Crawford excited for homecoming

Lightweight titlist makes first defense against Gamboa on Saturday in Omaha

Originally Published: June 27, 2014
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

When Terence Crawford went on the road to Glasgow, Scotland to challenge hometown hero Ricky Burns in March, he saw firsthand the outpouring of support Burns had.

For years, Burns has drawn passionate crowds, but being on hostile turf did not impact Crawford. He blocked out the crowd, dealt well with the unfamiliar surroundings and gave Burns a boxing lesson to take his lightweight world title by unanimous decision in a tremendous performance.

Now Crawford finds himself in the opposite situation as he prepares to make his first title defense against former unified featherweight titleholder Yuriorkis Gamboa on Saturday (HBO, 10 p.m. ET/PT) at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska in what HBO is touting as the 300th live fight in the 18-year-history of "Boxing After Dark."

Crawford is from Omaha, born and raised. But he will be fighting in his home state for only the second time as a professional -- he fought once in Grand Island, Nebraska in 2011 -- and in his hometown for the first time.

It's a dream come true for Crawford, known to the locals simply as "Bud." As soon as he beat Burns, he was hoping for his first title defense to be at home.

"Yes, that was my goal, to make my first defense in Omaha and I was real pleased with Bob keeping his word," Crawford said of Top Rank promoter Bob Arum. "Now that we are here I am just happy for everything. I am in my hometown where my fans have never really got to see me perform as a professional and I am ready for the moment."

Arum, who won't be able to make it to the fight because he is laid up in Los Angeles recovering from knee replacement surgery last week, said that after Crawford won the 135-pound belt and they spoke on the telephone, he promised him that he would put on his first title defense in Omaha.

"He was very thrilled when I said that to him," Arum said. "It's what made the most sense. I haven't been in this business for more than 40 years without learning something.

[+] EnlargeYuriorkis Gamboa
Courtesy Rey SanchezDespite multiple layoffs in recent years, unbeaten Yuriorkis Gamboa maintains he has kept busy in the gym in preparation for a big fight.

"I've always known that boxing is not only a sport where ethnic groups come together to root on their own but also local groups, where a kid can rally the fans around him and be a major attraction in his hometown. He comes from the area and now he can finally perform for his hometown fans and his family. It's wonderful for the young man."

So far, it seems as though Omaha has responded, in large part because Top Rank really went out of the way to make tickets affordable.

"When we made this fight Terence asked me to please make the tickets reasonable for all of his fans," Arum said. "We did exactly that at $102, $52 and $27. He is so happy. There's great excitement in Omaha. We realized we were in Omaha not in Las Vegas and priced the seats accordingly."

Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti, who has been running the show in Arum's place, said that ticket demand has been so strong that they have opened the arena's upper level and that a crowd of more than 10,000 is expected.

In the scheduled 10-round co-feature, 31-year-old middleweight Matt Korobov (23-0, 14 KOs), a southpaw and 2008 Russian Olympian living in St. Petersburg, Florida, takes on Jose Uzcategui (22-0, 18 KOs), 23, a Venezuelan living in Mexico, as each man seeks his highest-profile victory.

Omaha isn't exactly well known for producing boxing champions, so the excitement is understandable. Perry "Kid" Graves, who was born in Nebraska and moved to Omaha, was recognized in some quarters as winning the world welterweight title in 1914 and Max Baer, who won the heavyweight championship in 1935, was born in Omaha.

And there also hasn't been a world title fight in Omaha in 42 years, since Joe Frazier defended the heavyweight title against Omaha's Ron Stander, winning by fifth-round knockout at the Civic Auditorium on May 25, 1972.

That was 15 years before the 26-year-old Crawford was born.

"It was news to me. I never knew about it until a few years back," Crawford said of Frazier-Stander. "I know about it now and that's all that matters."

Despite the hype for the fight, Crawford (23-0, 16 KOs) said he would not be distracted before the fight, which comes against a serious opponent in the 32-year-old Gamboa (23-0, 16 KOs), a lightning-fast southpaw and 2004 Cuban Olympic gold medalist, who defected and now lives in Miami. Crawford is laying low. He even trained for the fight in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

"I don't handle any of that -- no tickets or T-shirts, so they can't call me for nothing," Crawford said. "So I am not worried about the distractions.

"We've been keeping a low profile. When we got back into town from training camp there wasn't a big entourage. I actually didn't let anyone know when I was coming back into town. It has been kind of cool. Just chillin' and waiting on the fight."

Crawford said co-manager Brian McIntyre, who is also from Omaha, is in charge of dealing with tickets and anything else that comes up.

"We already have a game plan planned out -- what everybody's job is going to be as far as the tickets go and the T-shirts," McIntyre said. "We are keeping Terence secluded so he has no distractions. We talked about that months in advance and now we are just executing the plan."

[+] EnlargeTerence Crawford
Chris Farina/Top RankDefending his lightweight world title in front of him hometown fans in Omaha, Nebraska is a dream come true for Terence Crawford.

Said co-manager Cameron Dunkin, "Brian and I were concerned about it and we had a long talk about it. He told me he would set everything up and keep all the distractions away. Brian has done a great job, giving everyone jobs so Terence is just focused on the fight and ready to go. He hasn't had any distractions."

Gamboa, although a stellar amateur and unbeaten as a pro, still hasn't quite lived up to the expectations, despite winning featherweight belts and interim belts at junior lightweight and lightweight.

Contract issues and turning down fights have led to long layoffs. He was also implicated in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal. Gamboa, who is promoted by rap star Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, fought just once in 2012 and once in 2013 and hasn't fought since last June, when he outpointed Darleys Perez to win a vacant interim lightweight belt.

Gamboa said the layoff won't be an issue, nor will the fact that he is much smaller than Crawford, who said he might move up to junior welterweight after Saturday's fight with an eye on eventually competing as a welterweight.

"Basically no, not as long as I am focused," Gamboa said through an interpreter when asked about whether the layoff and size difference would be a factor. "I have stayed active -- maybe not in the ring, but I have done what I need to do outside of the ring to be prepared for Saturday night. I have remained active in the gym.

"I have been pretty much the smaller fighter in all of my fights, so I don't think it will have much of an effect. I know how to adjust and I know how to come in with a game plan. It's just something I have dealt with since I was an amateur. I have always been the smaller guy."

Gamboa, who was originally being lined up to face junior lightweight titlist Mikey Garcia before Garcia filed suit against Top Rank to get out of his contract, also will have the crowd against him as he tries to fulfill his vast potential.

"I know that Crawford is a great talent and a good champion and I welcome the chance at beating one of the best in the lightweight division," Gamboa said. "I know all about him. There is one major difference -- my speed and my power. I am going right into his hometown because I know I will win.

"At this point, we have nothing to lose. We fight whenever, wherever. We will have a great fight and I'll give you the best of me every time I fight. We will win."

Crawford is equally confident and especially comfortable being at home.

"I am just blessed to be able to fight in Omaha," he said. "Yes, I can tell it is big. Big not just for me but for the city of Omaha, Nebraska. It's not just the boxing community; it is all the people in Omaha.

"I can also tell that I give the people hope that they can be what they want to be, if you believe and work hard at it."

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