When this event was first announced, there was some doubt this fight would sell. After all, the words “boxing” and “Omaha” aren’t exactly synonymous. In fact, it had been 42 years since the city’s last title fight (in which Joe Frazier steamrolled Ron Stander) but many didn’t realize “Bud” Crawford was actually a decent draw during his amateur days. Out here, the locals support their own.
One of my goals in being a boxing scribe is to cover the sport in as many states/countries/continents/jurisdictions as possible and there was a certain novelty to actually being in Nebraska to see a fight that was appealing to me (the upset of the year is that I’m actually going to be in the “Cornhusker State” twice this year as I’ll be returning on the weekend of September 20th when my beloved Miami Hurricanes take on Nebraska in Lincoln).
Yeah, you can make all the wisecracks about Omaha you want. I can’t lie; I loved this city. There were plenty of things to do and the people are incredibly hospitable, especially the Old Market area, where I went on Friday afternoon. You’re not going to believe this but Blue Sushi Sake Grill was great. Yeah, the sushi in Nebraska was top-notch - I’m being dead serious. Hollywood Candy will bring out the kid in you, not so much all the sweets but for things like its Pez dispenser collection. Peter Nelson of HBO Sports just had to buy a coaster with Warren Buffet’s face on it from this place. Walking around this area was a lot of fun and I said to Nelson, “I’d much rather be here and do this than be at a Las Vegas casino.” He agreed.
Photos © K9 Photos
Oh, and there’s also a Spearmint Rhino in Omaha too. Just thought I’d mention that.
So contrary to popular belief, there is a night life in this city. We didn’t have to resort to cow-tipping. But anyway, I digress; here was my fight day this past weekend...
11:27 AM: I wake up groggily. Yeah, it was a very late night for our crew. Victor Salazar of the Boxing Voice, who is sharing a room with me at the Omaha Hilton, has the soccer game on. Last night, our crew ended up at the Parliament Pub in the Old Market area and what I remember most was our friend, Chris basically lecturing the DJ on his playlist. I guess the biggest complaint was that he didn’t have enough Biggie or something. After the last song had been played, he actually went up to the DJ booth and let him know his thoughts on his effort. Chris’ wife, Laiza says, “Oh, geez,” as this happens.
11:32 AM: We need a plunger because Vic did something to our toilet that I don’t even want to think about. But we joke that perhaps we should start eating healthier during this excursion.
11:57 AM: Disaster averted, the Hilton maintenance man fixes our toilet and as he departs, he states, “Eat healthy next time.” The World Cup game taking place is between Chile and Brazil. Honestly, I’m not paying too much attention. Vic is much more interested than I am. I don’t mind soccer but I’m not even the kind of casual fan that cares once every four years about the sport.
12:30 PM: It’s time to work out and I’m joined by Victor and Kevin Capp, who works for Top Rank Promotions. I’ll say this about the Omaha Hilton; for a hotel, it has a very good fitness center. My only complaint is that the air conditioning is turned up a tad high and it’s hard to break into a sweat. Eventually, I get into a conversation with the strength-and-conditioning coach of Matt Korobov and this thick, muscular guy who was doing some chest exercises.
Later on, Chris joins us, not to work out but just meet up. The decision is made to just stay at the hotel and watch whatever World Cup game would be taking place at the time. As we get back to our room, this Brazil-Chile game is still going on and eventually they go into penalty kicks to decide the winner. Now, I have to admit, I found this pretty exciting as both teams took turns getting their shots blocked or shooting inaccurately. Eventually, Brazil pulled it out.
2:09 PM: At the Hilton bar, which, by the way, has excellent food. I order a hamburger (that turns out to be my only meal of the day) and it’s Chris, Laiza, Kevin and me. Eventually we are joined by a couple of guys who drove in from Iowa that we’ve known on Twitter. Tim is one of the guys and he’s an individual I had interacted many times with. He’s really looking forward to this as it’s the first fight he has ever attended live.
We have a good time cutting it up and the laughs keep coming as we were talking about the dancing that took place last night at the Parliament Pub and Kevin tries his version of the “Cabbage Patch” dance which kinda looked like the “Cabbage Patch” dance but with an epileptic seizure thrown in for good measure. “Hey, I’m a white guy. What do you expect from me?" he pleads. Yeah, we may not see the “Capp-age Patch” dance from him in awhile. For the record, my “Cabbage Patch” game is still very sharp.
