By BERNARD FERNANDEZ
Great athletes? Oh, sure, Omaha has produced quite a few. There’s Bob Gibson, the Hall of Fame righthander for the St. Louis Cardinals who won 251 games in the big leagues and was a two-time Most Valuable Player in the World Series. There’s Gale Sayers, an All-America halfback at the University of Kansas and All-Pro with the Chicago Bears who was maybe the greatest broken-field runner of all time. There’s Heisman Trophy winners Nile Kinnick (1939), Johnny Rodgers (1972) and Eric Crouch (2001). Among those who were born elsewhere but enjoyed their greatest success in Nebraska’s largest city, you have Doug McDermott, who came into this world in Grand Forks, N.D., and was raised in Ames, Iowa, but became a three-time All-America forward and college basketball’s Player of the Year for the Creighton University Bluejays in 2013.
But boxing … well, it’s a list so skimpy as to be almost non-existent. For a long time Omaha’s only real contribution to the sweet science was Carl Vinciquerra, a member of the United States Olympic boxing team at the 1936 Berlin Games who compiled a 42-4-5 record with 26 knockout victories as a pro. Were it not for a 1939 loss to Johnny Paycheck, Vinciquerra would have gotten his shot at heavyweight champion Joe Louis.
Little wonder then that Omaha, a city of 434,353 football-loving citizens (as of the 2013 census), went just a little bit crazy when a native son, Terence “Bud” Crawford, burst into prominence in 2014, when he beat three highly credible opponents (Ricky Burns, Yuriokis Gamboa and Raymundo Beltran) and was named the winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Sugar Ray Robinson Award as Fighter of the Year in a close vote over light heavyweight knockout artist Sergey Kovalev.
But two of those victories were in Omaha’s 17,000-seat CenturyLink Center, where Crawford enjoys one of the most pronounced home-arena advantages in boxing. While the WBO super lightweight champion could continue to pack ’em in there, the best fighter ever to come out of Nebraska is eager to find out if his act will play on Broadway, or more specifically at the corner of 33rd Street and 8th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. And so what if it’s just the 5,500-seat Theater at Madison Square Garden, and not the 18,200-seat “Most Famous Arena in the world”? It’s New York City, the “Mecca of boxing,” where reputations are made or mashed and those who dream of becoming legends of the sport either demonstrate that they have what it takes, or don’t.
In and of itself, this particular title defense by Crawford (27-0, 19 KOs) against fringe contender “Hammerin’” Hank Lundy (26-5-1, 13 KOs), of Philadelphia, to be televised via HBO World Championship Boxing, is not particularly noteworthy. The 32-year-old Lundy, who is ranked No. 10 by the WBO, has lost two of his last three bouts and, his bravado notwithstanding, is a 17-1 longshot to pull off the upset. The main drama is whether Crawford, 28, who appears to have lost some momentum in 2015 after his breakthrough the previous year, will react like a deer in the headlights in his Big Apple debut, as has been the case with some visitors from the hinterlands, or launch the sort of drive toward the top that could enter his name in the conversation for consideration as boxing’s pound-for-pound best.
“I feel I already am in that conversation,” Crawford said when asked if he belonged in the elite company of such renowned champions as Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, Gennady Golovkin and Kovalev. “But it’s hard to rate myself against guys in different weight classes because they would never be my opponents. Some (Golovkin and Kovalev) are too big, some (Gonzalez) are too small. They do good in their weight (classes), I do good in mine.”
And the ramifications of his fighting in New York for the first time?
“It’s real big,” Crawford acknowledged. “All the greats fought there. So many legendary fighters have been in Madison Square Garden. I’m looking forward to going in there and putting my name in the record books.”
There had been much speculation that the next fight for Crawford following his 10th-round stoppage of Dierry Jean on Oct. 24 (also in the friendly confines of the CenturyLink Center) would be against Manny Pacquiao, a three-time BWAA Fighter of the Year and future first-ballot Hall of Famer who has said he will retire after his next bout. As Pacquiao and Crawford are both promoted by Top Rank, a pairing of the departing superstar and the younger, emerging one seemingly could have been arranged by promoter Bob Arum.
But someone – maybe Arum, maybe Pacquiao’s adviser, Michael Koncz, or maybe “PacMan” himself – instead opted for a third pairing of the Fab Filipino against Timothy Bradley Jr. on April 9 at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, leaving Crawford to settle for a go at Lundy, who reportedly was the fifth or even sixth alternative after presumably more attractive options proved unavailable.
