Undefeated lightweight titleholder Terence Crawford tries to put The Cornhusker State on the fistic map when he faces slumping Yuriorkis Gamboa in a scheduled 12 at the Century Link Arena in Omaha on Saturday night.
A little over two hundred years ago, Nebraska was considered part of “The Great American Desert,” which, as far as boxing goes, at least, is a fitting description. Except for a handful of notable fighters—Max Baer and Ace Hudkins, for example—Nebraska has never been known for prizefighting, and over the last few decades it has become a haven for circuit-grinders and professional floppers. This is only the fifth professional boxing card in Omaha since Y2K, and Crawford, 26, is hoping that beating Gamboa will lead to future overflow crowds at the CenturyLink. Up to 10,000 spectators are expected to witness an intriguing matchup involving two undefeated pros who seem to be heading in opposite directions.
While Crawford was making a name for himself by fighting on HBO three times in 2013, Gamboa was suffering from some of the trendier prizefighting disorders: promotional squabbles, lawsuits, and inactivity. He has also been linked to Biogenesis. “Who the fuck is Gamboa,” Bob Arum fumed a few months ago about his former blue-chipper, whose career is as moribund as that of K-Fed. But Gamboa has made a tactical decision calculated to catapult him back into the spotlight: By targeting the latest HBO poster boy, Gamboa hopes to regain the buzz he had three or four years ago. In effect, he is going to try to replace Crawford in the HBO pecking order.
After strange negotiations with Brandon Rios and Mikey Garcia led to Nowheresville, Gamboa, 23-0 (16), deserves credit for finally closing the deal on a big fight. But is he overreaching against Crawford? Not only will Gamboa have to face a fighter with significant pulls in height and reach, but he will also have to deal with a switch-hitter. By alternating between southpaw and orthodox stances, Crawford will try to keep Gamboa off-balance from round to round. An extended layoff hardly seems the ideal way to prepare for a speedy switch-hitter. Although Crawford is not a banger, he throws punches in combination, and Gamboa has shown that his chin is not exactly bedrock. He has been floored at least five times in his career, and each time he hit the deck it was in a fight below the lightweight limit.
Because contemporary pros seldom step into the ring more than once or twice a year, gauging form is as difficult as figuring out the plot of Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive. Consider the following: Gamboa has had only two fights in 18 months, he is above his best weight, and he has faced middling opposition since outpointing Orlando Salido in 2010. With these X-factors in mind, Crawford has more than just physical advantages going into the fight on Saturday night: he also has the edge in momentum.
Like some of his Cornhusker predecessors—Ace Hudkins and Vince Foster, in particular—Crawford, fighting in his home town for the first time in his career, has been shadowed by a troubled past. In fact, it took a near-death experience in 2008 to get him focused on his career between the ropes. After a rowdy Crawford was thrown out of a Labor Day Celebration—security guards sprayed him with mace to make sure he got the point—he wound up shooting dice in an increasingly hostile environment. Before things got completely out of hand, Crawford collected his winnings, and returned to his car to count his bankroll. Moments later, a gunman sneaked up on Crawford and shot him behind the ear. Incredibly, Crawford survived, and now, six years after that harrowing incident, “Bud” is looking at a future of potential glitz, glitter, and glamour—even if he has to settle for the Heartland equivalent of swag.
But Gamboa is not the kind of fighter you can label a walkover. This is not Jesus Soto Karass, overmatched every few months and seemingly resigned to losing, or Yoshihiro Kamegai, paid less than 1/10th what Robert Guerrero earned for a main event whose financial terms Karl Marx might have considered exploitative. Gamboa, Guantanamo, Cuba, was once considered a sure-shot showstopper, and his talent—at least before he adopted a humdrum attitude—was self-evident. He started out with all the verve and passion of an action painter—slashing and dashing on a canvas instead of at a canvas—and then his muse seemed to vanish. Soon, Gamboa wound up being just another dilettante producing the occasional mediocre still life. Who wants to see more fruit bowls in boxing?
Over the years, fighters like Leo Santa Cruz, Peter Quillin, and yes, Gamboa himself, have made a fair living facing one undistinguished opponent after another on PPV undercards and as openers for ad hoc triple-headers, but everything that aficionados care about seems beyond their reach. This, ultimately, is what sets prizefighting apart from other mainstream sports: pursuing authenticity is, by and large, a matter of choice, or, if you prefer, ambition. In baseball, hockey, football, and basketball, players consistently compete at the highest levels possible because of mandatory scheduling. In boxing, you choose your own competition. Think about that. Would anyone care about Tony Gwynn if he had been allowed to bat against Little League players of his own choosing? A fighter with a pedigree like Gamboa—who has also won 8 Cuban National Amateur Championships—has a professional mandate straight out of a Philip Roth novel: “You must not come to nothing! Make something of yourselves!”
Unquestionably talented, Crawford, 23-0 (16), is also untested. Ricky Burns is the only notable opponent on his record, and Burns—whose 2013 draw against Rey Beltran in Scotland was Highwayman Robbery—had been showing signs of slipping for a while. But the fact that Crawford hit the road to whip Burns is a sure sign of substance. If his chin and stamina hold up—always a question mark with inexperienced fighters—his natural talent ought to be enough for him to outpoint Gamboa, who is much slower and far more stationary than he was at featherweight. Gamboa now relies on a flicking jab, a solid counter left, and an assortment of strange hand signals seemingly used to hypnotize his opponents from afar.
Still, Gamboa, 32, looks like a man who has a desperate air about him. Yes, he is undefeated, and yes, he earned a pretty good living on the HBO merry-go-round, but Gamboa has not done much of anything in years except make embarrassing headlines. And Gamboa, who sold his Olympic gold medal for $1,500 to buy a birthday gift for his daughter several years ago, certainly did not defect from Cuba to watch his talent atrophy. Inactivity has not only affected his bank account, but it has also affected his future earnings potential and may have darkened his past accomplishments as well. On Saturday night Gamboa is going to try to regain lost time … even if he has to cross “The Great American Desert” to do it.