4:37 PM: By this time, we decided to head out to the store and get some supplies (i.e. alcohol) for tonight’s edition of “Club Kim” (which is just a fancy moniker for drinking and eating in the room). The Omaha Hilton actually provides a shuttle service for all its guests, whether they want to go downtown, the store or airport. It’s a great service. We end up going to the Cubby Old Market Grocery Store where we stock up on vodka, beer and chips. Last night, Laiza brings us pork rinds. Yeah, OK. So this weekend, her nickname is “Pork Rinds.” I get Funyuns and regular and Chile Cheese Fritos. See, that’s how it’s done. Chris tells us he’ll get the Grey Goose (“Pork Rinds” doesn’t drink anything else but this brand when it comes to vodka).
4:58 PM: A pre-fight edition of “Club Kim” and it’s the usual stuff going on but as we start taking out our haul from the bags, we find out that Chris had totally forgotten to buy the Goose. An emergency call was made to this guy Eric, a local (another guy we’ve gotten to know on Twitter through the years), who was nice enough to pick up Vic from the airport yesterday. Chris, who was on “Club Kim” suspension at the beginning of the prior year after spilling his drink on my laptop in December in San Antonio, was nearly given another suspension but Eric bailed him out by purchasing a bottle on the way up.
6:12 PM: I can’t lie; I need a nap but with all these people in our room, that’s almost an impossibility. The Top Rank stream begins and as we watch Cody Crawley and Ronnie Peterson begin the action, Chris, who is watching along with me goes, “Hold on; that guy [Peterson], wasn’t he the one in the gym earlier today?!” And indeed it was him. “Why in the world was he working out on his chest the day of his fight?” asked Chris, incredulously. It didn’t really help as Crawley stopped him in two.
8:05 PM: I get to ringside and I got a prime seat upfront in-between Tony Boone of the Omaha World Herald and Kieran Mulvaney of HBO Sports. For Boone, this is his first time covering the local guy, Crawford, as a world champion. Walking around the CenturyLink Center, you come to the realization that for Omaha, this is a big deal. There is a sizable crowd and the concourses are really packed with customers waiting for beer and other concessions.
8:20 PM: Mikael Zewski, who, like Crawford, was once under the TKO Promotions banner (where I called a fight or two of his), scores a fourth round stoppage of Prince Doku to improve his mark to 24-0 (19). Zewski is really starting to come on a bit and I think down the line, he could be the next ticket-selling attraction in Quebec. After the fight, he comes over near our table and our eyes meet. He reaches out and we bump fists, “Hey, you remember me, right, from TKO?” he asks. “Of course,” I tell him, “Hey, you’re getting better.”
8:28 PM: As Johnny Determan comes into the ring, he gets a huge ovation from the locals as he is based out of this region. His nickname is “Wite Boi” because, well, that’s what he is. He’s paired with Ernie Marquez floors him in the first with a body shot. But Marquez gamely fights on and actually touches Determan a few times before a clash of heads cuts Marquez. The fight is halted in the third and ruled a disappointing “no-decision.”
Not sure how high of a ceiling Determan has but if he can fight just a tad and is protected by his management, this guy will be in business out here. Fighters like Determan are important to the sport. No, they may never make any pound-for-pound lists but they make boxing viable in their markets.
9:04 PM: The HBO broadcast starts and Matt Korobov and Jose Uzcategui are in the ring. I believe part of the reason the network green-lighted this fight is since it’s in the Gennady Golovkin business, it needs to cultivate some middleweights for him to face.
9:07 PM: Top Rank publicist Lee Samuels comes up to our table with a paper reading “10,943,” the official paid attendance for the night in Omaha. They had done it. Top Rank’s goal was to sell 10,000 tickets and the balcony level to my left was opened up last week as they started creeping up toward that number. Some might be surprised by this number but honestly, I’m not. The fight between Antonio DeMarco and Reyes Sanchez drew a sizable crowd at the Heartland Events Center and this event featured a native son in Crawford. Yeah, get this: staging shows with some geographic logic actually works.
