OMAHA, Neb. -- After Terence Crawford, one of boxing's elite fighters, gave up the undisputed junior welterweight world title and moved up to welterweight, where he laid waste to Jeff Horn in a one-sided ninth-round knockout win in June to claim a belt in a third weight division, the pressing question was whom he would fight next.
Most of the best welterweights not named Terence Crawford ply their trade under the guidance of Premier Boxing Champions -- Errol Spence Jr., Shawn Porter, Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia -- and scheduling a fight against any of them was not realistic for the rest of this year. But Crawford's promoter, Top Rank, did have an unbeaten welterweight named Jose Benavidez Jr. with a giant chip on his shoulder about Crawford.
Benavidez has been calling out Crawford for some time, oddly claiming that Crawford has ducked him.
Athough Benavidez (27-0, 18 KOs), a top prospect when he turned pro at 17, remains undefeated, he has yet to score a big win in his nine-year career. His constant jabbering about Crawford, and a February confrontation at a weigh-in, essentially made the fight. Crawford, tired of the noise, decided to make his first defense against Benavidez, and the bad blood will come to a head at the CHI Health Center on Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN Deportes, with the full card streaming on ESPN+ beginning at 7 p.m. ET).
"Beating him, I hope I'll get a little respect," Benavidez said. "But I don't care what people think. I know I'm gonna beat him, and I know what I'm capable of. I'm gonna shock the world."
Said Crawford (33-0, 24 KOs), in the first fight of a new contract with Top Rank: "Once he feels them punches going upside his head, I don't even know if he's going to want to stand there next to me."
This is your ESPN.com Ringside Seat for the fight:
The distaste Crawford, 31, and Benavidez, 26, have for each other is obvious. What began as one-way traffic on Benavidez's side, with his callout of Crawford at that weigh-in Corpus Christi, Texas, has extended to Crawford as the promotion for the fight has gone on.
"These guys have had some public words ... and I think this thing is very much a personal battle," Top Rank president Todd duBoef said. "Benavidez has been, from when we took him out of the amateurs, very highly skilled and has had a nice career. And this is his defining moment.
"At this point, with Terence Crawford, this is the gold standard in boxing. He has just electrified everybody with both boxing skill and power, taken all challengers. And just anecdotally, when Terence Crawford gets in the ring, it's like Alabama in football. He is that dominant, and he's going to have his hands full with a guy that is not going to back down."
On Wednesday, Crawford and his team arrived at the gym a bit early for media day, before Benavidez was finished with his, and a shouting match erupted between the fighters and their camps.
"It's been real since day one, since the fight has been announced. It ain't been nothing but real," Crawford said, adding that no matter what happens in the fight on Saturday, he will not shake Benavidez's hand afterward. "I'm just going to go out there and shut him up. That's it. That's all."
Benavidez has shown disdain for Crawford.
"I don't see anything special in Terence Crawford. I don't see why everyone's scared to fight him," he said. "I've been sparring Manny Pacquiao since I was 16 years old, [I sparred] Timothy Bradley, I sparred Amir Khan, Shane Mosley, Shawn Porter. To me, Terence is really not that special. He's beatable, and I'm going to show him.
"Everyone always doubts me. It's nothing new. It just gives me more motivation to show them what I'm capable of. This fight, I'm glad I'm the underdog because everyone thinks I'm gonna lose. I'm not gonna lose. I didn't come to Omaha to leave empty-handed. I'm gonna leave with that belt."
Tempers flared again at Thursday's final prefight news conference, where Top Rank officials made sure their teams arrived and departed separately to avoid any confrontations.
"Everyone is sleeping and soon they're going to wake up, and I'm going to beat his ass Saturday evening. You guys ain't scaring nobody," Benavidez said to Crawford. "You best bring your A-game on Saturday because you're going to get your ass beat. Guaranteed. You better enjoy that belt because Saturday, that belt is going to be mine."
Crawford shot back, "He said we're all bark but no bite. Come Saturday, he's gonna find out how hard I bite. I ain't even gotta do too much talking because I know what's gonna happen come Saturday."
Benavidez, who at 6-foot-1 is several inches taller than the 5-8 Crawford, has been laser-focused on pulling the upset and comes off as supremely confident.
Benavidez, the older brother of former undefeated super middleweight world titlist David Benavidez, did something unusual leading up to this fight.
