Terence Crawford finally has a fight to prove himself, even if it's not the one he wants

Crawford, Spence exchange words (0:49)

Backstage at the Hooker-Saucedo fight, Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jr. get into an argument that ends with Crawford saying he could knock out Spence. (0:49)

LAS VEGAS -- Terence "Bud" Crawford is used to hearing the question.

No matter how impressive his in-ring performances have been, despite becoming an undisputed junior welterweight champion and winning world titles in three divisions, the question is always the same.

"Who has Crawford fought?"

Crawford has long been recognized as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, but that reputation was built on dominating lesser names rather than ousting other superstars along the way. His move to 147 pounds has come with particular stagnation, as fights against the biggest names in the division -- Errol Spence Jr., Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman, among others -- have failed to materialize.

The questions amid his struggle to make the big fights have led Crawford to form a serious chip on his shoulder -- much like Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Bernard Hopkins before him. Each of the three men carried a scowl inside the ring that they routinely duplicated outside the ropes. Much of that is owed to the disrespect they perceived -- real or imagined -- from peers, fans and, of course, the media.

But after years of pursuing fights against the best fighters in the welterweight division, Crawford finally has one -- even if it's not the one who has been at the top of his list.

Shawn Porter is a former welterweight champion who brings an aggression to the ring that is unmatched, and unlike Crawford, he's been in the ring with the likes of Spence and Thurman. Saturday's welterweight title fight (9 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) presents a more significant challenge than Crawford has ever faced, and if Crawford wins, the query about whom he has fought will no longer have much merit. Maybe that's why, in the lead-up to his toughest test yet, the scowl has occasionally transformed into a smile.

"I've just always been determined to show the world that I'm better than the next person standing next to me," said Crawford.

To this point, no one has proved him wrong, as Crawford has won all 37 of his professional fights. His climb began with his first title, a 135-pound belt won in 2014 against Ricky Burns. He became undisputed champion at 140 pounds in 2017 with his knockout of Julius Indongo. And Crawford won his latest belt -- the WBO welterweight strap -- with a TKO victory over Jeff Horn in his next fight after unifying the junior welterweight division.

The accomplishments sound impressive, but the issue along the way has been that none of those opponents was remotely close to the elite level, robbing Crawford, 34, of the opportunity to showcase how his abilities match up against a top-level challenger. It's one thing to beat the opponents you're expected to beat. It's another thing to shine against the best.

Porter, at long last, should present Crawford with the chance to display a new layer to his game. The 34-year-old is relentless with his pressure, he's strong, and he possesses an unbreakable will. More so, Porter has proved himself against the best welterweights in the world, with notable victories over Yordenis Ugas, Danny Garcia and Adrien Broner, and razor-thin decision losses to Kell Brook, Thurman and Spence.

It's Spence, of course, who was meant to be Crawford's ultimate test -- a matchup that's long eluded the sport. But Porter will suffice for now. Despite his long odds (he's a 6-1 underdog), Porter is an elite talent at welterweight and a class above the 15 title fights Crawford's had to this point in his career.

On Saturday night the resume changes for good. And Crawford has much to prove.

WHEN TOP RANK linked up with ESPN on an exclusive multiyear deal in 2017, Crawford was one of the promotion's main attractions. Bob Arum kicked off the partnership with a fight between Pacquiao and Horn in Australia, as Horn shocked the future Hall of Famer via a highly controversial decision. One month later, Crawford was center stage for his first ESPN appearance, defeating Indongo to claim all four major junior welterweight titles.

Crawford would only climb from there. He vacated those titles to move up to 147 pounds, and his first opponent was an obvious choice: Horn. The hard-nosed Horn was plenty game but never had a chance against Crawford. What Horn had that Crawford still lacked, however, was a fight against Pacquiao.

TKO wins over well-past-their-prime versions of Brook and Amir Khan followed. So, too, did stoppage victories over Jose Benavidez Jr., a contender with limited mobility due to a gunshot wound, and Egidijus "Mean Machine" Kavaliauskas.

That performance against Kavaliauskas, who occasionally pushed Crawford before succumbing late, didn't garner Crawford much accolade at the time.

"They ain't going to give me the credit because in their eyes, I'm supposed to do that because nobody knows who Kavaliauskas is," said Crawford, though really, he could be talking about many of his opponents. "If everyone knew who he was and he had this big name, then it would be something. But being that he doesn't have the name to back all the things that he's done in boxing, it doesn't mean anything."

That win aged gracefully, though, especially after "Mean Machine" pushed rising star Vergil Ortiz to the brink in August. Another performance that should garner more recognition is Crawford's 2016 victory over Viktor Postol to unify 140-pound titles. Postol, the only fighter to take Crawford the distance since 2014, has since fought Josh Taylor and Jose Ramirez.

With knockouts in his past eight fights and 11 of his past 12, Crawford has earned himself a reputation as one of the best finishers in boxing. Porter, however, has never been knocked out, and has been knocked down only twice in his entire career -- in his loss to Spence and against Adrien Broner.

"Everyone's seen what I've done; every experience that I've had, I've held onto them and I've used them to my advantage," said Porter, ESPN's No. 4 welterweight. "Me having more experience than Terence Crawford, that is a fact. When I say I have what it takes to beat him, don't sleep on that, believe that."

Porter crossing the promotional divide for this fight largely boils down to the WBO. The Puerto Rico-based organization ordered Crawford to defend his title against Porter over the summer. Before the rights to the fight could be auctioned off at a purse bid, Arum and Haymon struck a deal. Crawford will earn a career-high $6 million, a deal negotiated by his new adviser, Daniel Kinahan.

Porter will earn $4 million, a guarantee negotiated by Haymon in order for him to agree to lend the fighter to Top Rank. Haymon's boxers exclusively compete on Showtime and Fox, and it's rare for one of his top fighters to fight off platform. Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury 2 and Fury-Wilder 3 were both co-promoted on multiple PPV platforms.

But even if Crawford can deliver and overcome the big-fight experience disparity, he knows that a win over Porter will only bring back the chatter about Crawford fighting Spence and Thurman.

They're both aligned with PBC. As with Porter, that's one of the primary roadblocks that has long stood in the way of the big fights for Crawford. Top Rank's Arum and PBC's Al Haymon rarely conduct business with one another, save for fights like the incredibly lucrative pair of matchups between Fury and Wilder.

The roadblock that's kept Crawford away from Spence and the PBC might not stand for much longer. Saturday's fight is Crawford's last under his current contract with Top Rank. Although all appears well on the surface between boxer and promoter, it was only last year that Arum bemoaned Crawford's large guarantees, and likely only added to the growing chip on Crawford's shoulder.

"The question is, do we want to keep him? I could build a house in Beverly Hills on the money I've lost on him in the last three fights," Arum said last November before Crawford defeated Brook.

If Crawford signs with PBC or remains a promotional free agent, he'll surely have more options in terms of opponents. But he has earned tens of millions with Top Rank, and if making the Porter fight a reality is any indication, perhaps crossing the promotional street is becoming more realistic.

Despite not getting that signature fight, Crawford is adamant that he tried to do his part over the years.

"It wasn't Terence Crawford holding up the fights because I've been calling for it," Crawford said. "I went in Bob Arum's office and said, 'Listen, give me this fight, give me this fight, this the fight I want. My two fights were Pacquiao and Spence. Those were the two fights that I was looking for. I wasn't looking for any other fights.

"I felt like I did everything that I possibly can do to try to make that fight happen," Crawford said of a Spence fight. "I was chasing him. And he don't want the fight."

Crawford was promised a $1 million bonus if Top Rank didn't make a significant offer on that fight by the end of 2020, per sources. Spence was involved in a serious car crash in October 2019, shortly after beating Porter. And after defeating Danny Garcia in late 2020, Spence's fight against Pacquiao was scrapped when Spence was diagnosed with a detached retina.

With both of Crawford's biggest targets off the board -- Spence recovering from surgery, Pacquiao now retired -- Porter stepped up. And even though Porter represents a more significant opportunity than he's faced to this point, Crawford remains insistent that he wants the biggest challenges out there.

"I don't believe Porter is the only welterweight out there that I can showcase my talent at a high level with. I believe Keith Thurman is a bigger fight, in my eyes. Keith Thurman is doing whatever he's doing," Crawford said, referring to Thurman's disappearance from the ring since July 2019.

"Keith Thurman was the No. 1 guy in the division. Pacquiao beat him; no one else beat him."

Since Thurman last competed, a coterie of rising talents has broken through in the welterweight division as well. There's Jaron "Boots" Ennis, who isn't aligned with PBC; Vergil Ortiz, the Mexican-American puncher with Golden Boy; and Eimantas Stanionis, a pressure-fighting boxer trained by Freddie Roach.

The real marquee fights for Crawford could come against boxers who currently reside in other divisions. Josh Taylor, the undisputed 140-pound champion, has expressed his desire to fight Crawford in the future. Like Crawford, he's promoted by Top Rank and is advised by Kinahan. There's also Jermell Charlo, the unified 154-pound champion who has engaged in a war of words with Crawford in the past (though he's with PBC).

And on the heels of the victory over Pacquiao, Ugas offers plenty of intrigue, depending on how things go with a discussed fight with Spence. Ugas, too, is a PBC fighter, but the landscape of boxing politics could shift by the time Crawford competes again.

FOR NOW, CRAWFORD can only look in the direction of Porter, a man who has twice won a welterweight title, and perhaps more importantly, pushed Spence to the brink in one of 2019's best fights.

Undoubtedly, Crawford's performance against Porter on Saturday will be measured against Spence's. But regardless of what happens in the ring, Crawford is sure of one thing -- that feeling he simply can't shake no matter the accomplishment.

"Look at Floyd Mayweather, nobody gave Floyd any credit," he said. "They wanted Floyd to fight GGG at 160 [pounds]. I gotta fight Canelo [Alvarez] next."

He said that last part with a laugh, but the implication was obvious. In Crawford's mind, he'll never receive proper credit. That burning desire to silence the naysayers -- shared by Hagler and Hopkins -- has helped lift Crawford to these heights. And as sure as there will be loud voices questioning him every step of the way, he'll surely feed off that feeling of disrespect in his biggest test to date.

But once the fight is over, so long as he wins, it's unlikely that Crawford will escape all of the noise that's chased him for so long.

"It depends on the fashion that I beat him in," Crawford said. "There's people out there that give me credit, but it's always going to be them people that say, 'He's supposed to beat Porter; Porter's the gatekeeper. We want to see him against Errol Spence. We want to see him against 154 [-pound] champions.' And I'm just preparing myself for when that comes."