5 Key Questions That Will Decide Ricky Burns vs. Terence Crawford

James GarnerContributor IFebruary 28, 2014

5 Key Questions That Will Decide Ricky Burns vs. Terence Crawford

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    Ricky Burns enters the ring in Glasgow on Saturday night as the WBO lightweight champion but it is his undefeated American opponent Terence Crawford who starts as the betting favourite, per Oddschecker.

    Indeed, the more fight week has progressed, the more money has gone down on the 22-0 contender from Omaha, Nebraska.

    Footage of Crawford shows that his speed, reach, head movement and lateral movement are very strong and he has reasonable, if unspectacular power.

    In his last two performances against Jose Gonzalez and Raymundo Beltran, Burns has looked a vulnerable champion and many now see this as the perfect opportunity for the developing Crawford to land his first world-title.

    However, Burns has been at his best throughout his career as the underdog and with expectations lower going into this bout, he may just be able to pull another big performance out of the locker and shock Crawford the way he did the likes of Roman Martinez, Michael Katsidis and Kevin Mitchell.

    Here are the five key questions going into this fight, the answers to which will likely decide the outcome.

1. Is Crawford Overhyped?

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    After 22 fights, Terence Crawford has not come close to losing. It is difficult to identify any weaknesses from his fight archive because he has always been that much better than his opponents.

    Crawford had an excellent amateur record before turning professional and now looks at home in the pro game. He is an intelligent fighter who judges distance well and who can pick opponents off with his speed and long reach.

    In some quarters, including Crawford's own camp, Burns is seen as just a stepping stone to a world-title and then to so much beyond. The American is seen as having the potential to hit the pound-for-pound lists and he has already fought decent opposition at light-welterweight.

    At 5'8" he should have the frame to go as high as welterweight later in his career if that is still a weight where big fights are available.

    Hang on, though. Halt the hype train for just a minute. Ask the question any abashed Burns fan would ask looking at their man's supposed conqueror—but who has he fought?

    And the answer is: nobody, really. Crawford's best wins came against his three most recent opponents and they are Andrey Klimov, Alejandro Sanabria and Breidis Prescott.

    Now, they are all respectable fighters and Crawford did look first-class against them but none of them is a clear top 25 fighter in his division.

    Despite his world-title, Burns is not the king of this division, but he is a top five guy. Crawford is making a serious jump in opposition here without a couple of top 15 opponents as a bridge.

    Boxing is littered with fighters who have looked great against second-class opposition and yet always lost against first-class opposition. Burns is the opposite. He looks pretty mediocre against second-class opposition but in his toughest fights he has had the intangibles to prosper.

    Yes, Crawford has looked very good so far but against inadequate benchmarks. Now he faces a real test. He could well live up to those early performances but nobody can be sure until he makes this leap in class. The hype may be the truth or it may be a lie.

2. Is Burns in Decline?

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    When Ricky Burns stopped Kevin Mitchell in the fourth round of their September 2012 fight, it looked like the Scotsman had really arrived in the lightweight division.

    Burns had already beaten Michael Katsidis at the weight but it looked like a shop-worn version of the popular Australian—still very game but not quite as sharp as he had been.

    Going into the Mitchell fight, there were still many who doubted Burns' ability and he was far from a heavy favourite, even though Mitchell had previously failed where Burns succeeded against Katsidis.

    But Burns blew him away, looking big at the weight, strong, powerful and irrepressible.

    Then after an eight-month layoff, which saw him move promoters to Matchroom, Burns returned against the unheralded Puerto Rican Jose Gonzalez. Incredibly, Burns was totally outboxed for six rounds and in huge danger of losing his title.

    Burns turned up the heat in Round 7 and the fist fight that ensued drained Gonzalez's tank so much that he ultimately failed to come out after Round 9. Burns showed his strong will to win but exposed vulnerabilities opponents will be eager to exploit.

    In September last year, Burns was lucky to escape with his title after a draw with Raymundo Beltran, which most people thought was a clear win for the Mexican.

    Again, Burns looked predictable, coming forward in straight lines and he was picked off easily at times. His excellent jab, that did so much to overcome Katsidis and Mitchell, simply wasn't the weapon it had been.

    Burns is not especially old at 30 but he has been an active fighter and has been in draining contests, perhaps often operating a little higher than his natural talent level. If he has genuinely declined, Crawford might make easy work of him.

    The other theory is that after the Mitchell fight, Burns was disappointed that a big unification showdown couldn't be organised; he came close to getting the chance to fight the IBF champion Miguel Vasquez in London—and that might have affected his training.

