Crawford fight highlights loaded Top Rank card

Pound-for-pound star Terence Crawford will make the mandatory defense of his welterweight world title against “Mean Machine” Egidijus Kavaliauskas on Dec. 14 at Madison Square Garden in New York in the main event of a loaded tripleheader.

The fight, finalized when Crawford signed a contract Monday, will headline a Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card (ESPN and ESPN Deportes, 9 p.m.) that will also include lightweight world titlist Richard Commey in a mandatory defense against red-hot rising contender Teofimo Lopez Jr. and a 10-round featherweight grudge match between Michael Conlan and Vladimir Nikitin, who scored a hugely controversial win over Conlan in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics.

“Terence Crawford is a generational talent, but he’ll have his hands full against the ‘Mean Machine,'” Top Rank chairman Bob Arum said. “Teofimo Lopez is taking a giant step up against Commey, and it will be a tremendous fight. Mick Conlan has been asking for Nikitin since the day he signed with Top Rank. He finally gets his wish, and I know he wants to correct the tremendous injustice of the Rio Olympics.”

Crawford, a former lightweight champion and undisputed junior welterweight champion, will be making his third 147-pound title defense. After unifying the four junior welterweight titles in 2017, Crawford moved up to welterweight and won a title in his first fight in the division by ninth-round knockout of Jeff Horn in June 2018. He has defended his crown by 12th-round knockout of Jose Benavidez Jr. in Crawford’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, last October and by sixth-round stoppage of Amir Khan on April 20 at Madison Square Garden.

The 32-year-old Crawford (35-0, 26 KOs) will be heavily favored, but he said he’ll be well prepared for an undefeated opponent.

“Egidijus Kavaliauskas is a two-time Olympian and I can’t take him lightly,” Crawford said. “He’s got everything to gain and nothing to lose and that makes him dangerous. I never overlook any opponent, and this will be no exception. I’ll be ready for anything and everything he brings on Dec. 14 when I return to my second home, Madison Square Garden, and live on ESPN.”

Kavaliauskas will be the fourth undefeated opponent that Crawford will face in his last five fights — and the fifth in his last eight.

Kavaliauskas (21-0-1, 17 KOs), 31, who represented Lithuania in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, was already the mandatory challenger going into his last fight on March 30 in Philadelphia, where he fought to a disputed majority draw with hometown fighter Ray Robinson in a bout most thought Kavaliauskas deserved to win.

“I have prepared my whole boxing career for a fight of this magnitude,” said Kavaliauskas, who fights out of Oxnard, California. “Terence Crawford is an excellent fighter, but I fear no man. Nobody has seen the best of the ‘Mean Machine’ yet. I am going to shock a lot of people on Dec. 14, but it won’t be a surprise to me. I earned this title shot. It is my time.”

Commey (29-2, 26 KOs), 32, a Ghana native fighting out of New York, will be making his second title defense after winning a vacant belt by second-round knockout of Isa Chaniev in February and dropping former world titlist Ray Beltran four times en route to an eighth-round knockout victory on June 28.

Commey has won four fights in a row by knockout.

“I’m very excited to fight at the Mecca of Boxing, Madison Square Garden, in my second world title defense against Teofimo Lopez,” Commey said. “My lifelong dream of becoming a world champion became a reality through many years of hard work in my homeland of Ghana through the U.K., Europe and finally in the United States. I want to thank everyone on my team for making this possible. On Dec. 14, I will put on another spectacular performance in defending my world title for my fans in the arena and those watching on ESPN and around the world.”

Lopez (14-0, 11 KOs), 22, of New York, however, figures to be a far more difficult opponent than Commey’s recent foes. The 2018 ESPN prospect of the year is one of boxing’s fastest rising young fighters and coming off a unanimous decision over Masayoshi Nakatani on July 19 in an elimination bout to earn the title shot, although he received some criticism for a pedestrian performance.

“I’m finally back at Madison Square Garden, the place where I always wanted to win my first world title,” said Lopez, who has brought on former world titleholder and noted trainer Joey Gamache to serve as an assistant to his father, Teofimo Lopez Sr. “I believe this fight will shut up all of the critics and prove to everyone that I back up my talking in the ring. I respect Commey as a champion, but when we’re in that ring, it’s going to be lights out for him. Come Dec. 14, I am officially taking over the lightweight division.”

The winner is likely headed for a fight for the undisputed 135-pound world title against three-belt champion and pound-for-pound king Vasiliy Lomachenko.

“Richard has fought all over the world for many years to achieve his lifelong dream of not only becoming a true world champion, but also becoming a boxing star, and on Dec. 14 against Teofimo Lopez, I believe that he will successfully defend his title for the second time in spectacular fashion,” said Lou DiBella, Commey’s promoter.

Conlan (12-0, 7 KOs), 27, a two-time Irish Olympian with a big fan following, and Nikitin (3-0, 0 KOs), 29, of Russia, were supposed to fight on Aug. 3 in Conlan’s hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland. However, Nikitin suffered a torn biceps and pulled out of the fight. Conlan instead knocked out Diego Alberto Ruiz in the ninth round.

He is overjoyed to have the fight with his rival rescheduled for a venue where he is a popular draw, including selling out the arena’s Hulu Theater for his professional debut on St. Patrick’s Day in 2017.

“I’m beyond excited to fight for the sixth time in my favorite venue in the world, the Mecca of Boxing, Madison Square Garden,” Conlan said. “The boxing fans in New York City have been incredibly supportive of my career, and I look forward to putting on another great show for them, as well as my Irish fans coming over for this massive event.

“Vladimir Nikitin and I have unfinished business from the 2016 Olympics, and I can’t wait to set the record straight.”

Nikitin, who remained an amateur following the Olympics, eventually decided to go pro and signed with Top Rank for the express purpose of getting a pro rematch with Conlan.

They squared off at the 2016 Olympics and the result was a massively controversial Nikitin decision win that nearly caused an international incident.

Conlan, who had claimed an Olympic bronze medal in 2012, was a medal favorite in 2016 when he met Nikitin with the winner guaranteed at least a bronze medal. Conlan appeared to easily defeat Nikitin, but the judges did not see it that way. They gave Nikitin the shocking victory, but he was so busted up from the fight that he withdrew from the tournament because of injuries and was unable to fight in the semifinals.

After the bout, a distraught Conlan famously lashed out at the judges by giving them double middle fingers in the ring. He ripped the International Boxing Association, which was overseeing the Olympic tournament, and said he believed Russian president Vladimir Putin had paid off the judges to give the decision to Nikitin.

When Conlan signed a professional contract with Top Rank, the announcement was accompanied by a photo of Conlan and Arum flipping their middle fingers to the camera for a social media post that went viral.

“Michael Conlan has done a lot of talking about me and our Olympic fight over the last few years. The talking finally ends Dec. 14,” Nikitin said. “He’s bitter over our last fight and can’t accept the result. Well, my hand will be raised once again.”