By Jake Donovan, photo by Chris Farina
An enthusiastic crowd of 10,943 poured into the CenturyLink Center to bear witness to Nebraska's first major titlist in nearly 100 years. Terence Crawford came to the CenturyLink Center anxious to erase the memory of the last fight in his hometown, a loss the 2006 National Golden Gloves.
By night's end, everyone in Omaha got what they wanted.
Four knockdowns atoned for a rough start as Crawford made the first - and perhaps only- successful defense of his lightweight title, with a 9th round stoppage of Yuriorkis Gamboa in a battle of unbeaten former amateur stars Saturday evening in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
Never before has a fighter from Nebraska won a title fight in state prior to Saturday evening. For about four rounds, Crawford seemed to suffer that same fate as Gamboa exuded confidence and fluidity, showing flashes of the supremely gifted boxer who claimed a Gold medal for his native Cuba in the 2004 Athens Olympics and entered the pro ranks to high accolades in 2007.
Crawford spent much of the evening fighting out of the southpaw stance, but was a sucker for right hands from Gamboa, who had the style well-timed and fought without a care in the world.
That level of arrogance proved to be a hindrance at times throughout his career, but always eventually resulted in victory. It ultimately cost him on this particular night, as his leaky defense and lack of discipline were horrible additions to the height and reach disadvantages with which he was met in just his third career fight outside of featherweight.
After falling behind early, Crawford turned up the heat in round five. The crowd was already literally dancing in the aisles from the moment their local favorite came out of the dressing room. The venue erupted when Gamboa was rocked courtesy of a counter right hook, eventually leading to the bout’s first knockdown.
Gamboa protested the call, insisting he was thrown to the canvas. His legs told a different story, as he staggered around the ring for most of the rest of the round. Crawford tried his damnest to close the show, only for Gamboa to survive a monster left hand to clinch his way to the bell.
It took more than a round for the Cuban boxer to regain his legs, but the magic had quickly vanished. Crawford dramatically closed the gap and had assumed control of the fight. That’s not to say Gamboa didn’t have his moments, as he was still able to initiate the action and take the lead in ensuing rounds.
The difference, however, was that Crawford was confident he could take his opponent’s best. Even more so, that he knew his best was enough to turn the tide at any given moment.
That scenario was perfectly encapsulated late in round eight. Gamboa marched forward, desperately trying to swing momentum back in his favor. The plan worked until it didn’t, largely due to his inability – or perhaps full disinterest – in keeping his hands up to guard against the incoming. Crawford waded through a swarm of punches to rock and drop Gamboa late in round eight, never looking back from that point onward.
Two more knockdowns came in round nine before referee Geno Rodriguez wisely stepped in to stop the contest.
The official time was 2:37 of round nine.
Crawford improves to 24-0 (16KOs). Not only did his strong finish help override a slow start, but also went a long way in erasing the dreadful memories of the evening’s co-feature, in which Matt Korobov scored a 10-round decision over Jose Uzcategui in a painful matchup of unbeaten middleweights.
Gamboa suffers his first defeat since the Caribbean Games as an amateur in 2006, as he falls to 23-1 (16KO). The bout marked his first in just over a year, and only his third above the featherweight limit, where he once served as a unified titlist.
Prior to the fight, it was widely reported – or at least whispered – that Crawford struggled mightily to make weight, and that Saturday’s fight would be his last at lightweight. If so, his departure comes less than four months after flying across the Atlantic to claim the lightweight belt in a well-earned decision over Ricky Burns in Glasgow, Scotland.
At the very least, his local fans were able to bear witness to a winning performance from one of their own in a title fight for the first time ever.
The last major title fight to roll through Omaha came 42 years ago. The night served as the last time Joe Frazier would successfully defend the World heavyweight title, scoring a 5th round stoppage of local butcher Ron Stander, who was seated ringside for Saturday’s contest.
Perry ‘Kid’ Graves is the only other Cornhusker to ever claim a major a title, capturing the welterweight crown in 1914. Graves won the title in Brooklyn, and not only didn’t defend at home but didn’t fight in Nebraska at all until late in his career, years after his title reign came to a close.
Crawford is the state’s only fighter to really enjoy a close connection with the local fan base. This much was evident in his lone other pro fight in Nebraska, when the room was stuffed to the gills for an undercard appearance at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island, Nebraska in Feb. 2011.
Saturday’s contest wound up surpassing expectations both in the ring and at the box office. The CenturyLink Center was originally configured for 9,000 fans, but Top Rank brass was more than happy to expand seating to the Upper Bowl to satisfy overwhelming ticket demand.
By the time the final bell sounded, Crawford satisfied the in-ring demand to deliver a performance worth remembering – enough to where fans hope it won’t be 100 more years for another one like it.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox