPN prospect of the year, who is taking a massive step up in competition in a fight that will show if he’s the real deal.
In the 10-round opener, featherweight Michael Conlan will finally have a chance to right a widely perceived wrong when he faces amateur nemesis Vladimir Nikitin in a professional rematch that has been a long time coming following Nikitin’s massively controversial win in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals.
This is your ringside seat for the big show:
A Crawford showcase
Terence “Bud” Crawford compliments Vasyl Lomachenko for being a good fighter, but considers himself a better pound-for-pound fighter.
The good: Crawford is an extraordinarily talented fighter. He’s one of the best in the world, has won titles in three divisions (including an undisputed reign at junior welterweight), has been ESPN fighter of the year twice, is in his prime and is likely headed to the Hall of Fame.
The bad: 11 years into his career, Crawford has yet to face a truly marquee foe. Kavaliauskas, while a solid contender, hardly qualifies.
Crawford (35-0, 26 KOs), from Omaha, Nebraska, is facing “Mean Machine” in Crawford’s third defense only because Kavaliauskas is the mandatory challenger — and, frankly, Top Rank had nobody else to offer him.
It’s the same problem Crawford had in welterweight defenses against hobbled Jose Benavidez, whose career will never be the same following a gunshot wound to the leg, and a faded Amir Khan.
“I’m fighting ‘Mean Machine’ because he is ranked No. 1 [in the WBO] and I need to fight him to keep my title,” Crawford said. “I’ve said I wanted to fight everyone, all the big names, but when my name is mentioned, they get quiet. If two fighters want to fight, it can happen.”
The 147-pound division has some major names, including fellow titleholders Manny Pacquiao and Errol Spence Jr. and former titlists Keith Thurman, Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia. While all of those fighters are facing one another under the Premier Boxing Champions umbrella, Top Rank’s Crawford, 32, is on the outside looking in.
He is tired about hearing how he’s on the “wrong side of the street” to get a fight with other big names but remains hopeful he’ll land one of them. He pointed to the fact that Top Rank and PBC recently made a mega rematch between lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and titlist Deontay Wilder for Feb. 22.
“Well, Deontay Wilder is about to fight Tyson Fury and you never hear about any ‘sides of the street,'” he said. “It’s just something people say when it comes to Terence Crawford. You don’t hear ‘wrong side of the street’ with any other fighter but Terence Crawford. Why do all these other fights get made, but when it’s Terence Crawford, it’s about the ‘wrong side of the street’?”
Top Rank chairman Bob Arum said he hopes the deal for Wilder-Fury II will lead to other Top Rank/PBC matches.
“We can’t make Spence for next year, pretty much what I’m hearing, because he had facial damage in the [recent] car accident and he won’t fight for at least a year, in my opinion,” Arum said. “So the fight I’d love to make is with Porter. There was talk about Crawford and Porter wouldn’t fight because they’re friends. They are, but they’ll still fight each other. We’re meeting periodically now [with PBC] because of the big heavyweight fight and this will come up also.”
Porter is not so sure, however, telling Steve Kim recently that a fight against Crawford is not Arum’s call.
“I’m sure Terence and I will speak after his fight,” said Porter. “My list of opposition is short. Not looking anywhere else until Spence says he isn’t fighting me.”
Kavaliauskas’ big shot
Kavaliauskas (21-0-1, 17 KOs), a two-time Olympian from Lithuania who fights out of Oxnard, California, is a heavy underdog.
“He’s a tough guy who will be in condition, but can he beat Crawford? That’s doubtful,” Arum said. “I don’t think anyone beats Crawford at welterweight, but he will give him a good fight. Kavaliauskas is a very good welterweight, a courageous guy, punches very well. If you put him with a [contender like] Danny Garcia or Yordenis Ugas, I would pick him over those guys.”
Kavaliauskas, 31, plans to prove his promoter and the bookies wrong and make the most of the biggest fight of his career. But Kavaliauskas acknowledged that Crawford is by far the best opponent of his career and views him as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
“This is a great opportunity for me against the world’s best fighter. When I win, I will be considered one of the world’s best fighters,” he said. “Crawford is a great fighter, which is why I wanted this fight. I am ranked [WBO] No. 1 for a reason.”
A win not only would go down as a massive upset, it would also make him the first fighter from his country to win a world title.
“We are working to shock the world. We want to make the upset. This is a big deal. This for me is my dream,” said Kavaliauskas, whose parents and sister still live in Lithuania. “This is a chance to build boxing at home and put it in the spotlight. I want that title, and I will be the first Lithuanian-born boxer ever to win a world title.”
Commey or Lopez? Who knows
Most view Commey-Lopez as the fight of the night because nobody really knows what will happen and it figures to be an exciting battle.
Brooklyn’s Lopez (14-0, 11 KOs), 22, who represented his parents’ native Honduras in the 2016 Olympics, has been pushing for a title shot. Commey (29-2, 26 KOs), a Ghana native fighting out of New York, won the belt in February. He will be making his second defense and was more than willing to give the kid a chance. It’s one of the more difficult recent fights to pick.
“Bookmakers have made that a 50-50 fight, so that’s obviously of great interest,” Arum said.
Neither appears to be giving an inch. Lopez, 22, believes he can beat anyone. The veteran Commey, 32, has won four fights in a row by knockout, looked sharp in recent fights and oozes confidence.
“How many boxers have come from Ghana with a chance to fight in [the Garden] in the co-main event? God bless us, and I’m ready to retain my title,” Commey said. “There is no way I’m going to lose.”