While Crawford was training in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as he usually does, Benavidez was getting comfortable on Crawford's turf. He set up camp in Omaha, Crawford's hometown, three weeks before the fight rather than just hitting town for fight week.
"It's time to show the world what I can do. I've been waiting for this my whole life," Benavidez said. "I am here. I am going to take over this city, and I am going to take his belt. I'm not scared."
He didn't hesitate when the fight was lined up for Crawford's hometown.
"I know what I have to do. I can't let that fight go to a decision. I'm in his backyard," he said. "I have to beat him every single round or take him out. I come to win and I'm not leaving empty-handed. I don't think I'm gonna win. I know I'm gonna win.
"I'm the taller fighter, I'm the stronger fighter. Everything he can do I can do it better. If he wants to bang, I can bang and I guarantee you I hit harder than him. It's gonna be a war, and he's not gonna come out of that ring with the belt, guaranteed. Trust me. Mark my words.
"You know when you come to someone's backyard, you have to take it them and I'm going to take it to him. I feel like I'm the stronger fighter, I'm the faster fighter. If he wants to bang, well, good luck with that because he's not going to go very far."
By the numbers
Four-fight knockout streak dating to May 2017
48 percent power connect rate, according to CompuBox (welterweight average is 38 percent)
Fifth time fighting in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska
No. 2-ranked welterweight and No. 2-ranked pound-for-pound fighter, according to ESPN
Jose Benavidez Jr.:
Two-fight knockout streak and three knockouts in his past five fights
Returned from 18-month layoff in February after recovering from being shot in the leg
Landed 38.3 percent of punches in his past five fights, according to CompuBox
While Crawford has established himself as one of boxing's best, winning titles in three divisions, winning fighter of the year honors twice and defeating several titleholders and contenders, Benavidez got the fight based mostly because of his mouth.
Even Crawford said he didn't deserve the title shot.
"No. Not at all," he said. "But that ain't the point. The point is we're here now, and we're fighting on Saturday. Come Saturday, all the talking will be out the window.
"He just wants to promote the fight. He just wanted the fight. Now he got the fight. He's gonna eat his words."
Said Brian McIntyre, Crawford's trainer and manager: "I can't say if they're worthy or not, but I know for sure they ain't ever been at this level before. For them to come into our city and talk all the trash they've been talking, and not knowing what they're getting into, two things I gotta say to that: I respect that because that's total confidence, and you f---ed, dude."
Benavidez did briefly hold an interim junior welterweight belt from 2014 to 2015 before vacating to move up in weight, but his biggest wins have come against Mauricio Herrera and Francisco Santana (on a Crawford undercard).
In his last fight, on the Crawford-Horn undercard, Benavidez knocked out then-unbeaten but entirely untested Frank Rojas in the first round of what was essentially an audition for the fight with Crawford.
"I fought a guy 22-0, 21 knockouts, so I had to take this guy out," Benavidez said. "I had to make a statement if I really wanted to fight Crawford. I had to take him out, and that's exactly what I did. We train to win and don't believe in second place. I took the guy out, and that's what I'm gonna do to Terence Crawford.
Forget about a title opportunity, Benavidez is lucky to be alive, much less still boxing. In August 2016, he took a walk with his dog in his hometown of Phoenix and was shot by a stranger above the right knee. The bullet hit his femoral artery.
"It hit my main artery and I almost died," Benavidez said. "I almost bled out."
Doctors told him his career was over, but Benavidez never believed it.
"As long as you put 100 percent in, anything is possible," he said.
He was out of the ring for 19 months but has won two fights since his February return.
"Ever since I was a child, a lot of people would say, 'Ohhh, he's not going to go anywhere' or 'He's not going to do nothing with his life.' I beat those odds, and I beat those odds coming back to boxing. I love the sport, and I'm going to keep doing this until I can't no more. I have motivation. Everyone was saying, 'You're done, your career is over with.' The doctors said your career is over with. But I knew that I would come back. I feel strong, and I feel like everything worked out as planned. I'm more motivated than I've ever been. I'm ready and I'm ready to take the belt.
"My leg will never be 100 percent, but when I go in there I don't think about if my leg hurts. I do what I have to do. I train to win, and that's what we're going to do."
Rafael's prediction: Crawford by late knockout.
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