You certainly weren’t going to get this type of crowd at an Indian casino. In fact, you wouldn’t draw this big of an audience for Crawford-Gamboa anywhere else.
Like most Korobov fights, he is effective but not particularly exciting. It’s not that he doesn’t have talent but it seems like he’s never really put it together after a huge amateur career. His pro career has been a series of stops and starts which have seen long layoffs, various trainers and truth be told, it’s not one of Top Rank’s better jobs of developing a fighter. But then, maybe some of that has to be put on the fighter.
Early on, the crowd starts to get restless and you hear a few catcalls and boos. Yeah, Omaha fans are quickly becoming seasoned boxing enthusiasts. I’m so bored by this fight that I start direct messaging Peter Ariz of CanesInsight.com. He loves the fact that Tony Gonzalez, one of Gamboa’s handlers has a Miami Hurricanes hat on, which is his custom. Gonzalez is a graduate of “The U” and is a huge supporter of the football program. Ariz is a young reporter who is as tuned into the Hurricanes recruiting as anyone. I really enjoy the way this guy hustles and works. During the middle rounds, we go back and forth, 140 characters at a time, and he gives me some great inside stuff on what’s going on with the Canes’ recruiting efforts and the upcoming quarterback battle.
Round seven, Korobov floors Uzcategui twice but can’t finish him and really put the exclamation mark on his outing (which unfortunately is the story of his pro run). In the late rounds, as I hear the DJ playing various songs, it occurs that despite being in Omaha, there have been no songs from Nas, who starred in “Belly.” A large part of the story was based in this city. Yeah, I know; it’s a completely random thought but that’s how much my mind was wandering during this bout.
9:54 PM: 97-91 (twice) and 96-92 are the scores in favor of Korobov, who quite frankly didn’t do much to create any buzz for himself. I see Carl Moretti of Top Rank and I ask him if Korobov is in line to face Peter Quillin, who has the WBO strap, based on that fact that this fight was for a minor WBO trinket. Moretti confirmed he was, so basically, we’ll have another Vasyl Lomachenko-Gary Russell Jr. situation between Top Rank and Golden Boy.
There’s a few minutes till the main event and I decide to try and hit the restroom and as I go in the concourse area, the line for the men’s bathroom is longer than the DMV on a Monday morning. But this place is packed and as I walk around this building, it hits me that this is probably one of the largest crowds I can recall that wasn’t predominantly Mexican or Latino. The majority of the fans here today are either Caucasian or African-American and I’m guessing many had never been to a professional boxing match before. This is a huge opportunity for Crawford to stake his claim on the region and make some fans.
10:02 PM: As the “This Is Boxing” video from Top Rank plays on the JumboTron, this place is now really revved up. Most of the patrons are now in their seats and it is an electric atmosphere as both boxers step into the ring. “CRAW-FORD! CRAW-FORD! CRAW-FORD!” chants break out and it’s hard not to get excited being here. Michael Buffer does his thing and it’s at this moment when Omaha (which just recently hosted the College World Series) proves itself every bit a major league city.
Photo © K9 Photos
10:09 PM: The fight begins and early on, the Cuban’s speed and quickness is riddling Crawford, who tries to time Gamboa. But in the first four rounds, you could make an argument that the hometown fighter is down at least three rounds to one. Gamboa looks very fast and you can tell that for the first time in his career, Crawford is the slower man in the ring.
But at the end of the fourth, Crawford starts to become more comfortable and it’s when he goes southpaw, he discovers that his right hook would be the key punch in his arsenal. The shorter and stockier Gamboa has always been a fighter who liked to almost jump into his punches and has never had a particularly stout chin. Well, that would be his downfall in this fight. In the fifth, a right hook buzzed Gamboa and he was sent down by the fast hands of Crawford. At this point, the fight changed and it was all Crawford, one of the best at actually switch-hitting and fighting from both stances effectively.
Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank
Crawford sends Gamboa down again in the eighth with another barrage and then the end came in the ninth as Crawford hit Gamboa with another series of power shots. Give Gamboa credit; for a guy who hasn’t always caught very well, he was as game as can be. He showed great courage in there versus Crawford.