But the fight is really built around Lopez, whom many view as a future pay-per-view star.
“This is the biggest fight of my career. My stock either goes up or goes down. My career either goes up or down from here,” said Lopez. With a win, Lopez will become the second 2016 Olympian to win a world title, along with featherweight Shakur Stevenson, his Top Rank stablemate. “You got two powerful hitters. That fight is not gonna go the distance. I guarantee you that. I have all the arsenals to become world champion in multiple divisions and take over.”
Lopez has an exciting fighting style and a big personality, and he talks as well as he fights.
“I have vengeance in me,” he said. “I’m holding that, holding everything. I want to shut everyone up the best way I can, and that’s doing what I do best.
“God didn’t bring us this far for nothing. I didn’t come out here just to talk my smack and not back it up. We’re gonna do what we have to do. Richard Commey is a world champion for a reason. And we know that it’s going to be a great and exciting fight.”
Lopez had a nine-week camp and brought in respected trainer Joey Gamache to assist his father, Teofimo Lopez Sr.
“If someone were to tell me I’d win my first world title at 22 years old at Madison Square Garden, I wouldn’t believe it. It’s huge. It’s happening, and it’s a blessing,” Lopez said. “When you have a great style fight like this, it’s going to be a short night. We gotta get the job done on Saturday. We ain’t there yet.”
Lomachenko on deck
Pound-for-pound king and unified lightweight champion Vasiliy Lomachenko (14-1, 10 KOs) is expected to be ringside to scout Commey-Lopez, because the winner likely will face him to further unify the 135-pound title in the spring.
Winning Saturday is Commey’s goal, but he knows what a win will lead to.
“It is the most important fight because [Lopez is] the only one standing between me [and Lomachenko],” Commey said. “This is like a do-or-die affair. I want to be a unified champion. I have to win to get my respect.”
Lopez has previously been vocal about wanting to fight Lomachenko. Arum said the plan is for the winner on Saturday, whoever that is, will fight Lomachenko next.
“We’re looking to do it in April,” Arum said.
Conlan seeks revenge
Michael Conlan relives his Olympic heartbreak as he looks for revenge against Vladimir Nikitin on ESPN+.
Boxing and controversy are inextricably linked, and the 2016 Olympic fight between Nikitin and Conlan is a prime example.
Conlan (12-0, 7 KOs) earned a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics and was a medal favorite in 2016 when he met Nikitin in the quarterfinals. It was a rematch of the 2013 world championships quarterfinal that Nikitin (3-0, 0 KOs), of Russia, won without controversy. But it was totally different in Rio, where Conlan delivered a beating to Nikitin and appeared to easily secure a spot in the medal round.
However, the judges gave Nikitin the shocking victory. Nikitin was so busted up he had to withdraw from the tournament and was unable to fight in the semifinals.
After the bout, a distraught Conlan famously gave the judges double middle fingers and ripped the International Boxing Association, which oversaw the Olympic tournament. He said he believed Russian president Vladimir Putin paid off the judges to give it to Nikitin. The decision sparked international controversy and led to the removal of the judges from the rest of the tournament. All 36 boxing referees and judges from Rio 2016 were suspended and will not be allowed to officiate at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
When Conlan, 28, signed with Top Rank, the announcement was accompanied by a photo of Conlan and Arum raising their middle fingers to the camera for a social media post that went viral.
Nikitin, 29, remained an amateur, but when he went pro last year he signed with Top Rank to make sure he got a third fight with Conlan, this time as a pro. That fight was initially scheduled for August in Conlan’s hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland, but Nikitin was forced to withdraw due to a torn left biceps.
Michael Conlan prepares for his rematch with Vladimir Nikitin after a controversial defeat at the 2016 Olympics.
“It’s nothing personal with Vladimir and I, but I have a job to do Saturday night, and it’s going to be a demolition job,” said Conlan, who has taken to wearing a shirt adorned with the word “Redemption” and an illustration of a raised middle finger. “Listen, regardless of what I think about the [amateur] judges, I have never officially beaten him. I need to go out there and get my hand raised. I want to right the wrong of what happened in Rio.
“Vladimir, obviously, he beat me in 2013 when I moved up to bantamweight. 2016, he got the decision, but he knows deep down he needs to prove something because his career will always be remembered for losing to me in the Olympics. He’s gotta prove something Saturday night. I don’t believe he will. I’ve prepared fully, and I’ve been training for 14 or 13 weeks for this camp. I’m ready for anything Saturday night.”
Nikitin claims he is not nearly as invested in facing Conlan again as Conlan is in facing him.
“I don’t have to prove anything to anyone,” he said. “I won two bouts against him in the amateurs, and right now this is just another big step in my professional career.”
Rafael’s predictions: Crawford is a pound-for-pound elite fighter and Kavaliauskas is not. Kavaliauskas will give a great effort, but I believe it won’t be nearly enough. Crawford is far superior, much faster and has good power. He will put it all together as usual and stop Kavaliauskas in the second half of the fight in a dominant performance.
Commey is an experienced veteran who doesn’t fight with a lot of fanfare but has a lot of ability and heart. Lopez is the hotshot rising star eager to test himself. Is he ready for a quantum leap in competition? We’ll find out, but I’m going with Lopez by decision.
Conlan was denied by the judges against Nikitin in the 2016 Olympics. He won’t be in the pros. He’ll have his hand raised in a clear decision win.