Back to the Future as Boxing’s Circus Lands in Omaha

Photos: Will Hart

By Kieran Mulvaney

At a Thursday press conference in Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, it was noted that lightweight titleholder Terence Crawford is the first Nebraskan world champion since Perry “Kid” Graves claimed the welterweight crown 100 years ago.

“Yeah,” said Crawford, “but he wasn’t from Omaha.” (Graves hailed from Plattsmouth, in neighboring Cass County; interestingly, Max Baer – who held the world heavyweight title from 1934-35 - was born in Omaha, but his family had decamped to Colorado and thence California long before falling to the future ‘Cinderella Man’ Jimmy Braddock.)

Crawford, however, was born and raised here in the Cornhusker State’s largest city, and his determination to defend his newly-won crown in his hometown is why boxing’s traveling circus has pitched its collective tent on the banks of the Missouri River.

The occasion has provided an opportunity to look back – not just at Graves, but also Ron Stander, who challenged Joe Frazier for the heavyweight crown in 1972, the last time Omaha hosted a world title bout. Stander is 69 now, but although his speech and movements are conducted at the pace that one would expect from a near-septuagenarian ex-pugilist, he retains the same defiance of younger prizefighters.

“Joe Frazier never beat me,” he said to cheers from the press conference crowd. “The doctors won it for him, when they stopped it because I had a few little cuts.” That those little cuts turned his face crimson and required 32 stitches to heal is of little consequence; for Stander, Crawford’s emergence has provided an opportunity to be bathed anew in a spotlight that he must have thought had passed him by forever.

But the week is also an opportunity to look forward, to consider the prospect that a homecoming may also be a coming-out party for a singular talent. There is no shortage of observers who think that Crawford could be very special indeed, that his fluid combination punching and tight defense mark him as a premier practitioner of the sweet science.

Of course, there was a long spell when Yuriorkis Gamboa was considered pretty special, too, and if he is an underdog here it is largely because the conventional wisdom is that age, inactivity and out-of-the-ring problems have dimmed his once bright light. But he remains undefeated, and if the Gamboa who shows up to challenge Crawford on Saturday is even close to the one who has destroyed previous high-profile foes, this could be a mouth-watering contest indeed.

If there is a criticism to be made of Crawford thus far, it’s that his cerebral fighting style and sotto voce interview answers pigeonhole him for fight aficionado status and may prevent him from ever becoming the breakout star his talents deserve. But his native Nebraska niceness wasn’t much on evidence at Friday’s weigh-in, as he resolutely refused to break his gaze when handlers attempted to separate the two men after the traditional stare-down; even as those handlers had managed to angle Crawford’s body away from Gamboa’s, his head refused to follow. Gamboa, to his credit, stood his ground, the two men peering into each other’s souls in search of some small psychological opening that might provide an edge in a battle of supreme physical talents.