“We present Manny and Manny’s team with the offers,” said Top Rank executive Carl Moretti when asked whose decision it was not to make Pacquiao-Crawford, which would have been for Crawford’s 140-pound title. “They come back to us with a preference of who they want to fight. I don’t know what else to say other than (Pacquiao) was presented with three choices and it came back that Manny (wanted Bradley).
“Look, Terence’s career isn’t going to be built around whether he gets a Manny Pacquiao fight now, or never. He’s going to fight everybody who’s put in front of him and he always tries to get the best opponent available. I’m sure there’s bigger things to come, but, really, the most important fight right now is Saturday night with Lundy.”
But instead of acting like some sort of human consolation prize who stumbled into a bid for a world title, Lundy has been talking smack as if he were the marquee attraction, not Crawford. He said he’s fought “at least three” guys who are better than Crawford, whom he described as a nice enough fighter, but nothing particularly special. Lundy’s verbal barbs aimed at Crawford aren’t spur-of-the-moment stuff either; he has been taunting the Nebraskan for two years now in what has become an ongoing Twitter exchange.
“I’ve been watching him since he popped on the scene at 135 (pounds),” Lundy said. “He don’t impress me. He’s not the best guy I fought. Who has Terence fought who had a real good name? Think about it.”
Someone pointed out that one of the three fighters Crawford defeated in 2014, on a 10th-round TKO, was Cuban defector Gamboa, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist and former unified featherweight champion.
“Gamboa was, what, 5-foot-2? (he’s actually 5-5, to Crawford’s 5-7),” Lundy said. “And been off for a year? Gamboa still was able to outbox him for the first seven rounds until Crawford switched up and went southpaw. Most people forget that.”
Crawford hears Lundy’s constant yammering and said he pays no heed to it. But the champion has dropped at least a few hints that those who talk the talk always must demonstrate that they can also walk the walk.
“Anyone can say, `This guy’s not special,’ or whatever, but when (Lundy) gets in the ring with me he’ll find out different,” Crawford said. “My job is to make him see different. I just want to shut him up.
“He’s said a couple of things that upset me, but it’s nothing that will make me change up my game plan or fight different than I normally fight. I’m going to go in there, fight my fight and get the job done.”
It is possible that Lundy’s barrage of veiled and not-so-veiled insults directed at Crawford is strategical; he claims to be a fan of another Philadelphia fighter, ageless wonder Bernard Hopkins, who has elevated trash-talking to something of an art form. Then again, it could be that he believes his Philadelphia roots, from which so many ring greats have blossomed, somehow give him an advantage over some interloper from Omaha, wherever that is. It’s possible that Lundy might not even know where Nebraska is located on a map of the U.S.
“Hammerin’ Hank is an old-school, throwback fighter,” Lundy continued. “I fight anybody and everybody. I don’t care what your record is and I don’t care who you are.
“I compare myself to Bernard (Hopkins). Cyclone Hart. You got a lot of greats that came from Philly. The Everett brothers, the Fletcher brothers. There’s a lot of hardnosed guys from Philly I mimic my style after.”
But maybe there isn’t that much of a difference between cities that have a wrong side of the tracks. If Lundy believes that Crawford is a farm boy, who grew up chewing on corn straw and milking cows, he is mistaken. As a promising 20-year-old pro in 2008, Crawford took part in a back-alley dice game in one of Omaha’s rougher neighborhoods. He was in the driver’s seat of his car, counting his money, when a bullet exploded through the back window and hit him in the head behind his right ear. Bloodied, he drove himself to the hospital and reassessed his priorities.
“I could have been dead at that moment,” he said. “Ever since then, I’ve got a purpose.”
So Saturday’s to-do isn’t about Philadelphia vs. Omaha, or even about which fighter can better handle the bright lights of New York. It’s man-against-man, which is what it always comes down to inside the ropes when the bell rings.
“I’m undefeated and he’s not. I’m world champion and he’s not,” Crawford said in response to Lundy’s suggestion that city of birth is or should be part of any equation that goes into the making of an elite fighter. “If he wants to think he has an advantage because I’m from Omaha, so be it. To each his own.
“But it ain’t where you’re from, it’s what you do.”
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