When Terence "Bud" Crawford defends his WBO lightweight title June 28 at the CenturyLink Center, he'll fight for himself, his tight-knit family and a boxing community that's not seen anything like this since 1972.
Forty-two years ago heavyweight champion Joe Frazier came to town to battle local Great White Hope Ron Stander. Omaha was thrilled to host boxing's ultimate event, but Stander never had more than a puncher's chance. Predictably, he was outclassed and dismantled.
This is different. Crawford's the hometown kid who realized his dream of being a world champ by unanimously decisioning Ricky Burns in Scotland March 1. He's the title holder and Cuban opponent Yuriorkis Gamboa the contender. The champ and challenger enter this HBO main event with identical 23-0 (16 by KO) records. Crawford's a skilled technician who's never been dropped or hurt as a pro. By contrast, Stander was a slugger and bleeder who used brute force, not sweet science, in the ring. Though Stander didn't hit the canvas much, he lost 21 bouts.
Another important difference is that while The Butcher fought in Omaha, he actually hailed from Council Bluffs. Crawford is Omaha through and through. When it was suggested the Bluffs and its casinos host Crawford's title defense the fighter flatly refused, offended by the very notion he go across the river.
"I'm the type of person if I don't want to do something I'm not going to do it," he says. "I'm my own man. If I felt like they weren't going to bring it to Omaha then we were going to go somewhere else and it wasn't going to be Council Bluffs."
Known for representing with trunks that read "Omaha," he's fiercely loyal to his Omaha-based boxing and biological families.
"They're always going to be there for me, win or lose," he says. "They've been with me the whole way."
His peeps comprise Team Crawford. Most members of his training camp go back more than a decade when he was pegged a ring prodigy. His longtime trainer Midge Minor is like a father. His co-manager Brian "BoMac" McIntyre is one of his best buddies. They jointly opened the B & B Boxing Academy two years ago.
Omaha attorney Hugh Reefe, a former amateur boxer who now dispenses legal advice to the fighter, recalls seeing the young Crawford at the CW Boxing Club, where Bud got his start. The CW is the through-line that connects the champ's boxing crew.
"Everybody knew who he was because he was different," Reefe says. "He was outstanding. He really had all the skills. Everybody was talking about him. He just had a buzz around him. He's got these cobra eyes that give him the peripheral vision to bob and weave but still have you locked in his sights."
Victory Boxing coach John Determan, whose unbeaten son Johnny is on the June 28 undercard, says, "I've known Bud for a long time. The first time I saw him fight was early in his career in Joplin, Missouri. I remember driving home and telling my family 'he's going to be a great one.' He is a true champion and not the type of guy who gets a big head. He's worked hard for everything he's done."
Longtime boxing observer and historian Tom Lovgren says simply, "He's the best that I've seen in Neb. He's the Real McCoy."
Crawford's seemingly been called to his boxing ascension. His mother Debra Crawford says he came out of the womb "with his fists balled up," as if ready to fight. He's from a long line of pugilists: his grandfather, father and uncle all fought. Debra says Bud's father "always said he's going to be a million dollar baby boy." Debra, who's gone a round or two with her headstrong son and knows the difference between a jab and a cross, says, "God gave him a gift."
Everyone confirms young Bud himself was convinced he was destined for greatness. "He'd always tell me, 'Mom, I'm going to make it, I'm going to be something. I'm going to be a world champ," Debra says.
Lots of kids say that, his friend Kevin notes, "but they ain't got the same dedication as him," adding, "He's been after this for years."
Now that he's done it, Reefe says, "It seems a little surreal." Even Bud's mom admits, "Sometimes it's like a dream." Especially dreamlike given all he's overcome. Possessing a notorious temper as a youth, the stubborn Crawford had scores of verbal and physical run-ins.
"Bud used to get in trouble in the gym and they used to send him home," Debra says. Sometimes, he wanted no part of it. "One time, he hid in his room when Midge came by to pick him up. He told me to tell Midge he ain't home. I went out and told Midge, 'He's in here, come and get him.' Bud said 'Mom, you're a snitch.' Yeah, I had to keep him out of trouble. I'd rather him be in the gym than out in the street."
