“Will it play in Peoria?” is a phrase widely believed to have been popularized by 19th century American author Horatio Alger. It has come to mean the viability of a given product, person, promotional theme or event to appeal to mainstream America, which Wikipedia defines as a “wide range of demographic and psychographic groups.”
A native of Omaha, Neb., 29-year-old Terence “Bud” Crawford has demonstrated that he not only can play a Midwestern stand-in for Peoria, in this instance his farm-belt hometown, but is a certified smash in Omaha’s 17,000-seat CenturyLink Arena, where he has done his thing four times to the delight of raucous, sellout crowds, most recently on Dec. 10 of last year, when he stopped John Molina Jr. to retain his WBC and WBO super lightweight championships. Few could blame Crawford, by consensus one of the top five or six pound-for-pound fighters in the world, and an ambitious sort with an eye on climbing even higher up that prestigious if subjective ladder, if he and his handlers elected to remain in that particular comfort zone. The stay-at-home philosophy made local legends of Virgil Hill (27 appearances in North Dakota, with 16 in Bismarck), Tony “The Tiger” Lopez (38 fights in Sacramento, Calif.), the late Johnny Tapia (22 fights in New Mexico, with 20 in Albuquerque) and the late Arturo Gatti, who was born in Cassio, Italy, raised in Montreal but fought 32 times in New Jersey, including 23 in his preferred professional destination of Atlantic City.
Like a couple of other Omaha-bred athletes of considerable renown, Bob Gibson and Johnny Rodgers, Crawford no longer is content to be a huge fish in a comparatively small pond. He hopes to become a box-office and aesthetic whopper wherever he elects to sling punches, and what better place to test the extent of his expanding reach than in the biggest, most scrutinized pond of them all, New York City? It was a journey successfully made by Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Fame righthander who beat the New York Yankees twice to win Most Valuable Player honors in the 1964 World Series, and Rodgers, the University of Nebraska’s 1972 Heisman Trophy winner who picked up college football’s highest individual award at the Downtown Athletic Club in, yes, the Big Apple.
It’s like Sinatra sang: “New York, New York … if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Anyway, that’s the idea.
Crawford had come to the big city once before, defending his WBO 140-pound title with a fifth-round stoppage of Philadelphia’s Hank Lundy on Feb. 27, 2016. But that was in the 5,500-seat Theater at Madison Square Garden, which technically is part of the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” but is more akin to a stage actor playing off-Broadway than headlining in a Tony Award-winning smash on the Great White Way. Saturday night’s HBO-televised defense by Crawford (30-0, 21 KOs) against 2008 Olympic gold medalist Felix Diaz (19-1, 9 KOs), who represented the Dominican Republic at the Beijing Olympiad but now resides in New York, is in the Garden’s 18,200-seat main room, which in theory marks the Nebraskan’s full elevation to the fight game’s major leagues. Now all he has to do is demonstrate that he has the charisma, flair and moxie to pack ‘em in at boxing’s most sacred shrine as well as he did back in corn country. Oh, and he’d best make some of the most discerning critics in the sport – New Yorkers don’t surrender their affections to just anything or anybody — sit up and take notice while he’s at it.
“That says a lot,” Crawford said of his figurative promotion to a site where the NBA’s Knicks, NHL’s Rangers and all manner of the music industry’s superstars have shone (well, in the Knicks’ case, not so much in recent seasons) under the bright lights. “I just got to keep winning and putting on the great performances that I’ve been putting on. Eventually, my name is going to be bigger than it is right now.”
Bob Arum, Top Rank’s 85-year-old founder, has a special place in his heart for the Garden, which is understandable. Born Dec. 8, 1931, in Brooklyn, Arum promoted several of Muhammad Ali’s fights at Madison Square Garden beginning with Ali’s 1967 match with Zora Folley. Since then Arum has gone to the MSG well more than 40 times, showcasing such legends as Roberto Duran, Oscar De La Hoya, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Miguel Cotto, and more recently the much-heralded Vasyl Lomachenko and now Crawford.
“Obviously, fighting in the big arena, in the main event, makes a statement,” Arum said of the latest return to his longtime comfort zone. “It’s what our plans are. And our plans are that Terence Crawford, before he hangs up his gloves, will be recognized as the greatest fighter of his time. That’s going to be up to Terence, but he has the tools and the personality and the ability to reach that goal.
“We believe that Terence will be recognized in the months and years to come as one of the premier fighters in boxing, if not the best. We really believe that Terence is destined for greatness.”
You can’t snooker New Yorkers with smoke and mirrors, and in Diaz – a battle-tested (over 300 amateur bouts), 33-year-old southpaw who makes up for unremarkable hand speed with accurate punch placement – Crawford might not find an opponent amenable to quietly acquiescing to the visiting crown prince’s coronation. Although a prohibitive underdog – at last look Diaz was +1,100, meaning backers would come away with $1,200 if they bet $100 – there are those who are convinced he has the grit and style to, if not rain hard on Crawford’s parade, to at least sprinkle on it.
“I feel that I can beat Terence Crawford,” Diaz insisted. “Crawford hasn’t fought no one like me. I’m definitely motivated. I have been overlooked, and I’m going to destroy that plan (in which Crawford soon emerges as king of the ring).”
Lou DiBella, who promotes Diaz, knows that the task confronting his fighter isn’t a day at the Coney Island beach. But the greater the risk, the better the potential reward.
“I know how good Crawford is. Felix knows how good Crawford is. But he’s not God. He’s not unbeatable. He’s had tough fights. For a little while, (Yuriorkis) Gamboa gave him a tough fight. I think Diaz has a lot of the same attributes in terms of pressure and style to make it a very difficult night for Bud. I think (Crawford has) fought smaller guys. I don’t think his resume screams `best in the world.’ But to be honest, in this day and age, not a lot of resumes do.”
A victory, even if it comes in impressive fashion, does not guarantee Terence Crawford a place of honor at the main table in boxing history. His career has too much road that has yet to be traveled to make that kind of determination. But nailing this star turn could help secure a firmer grip on the here-and-now, just as Bob Gibson’s fastball blowing past the Bronx Bombers in Game 7 of that 1964 World Series brought him a step closer to baseball immortality. Greatness seldom arrives in a rush, but incrementally, even if certain increments tend to be magnified through the prism of Broadway’s high-wattage neon lights.
“I never shied away from any challenge,” Crawford said with the conviction of someone who understands just what is at stake as this stranger in a strange land sets out to conquer New York as much or more as Felix Diaz. “A lot of people that I fight, they’re looking to see what’s going to bring out the best in Terence Crawford. That’s why you train hard for, because you never know what’s going to happen. You have to prepare yourself for whatever your opponent brings. And I’m prepared to go to hell and back to get the victory.”
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