    It would be understandable if Burns lacked motivation coming to fights with the unknown Gonzalez and unglamorous Beltran. That's the optimistic interpretation for his boosters, because their man has certainly looked off the pace in his most recent outings.

3. Is Crawford Properly Prepared?

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    There's no doubt that Terence Crawford comes into this fight in great physical condition. He's obviously trained well, makes weight fine and is highly motivated to win his first world-title.

    But listening to Crawford and his camp, you can't help but wonder if they are underestimating Burns, as well as the size of the occasion and the hostility of the Glasgow crowd which they will face.

    The Crawford camp is extremely confident in their charge with his manager Kevin McIntyre comparing him to a young Floyd Mayweather.

    When asked by IFL TV if he had paid much attention to Burns, Crawford himself said, "Not really," and that he had only seen the Beltran fight. McIntyre, in the interview above, replied to the question of whether he was impressed by Burns with a flat "No."

    If the Burns of the Gonzalez and Beltran fights shows up then Crawford's team are right to think their man is in for an easy night's work. But are they prepared for the very best of Ricky Burns?

    Another factor is that Crawford has never gone the full 12-round distance. With neither fighter being a particularly big puncher, nor particularly vulnerable, you'd expect this one to go long.

    Last year, Anthony Dirrell was a similarly strong favourite to unseat Sakio Bika as the WBC super-middleweight champion. The fight was ultimately a draw but only because Bika lost a point for a low blow.

    Dirrell, who had never gone the distance, faded badly in the middle rounds, giving the more experienced man a way into the fight and the younger man failed to make the title his.

    Going back to McIntyre, he said of Burns, "He’s basic, not brilliant at anything, and he doesn’t bring anything to the table besides being in shape.” If the Crawford camp really believes that, how do they explain that Burns has held a world-title since 2010?

    As ever, confidence is an asset and arrogance is a liability. There is more than a suggestion that Team Crawford has more from column B than column A.

4. How Is Burns' Jaw?

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    One thing not touched on yet is that Ricky Burns had his jaw broken in the second round of the Beltran fight. That he fought the next 10 rounds with such an injury is a testament to his courage and indomitable will.

    After escaping with a draw and his title-belt, Burns headed straight to hospital. He has since had major reconstructive surgery and now has a titanium plate inserted in his jaw.

    Burns has been cleared to fight by doctors but medical repairs aren't usually required to stand up against repeated blows aimed in their general direction. You have to think there's a chance that Crawford could re-injure Burns.

    It is hard to know how much of Burns' poor performance against Beltran can be ascribed to that terrible injury but it must have been a factor. Against the more fancied Crawford, any recurrence would likely be decisive.

    Even if the jaw is fine, there is still the issue of the psychological effects of the injury. Burns has always been well-composed in big fights, able to concentrate on executing his game plan to the best of his abilities.

    Now there is a big question mark in those areas. Burns isn't the type to be easily blown off course, but the trauma of the injury and the months of recovery must surely play on his mind—on some level he will be fearful of a repeat injury.

    This may all amount to nothing come fight night but it's definitely a significant and interesting subplot which could rear its head and affect the outcome.

5. What Effect Will the Crowd Have?

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    As well as their lax attitude to the threat Burns poses as a fighter, you also have to wonder if the Crawford camp has prepared psychologically for the lion's den atmosphere that awaits them at the SEC in Glasgow.

    Tellingly, Crawford compared this away trip to traveling as an amateur to places like Canada and Venezuela. That is really no comparison at all to the 11,000 braying Scotsmen who will pack the arena on Saturday night.

    Across all sports, home advantage is recognised as a significant factor in pushing close contests one way or the other. Nobody quite knows exactly why it plays such a big hand but for Crawford to say, "I’m not worried about the crowd or the atmosphere," is simply naive.

    As well as the psychological effects of the crowd and its ability to gee Burns up or dissuade Crawford, there is the influence the fans can have on the judges.

    Last time out Burns was given a gift on the cards which denied Beltran the victory he deserved when it came out as a draw. One judge even had that one for Burns.

    In general, when a fighter has had such a controversial piece of judging in his favour, the judges are wary of making the same mistake the next time—an example would be Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield II when Holyfield did better in the rematch than the first fight but the decision went from a draw to a Lewis victory.

    Also, because Crawford is a higher rated fighter than Beltran, he is more likely to have the officials' favour than his unfortunate predecessor in Glasgow.

    We can only hope that, if as expected, the fight goes the distance, we get a fair result. But there is no doubt that the Glasgow crowd is a big plus for Burns and that Crawford will never have encountered such a wall of noise all clamouring for his demise.

    Maybe, just maybe, that crowd won't be the non-factor Crawford thinks it should be.