Other times, says maternal grandma Velma Jones, sporting a Team Crawford T-shirt, he couldn't stand to be away from the ring.
"I used to have him ride along with me when I had to go places and he'd be like, 'I have to get to the gym...' He loved that gym."
Crawford came up in a Hood where street life claims many young men. He avoided the pitfalls but still found trouble. The youngest of three siblings, he sometimes got into scrapes with older, bigger kids and his two sisters would come to his rescue. You fight one Crawford, "you gotta fight us all," his sister Shawntay says.
Debra recalls, "One day I saw Bud getting beat up by this older boy and I told those two (her daughters), 'Y'all better get out there and help your brother." They did and together with Bud dispatched the bully. Bud's sister Latisha remembers, "The guy came back and apologized that he took that ass whuppin' " If any Crawfords ever got beat they'd be the ones apologizing for letting the family down.
Family, friends, coaches all attest to how competitive he is.
His girlfriend Iesha Person, with whom he has two sons, says, "He don't like to lose at anything – darts, cards, basketball, pool. Everything is a competition with him, everything. He's very determined to win in everything he does. Like he just learned how to play chess not too long ago and now he's beating the people that taught him. So I can't even picture him losing."
Reefe, who's been trounced by him in chess, says, "He likes to talk and rub it in, too, when he's winning."
Everyone agrees he's always had a mouth on him. Insubordinate behavior earned Crawford school suspensions and expulsions. He caused his mom headaches.
"Yes, he did," she says. "He went to a bunch of schools. He even went to a couple alternative schools. Yeah, he stayed in some trouble. One time he shot up the Edmonson (recreation) center with a BB gun. He was on probation for like three or four years."
Few expected much of him.
"When he was young I know a lot of people told him, 'Oh, you ain't going to be nothing, you'll probably end up in the penitentiary.' But like I told him, 'Don't let them folks get you down talking about you won't be nothing, you go ahead and do what you have to do.' And he kept on with it," his grandma says.
"I'm very proud of him because I told him he wasn't going to be shit," Debra says. "He tells me now, 'Mom, remember what you said?' We laugh about it."
She says things really turned around for him at Bryan High School.
"The principal really helped him. He still keeps in touch with him, too. His teachers are surprised he's made it this far. They're proud of him. They didn't think he was going to be able to make it but he made it."
Debra marvels her once problem son has "put Omaha on the map
as a black young man." It's been a journey with some stumbles. He was considered an Olympics prospect but fell out of grace with USA Boxing. He was a favorite to win the National Golden Gloves in Omaha but lost a close decision he felt was payback for his bad boy image.
Early in his pro career he nearly lost his life in a shooting the week of a fight when he joined a dice game that went sour and as he left in a car someone fired a shot that hit his head. He went to the nearest hospital.
Debra recalls getting the news at home.
"I was asleep when my mom woke me up to tell me. 'Bud just got shot.' I waited a minute, got up and came downstairs. Then my sister and I went out there. They wouldn't let me see him. When they finally called me in Bud was sitting on the edge of the bed laughing, saying, 'I'm still going to fight on Friday.' I said, 'No, you're not, they've got to stitch your head up.' He was lucky because the bullet bounced off his head. The doctor told me, 'He's got a hard head.'"
As if the family needed proof.
Bud and everyone around him traces his new-found maturity to that incident and to becoming a father.
"He's come a long ways," grandma Jones says.
"He's more focused," Kevin says.
"He's a great father," says Iesha. "He took care of me and my daughter before we had a son together."
Bud's sister Lastisha says she gets emotional thinking about how far Bud's come.
"I used to have bad dreams and then when he got shot one of the dreams kind of came true. When he went in that ring and won that championship I thought back to how he was when he was little, hot-headed, and just didn't want to listen to nobody. And to see him now it's like, Wow, my little brother for real is world champion. I'm like really, really proud of him."
Velma says some of her grandson's drive to excel is fueled by the decisions in the ring he feels he was robbed of as an amateur. It's why as a pro he takes no chances and strives to dominate from start to finish, just as he did against Burns in taking all three judges' cards.
