Photos by Will Hart
By Kieran Mulvaney
The Missouri River doesn’t so much flow past Omaha as amble almost apologetically, as if anxious not to offend. It is easy to see it as an expression of the same sort of understated politeness with which residents greet visitors to what, even as it stands on the cusp of hosting its third world title fight in 18 months, feels as far from a big fight town as it is possible to be.
It is of course possible to oversimplify the nature of a city of 400,000 people: a city that gave birth to such a quintessential example of Americana as Fred Astaire but also to iconoclasts like Marlon Brando and Malcom X, and whose history is bookmarked by a succession of race riots in 1909, 1919 and three separate occasions in the 1960s. And the very fact that it has a world champion boxer to celebrate is testament to the fact that it contains areas of extreme poverty: men tough enough to engage in unarmed combat for a living rarely emerge from anything but the direst of circumstances. But Terence Crawford is in many ways the most Nebraskan of champions.
Yes, he was shot in the head; but when he realized his head was spurting blood, he calmly drove himself to the hospital. No need to make too much of a fuss, after all. He speaks quietly in a monotone cadence; his governing philosophy is one of “staying humble, don’t let nothing get to you, and stick to your guns,” and he carries that lack of excitability into the ring with him, enveloping himself in a preternatural calmness that allows him to execute his plan without expending any extraneous energy.
Dierry Jean, his foe on Saturday night, is a Haitian who has settled in Montreal, circumstances very different from those that marked Crawford’s coming-of-age; but he, too, speaks with a politeness that makes him a seemingly perfect challenger on this particular stage. Even when veering to the edge of smack talk, he does so gently: “Not wanting to disrespect you, bro, but I’m going to beat your ass,” he said through a smile at Thursday’s final pre-fight press conference, earning from Crawford not much more of a rebuke than a wide grin and a wagging finger.
Crawford’s near-death experience prompted him to turn around his life before it ended in tragedy; Jean’s more recent experience includes tragedy of its own, his brother – who spoke with him on the phone from Haiti almost every day – died in September while Jean was training for this bout. He has found a way to use his pain as fuel for the challenge that awaits, but even with such cruel motivation, he will enter the ring as a significant underdog on Saturday night.
And when he does so, if Crawford’s two previous outings at the CenturyLink Arena are any guide, he will be met by a vociferous crowd that has checked its Nebraska Niceness at the door in order to bay its support for their hometown hero. Victory for Crawford might put him in line for a battle that would catapult him into superstardom beyond the confines of the Cornhusker State, against another man who is, if anything, even more revered by his own people: Manny Pacquiao.
But talk of that prospect is swiftly snuffed out by Crawford and his team. The opponent they are concerned about and focused on is Dierry Jean, and that is the only man about whom they want to talk.
To do anything else wouldn’t just be bad for his calm focus. It would be rude. And around here, that just wouldn’t do.
Weights from Omaha:
Terrence Crawford 140 lbs
Dierry Jean 140 lbs