As the fight was being waved off by referee Geno Rodriguez, I see Gamboa’s promoter, 50 Cent walk right past us on press row and into the bowels of the arena. Geez, he wasn’t even going into the ring to see how his fighter was doing? I mean, he was outta there real quick.
Mulvaney uses the word “special” to describe Crawford tonight. It’s hard to disagree but it has to be noted; he was a much bigger guy in there and Gamboa might have died on the vine with all his inactivity. Regardless, Crawford didn’t just hit a home run with his performance but a grand slam. He took a huge step forward tonight. He had to do just a bit more than win and tonight, he accomplished that.
10:58 PM: Larry Merchant, who called did the fight on the international broadcast, comes over to Kieran and me and says referring Crawford and all the pressure on him to perform, “Pressure is opportunity when you’re good.” He also has another gem, “Finding a fighter like [Crawford] in a place like Omaha is like finding an orchid in North Pole.”
11:01 PM: There is still one more fight left to go, a walk-out bout between Konstantin Ponomarev and Joseph De los Santos. Ponomarev and his trainer, the respected Jesse Reid, were on my flight on Thursday to Omaha and Reid told me some great stories of his days training a cast of characters like Roger Mayweather, Bruce Curry and Johnny Tapia. “Yeah, I got all the nut-jobs; didn’t I?” he told me, laughing while we were waiting to board.
Reid, who once had to punch out Curry and then was shot at by him, told me that after one argument with him, he swore up and down to Curry’s manager, Billy Baxter that “no amount of money will ever get me to work with that guy!” Reid says he was absolutely fuming and screaming this to Baxter. Reid then tells me, “Well, the next day, Billy calls me back and says, ‘OK, I’ll give you $50,000 a year, guaranteed, on top of your 10 percent.’ Next day, I’m training him again. Hey, I had bills to pay!”
He recalls of one time taking Mayweather and Dana Roston to a 7-11, “And I’m sitting out there in the car; they’re taking forever and I see that their just stealing all this stuff from outside and I go, ‘Ah, hell, what am I the getaway car?’ So I just pulled out, left them and they had to walk 10 miles back home.” As he tells these stories, you can’t help but laugh. Reid is a real boxing guy; he’s been around the block a few times.
Reid is really high on Ponomarev. “This kid’s going all the way,” he told me on Thursday morning. He’s just 21 years old and upped his mark to 24-0 and scored his 12th knockout by drilling Saturday night’s foe in one so badly, he nearly fractured his ankle on the way down. It was actually a sight that leaves Brad Goodman disgusted as poor De los Santos tried to put weight on his left foot and it bent in a way it shouldn’t.
11:07 PM: I get into the post-fight press conference a bit late but I immediately raise my hand to ask a question. Top Rank President Todd duBoef calls on me and I say, “Terence, will you do the right thing and send Mikey Garcia a thank you note?” Crawford just starts laughing and goes, “Ahhh, naaah.” He wasn’t touching that with a 10-foot pole. I’m not sure if duBoef found my question all that amusing. But the reality is Garcia basically opened the door for this fight and event to take place. Can anyone argue that?
Jason Tang, who’s standing next to me, blurts out, “WHO?!” and even Todd can’t help but laugh. The bottom line is very simple; careers and legacies are made in the ring, not in the courtroom and the game will move on regardless. I really do wonder what the talented Garcia was thinking as he watched this fight unfold.
Our group heads back to the hotel and thankfully there is a bridge that connects the “House of Doug McDermott” (CenturyLink Center is the basketball home of Creighton) and the Omaha Hilton because it is absolutely pouring buckets out there.
12:16 AM: Well, by this time, everyone is back downstairs at the bar and the place is crowded. During this time, I met a lot of fans who came in from other states. For years, boxing has lost the fly-over states (as it became more and more casino-centric) and a whole generation of fans in this part of the country. But tonight showed that with the right fight and the right fighters, boxing certainly isn’t dead by any means.
Omaha is now a boxing market (and will be for the foreseeable future as Crawford embarks on his run as an elite prizefighter) and thus far in 2014, it’s hosted more major cards than Philadelphia. Just think about that. This was a great trip and I have no problems in telling you that I look forward to coming back here once or twice a year.
Now, as for the rest of the night, well, I’ll leave that to your imaginations. All I’ll say is this was a looooong and fun night in Omaha.
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