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The Travelin’ Man returns to Omaha: part two

27
Oct
Photo credit: Naoki Fukuda

Photo credit: Naoki Fukuda

 

Please click here for part one.

 

When Terence Crawford first burst to prominence with his upset points win over Breidis Prescott as a late-sub, he was favorably compared to another sweet-boxing southpaw in Pernell Whitaker. As I sat ringside at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. to work the keys for his 10th round TKO victory over Dierry Jean, the similarities between the Hall-of-Famer and the current pound-for-pound entrant became even stronger.



One parallel is geographical; 10 times between March 1985 (when he stopped Mike Golden in his third pro fight) and Oct. 1994 (when he outpointed James “Buddy” McGirt in their rematch), Whitaker’s presence electrified his home arena – the Scope in Norfolk, Va. Those who attended his fights there watched him grow from prospect (TKO 2 John Senegal) to contender (UD 10 Alfredo Layne, UD 12 Roger Mayweather, TKO 6 Miguel Santana) to champion (TKO 3 over IBF lightweight titlist Louie Lomeli, UD 12 Jose Luis Ramirez to avenge a controversial, split decision loss and win Ramirez’s WBC belt) to perennial pound-for-pound superstar (UD 12 Poli Diaz, UD 12 Santos Cardona) and, each time, the atmosphere within the venue lifted the spirits and performance level of “Sweet Pete” (which was misinterpreted as “Sweet Pea” by sportswriters) and added another layer of adversity to his opponents. For opponents, the combination of Whitaker’s skills and the crowd inside the Scope was like taking on New Zealand’s All Blacks in Auckland and having to watch their supporters perform the Haka just a few feet away. Fighting Whitaker was hard enough but doing so in that atmosphere was an even more formidable and intimidating challenge.

While fans at the CenturyLink Center haven’t had the luxury of seeing all stages of Crawford’s development – his victory over Jean was just his third appearance there, all in championship fights – the energetic devotion for their native son was just as pronounced as what Whitaker generated at the Scope. As Crawford walked toward the ring, the noise generated by the 11,020 spectators reached rare heights as I felt my eardrums vibrating. Pound-for-pound (or rather, patron-for-patron), this was as loud a crowd as I’ve ever witnessed; to me, it compared favorably to Lucian Bute’s reception before his bout with Sakio Bika at the Bell Centre in Montreal (still the gold standard in my ringside experiences), Joe Mesi’s ovation at Buffalo’s HSBC Arena before his bout with DaVarryl Williamson, Sergio Martinez’s approach before the Martin Murray bout in Buenos Aires and the O2 Arena throng’s throaty roars before Carl Froch’s rematch with Mikkel Kessler in London. Most, if not all, of those crowds were larger than that for Crawford-Jean, so the fact that they’ve made the list should be a tribute to their level of support.

The other parallel is attitudinal; although Whitaker and Crawford were/are blessed with immense boxing skill, their ring personas include traits such as swagger, pride, supreme confidence, off-the-charts competitiveness and an acidic viciousness that was developed during the years they spent on the streets. Their urban struggles – and conquests – helped build a chip-on-the-shoulder combativeness that served to repel threats to their superiority inside the ring.

For Crawford, this asset surfaced in the final 30 seconds of round eight when Jean cracked the champ with a lead right to the face. To this point, Crawford had been utterly dominant as he scored a knockdown seconds after switching to lefty late in round one and used a busy and precise right jab, hurtful combinations and a smothering defense to build a growing statistical lead. But when that right landed, Crawford backed off, shook his head, fired a smirk and threw a volley of blows that caused Jean to retreat. But when Jean landed a second flush right to the face, the beast within Crawford came out. His face snarled as he unleashed a 10-punch volley that was only interrupted by referee Tony Weeks, who thought the 10-second hammer was the bell. When the real bell sounded, Crawford stared hard at Jean with a defiant smile while bouncing on his toes, then made sure to get in a parting look over the shoulder as he strode toward his corner.

Crawford amplified his dominance with a second knockdown late in the ninth with two left crosses to the ear, then proceeded to pound Jean from pillar to post throughout the 10th, which ended with a third knockdown courtesy of another left cross to the ear that left the thoroughly battered Jean sitting on the bottom two ropes.