"After that fight in Scotland he told me he was scared they were going to take some points away from him. He thought they'd use some kind of technicality to make him lose the fight. But he come on through. He showed 'em y'all cant do no stealing from me, not tonight.'"
Co-manager BoMac says Crawford feeds off "always being the underdog and always having something against him – that lights his fire and makes him train harder."
Bud's boisterous family will be out in force come fight night just as they were in Glasgow. Only this time the Crawford contingent will be much larger, with relatives coming from both coasts and lots of points in between. He welcomes their presence, no matter their size.
"It's not going to be a distraction or anything," he says. "They're there any other fight, so it's just another day in the gym for me. When I was in Scotland…Dallas…Orlando…Vegas, they were there with me, so you know I'm used to having them cheering me on and not letting them interfere with what I've got to do in the ring. You've got to keep your mind focused on the task at hand."
Per his custom, he trained in Colorado Springs several weeks before returning June 22. Back home he's fine-tuned his body and mind.
"I just chill and visualize what I'm going to do in there and then just go ahead and do it. You've got to see it to be able to do it. When I put my mind to it, it's already done."
Iesha, who saw him training six-plus hours a day in Colo., admires
that "he puts so much work into it." "Hard work and dedication" has gotten him this far and he isn't about to slack off now, Latishsa says.
Crawford's unsure whether Omaha will ever fully embrace him as its champion. His family's glad he's getting his due after years toiling in obscurity. The Gamboa fight will be his first as a pro in his hometown.
"He's finally getting noticed," Debra says, adding people claiming to be cousins have been coming out of the woodwork since winning the title.
Hugh Reefe is impressed by how success, fame and big paydays have not changed Crawford's lifestyle.
"He's a pretty simple guy and I like that he's kept everything the same.
He's handling it really well, he's got really good instincts, He's intuitive.
He's always concerned and thoughtful about how things affect his family."
Those closest to him sense that after waiting so long for this stage he's going to put on a show.
Iesha says, "I know he's not giving up that belt."
Everyone agrees Gamboa may regret saying at the press conference Bud hasn't fought the caliber of fighters he has. Latisha says as soon as he uttered those words Bud vowed, "I'm going to kick your butt."
Debra and her daughters predict Bud winning by knockout. "I pick the 6th round because Bud likes to figure him out. If Gamboa hits Bud, Bud's going to angry and it's going to be all over," she says.
God forbid it comes down to a controversial decision that goes against Bud. "He'd probably go nuts if he feel he got cheated," Latisha says.
"But he ain't got to worry about that," Shawntay says, "because he ain't going to lose. We got this."
Latisha can see he's ready for Saturday. "I know when he's serious, he's got the eye of the tiger. There's just something about his eyes that you just know that he's about to go handle it."
Reefe, who drove Iesha and the kids to see Bud in Colo., saw a fighter in peak condition. "I realized I was watching a world-class athlete. He was getting getting it on in a workmanlike, no-nonsense manner, going from one workout to the next, station to station, not being lazy about anything. He was in charge."
BoMac confirms that Crawford "just looks at it like he's got a job to go do," adding, "He's like, 'Let me do my job, everyone else do their job, let's go about our business and let's go home." He says Crawford's "will and determination" separate him from the pack.
That intensity is often masked by his laidback demeanor. "He likes to joke and play around, wrestle, he's a kid, you know," Reefe says. "He's always been like that," says Debra, fingering a stack of title fight posters. "He's so easygoing you wouldn't believe he's got a big fight coming up," adds grandma. Shawntay points out, "He don't ever talk about the fight, he just goes in there and fights."
As for the fighter himself, he's using any real or perceived slight – from Gamboa's words to what he sees as a lack of local corporate sponsors to the Bluffs controversy – as motivation to leave no doubts June 28.
"I'm still hungry to get better and to prove to the world that I belong here. This is just a stepping stone."
The Crawford-Gamboa fight can be seen live on HBO Boxing After Dark starting at 9 p.m. (CST).
For tickets to the fight, visit www.ticketmaster.com.
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