If the beating he administered wasn’t enough to drive the point home, Crawford delivered a verbal exclamation point during the post-fight interview with HBO’s Max Kellerman. With Jean and his manager/promoter Camille Estephan standing just a few feet away he fired this missile:

“You can look to your left and you can see those two guys over there that called me out,” he said, pointing his right glove toward Jean and Estephan while doing so. “He called me out twice. Did you get what you were looking for?” He allowed several seconds for the words to sink in and for the crowd to react, all the while fixing a hard stare at the offending duo. If Whitaker had been watching, he probably would have nodded in approval.

He also would have liked the statistical command Crawford achieved on the judges’ scorecards and in the CompuBox numbers. Entering the 10th, “The Hunter” led 90-79 on two cards and 89-80 on the third and, when the bout ended, Crawford led 169-51 overall, 86-12 jabs and 83-39 power, landing 32% overall, 27% jabs and 40% power. His defensive numbers were outstanding as Jean landed 19% of his total punches, 7% of his jabs and 25% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts. In fact, Crawford’s last five opponents landed 19% of their overall punches, which ties him with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Erislandy Lara for second place among world-class fighters tracked by CompuBox (Guillermo Rigondeaux, at 16%, leads the pack).

A few years ago, some speculated about boxing’s fate in the post-Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao era. With skillful practitioners like Crawford, Gennady Golovkin, Roman Gonzalez, Vasyl Lomachenko, Sergey Kovalev and a few dozen others that dot the landscape, I believe “The Sweet Science” is in very good hands.

*

The fight over, Dennis and I quickly packed up our belongings and briefly chatted with Hall-of-Famer Jim Lampley before leaving ringside, which was lined with people hoping to get a photo with a member of the HBO broadcast crew, especially Roy Jones Jr. We CompuBox guys, benefitting from our anonymity, left unmolested.

After I grabbed a small bag of chips, a Power Bar and a can of Diet Pepsi from a table set up near the production truck, Dennis and I chose to walk across the street instead of taking the sky bridge to the hotel. Once I parted ways with Dennis at the lobby, I spotted HBO’s “Unofficial Official” (and future Hall-of-Famer) Harold Lederman and his daughter Julie at the registration desk. I said a brief hello to Julie before she departed while Harold and I spent several minutes discussing our favorite subject, boxing history. Even though both of us are in the boxing industry, we have never lost our core love of the sport. If a card is within driving distance of Harold’s home, he’ll be right there at ringside from opening preliminary through walk-out, all the while chatting with anyone who will engage him. In a word, Harold is a joy and hopefully, next June, he will be standing behind a lectern in Canastota delivering his induction speech.

Once the conversation broke up, I returned to my room and planned how I would handle the first few hours of Sunday morning. Normally, I would have risen at 6 a.m. and my goal times for the various steps would have been to arrive in the lobby at 6:45 a.m. to settle the bill, board the 7 a.m. airport shuttle at 6:50, arrive at the airport between 7:15 and 7:30 and reach my gate between 7:45 and 8 to await my 9:15 Omaha-to-Chicago flight, which was scheduled to begin boarding at 8:45. However, because of glitches involving the business center printer and the American Airlines website, I was unable to print my boarding passes, I was required to wait in line at the airport’s check-in counter before proceeding to the security line. To account for possible long lines at the counter, I decided to get up at 5:15 instead of 6 so I wouldn’t feel hurried or under pressure. If the lines were shorter than anticipated or if the whole process ran smoother, I was OK with spending the extra time sitting at the gate and tapping away on my laptop. As long as I am where I need to be, all was well.

Some people can get away with living life on the fly but not me; I’m a planner who functions best in an orderly environment. That was seldom the case during my former life as a newspaper copy editor in which I experienced the stress of time pressure every day. We strove to meet deadline after deadline as stories poured in from reporters and city editors. When things went awry, which was often, the pressure to perform and to make up for unexpected developments and/or others’ shortcomings when it came to turning in stories late was enormous. In the newspaper world, the copy desk is the last line of defense in terms of catching mistakes in stories and ensuring that all the pages reached the press room on time. When they didn’t, we got the blame and when they did, we received no credit. That was, and still is, the nature of the job.

As much as I detested the inner workings of my previous job, the time-management skills I developed during those years have served me well in my current incarnation as a boxing writer/researcher/punch-counter. It also helped me when unexpected occurrences unfolded on the road.

For example, my efforts to plan out the morning hours were complicated by the clock radio in my hotel room. I noticed that it was set six-and-a-half hours head, had no illumination and had no obvious way to change the time without also setting the alarm, which I never use thanks to my aversion to sudden loud noises. I suppose I could have used my cell phone to keep track of time but I found a better way while channel surfing. I noticed that the hotel’s “barker” channel constantly showed the time of day and the text was large enough so that I could read it even through squinted eyes. So I tuned to the channel, turned down the volume and turned out the lights at 1:15 a.m.

Sunday, Oct. 25: My blueprint worked out perfectly. I woke up at 4:30 a.m., dozed until 5:10 and arrived at the lobby at 5:45 to check out and to board the 6 a.m. airport shuttle. Some bonuses: The first person I saw in the lobby was Harold Lederman and as we chatted, production coordinator Tami Cotel briefly joined us. Other passengers inside the shuttle besides Tami included trainer and former titlist Robert Garcia, who seconded Evgeny Gradovich’s eight-round split decision win over Aldimar Silva Santos, and my Sports Media buddy Dustin Vinton.

We arrived at the airport around 6:15 and, as I gathered my luggage from the back of the van, I hoped I prepared for the worst at the check-in counter. Thanks to my “Gold” status on American, I had access to the “priority” line, which is usually shorter. I was pleasantly surprised to see only one couple in front of me. However, their particular issue was taking an inordinate amount of time to resolve. Perhaps taking pity on me, one of the clerks handling the “general” queue waved me over and printed my boarding passes.

As was the case last year, the lines at the security checkpoints were long, even the one for TSA Pre-Check. Another positive turn: Our queue moved quickly, so much so that I actually beat Dustin to the secure side of the terminal even though he went directly to the security line when we entered the airport.

I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario than what I got this morning but I also drew comfort from the fact that, had things not gone so well, I had given myself time to address them in a less pressurized circumstance. I’ll take that trade-off anytime.

Dustin’s flight to Charlotte and my later flight to Chicago happened to be at the same gate – A8 – and as we searched for a pair of empty seats, I spotted them near Tami and ring announcer Michael Buffer, whose flight was leaving from A7. When they left, I contented myself with catching up on my writing.

When I reached a good stopping point, I walked toward one of the flight monitors to see if there were any gate changes or other modifications. While the gate remained the same, the “arrivals” monitor indicated our bird would be landing 20 minutes later than scheduled. Yes, the departure time remained unchanged for the moment but the guess here was that it would also change.

It was, for the plane didn’t take off until 9:40 – 25 minutes later than the advertised departure time – but the extra time was well spent. I spent most of the wait at the gate talking with Top Rank’s Executive Event Producer Brad Jacobs and, after receiving a free first-class upgrade, I ended up being Brad’s seatmate. The flight was smooth and feathered onto the runway at O’Hare at 10:45 a.m.

It was then I learned another reason why ORD is known for delays – the taxi to the gate took nearly 15 minutes. Once I deplaned, I glanced at the monitor and saw my connecting gate was three concourses away – and, for once, the Pittsburgh flight was still listed as being on time. Though the prospect of walking that distance in 23 minutes to make my scheduled boarding time appeared daunting, in reality, it wasn’t. My healthy but somewhat restrained gait enabled me to reach my gate with 13 minutes to spare.

I was told in Omaha that I was number-one on the upgrade list for the Pittsburgh flight but, alas, none were granted. No matter; with no more connections to make, I was content to settle into my aisle seat in row 13.

As soon as I did, however, a man approached me and asked if I could switch seats with his wife so they could sit together. Before I could answer, he made sure to say that his wife’s seat was just one row back and across the aisle. That made it even easier to say yes (which I was going to say anyway).

Now situated on row 14 on the aisle, I waited for my new seatmate to arrive. It ended up being an attractive 20-something blonde with an unusual first name (Landis, a family name passed through several generations), a rewarding occupation (raising money for area church parishes) and a pleasing personality. She told me she was a nervous flier and since she seemed willing to converse, I opted to do so for most of the flight to help keep her mind off the situation. It must have worked; she was relaxed enough to take a catnap later on and she remained out even when the plane shook while going through clouds during our descent.

I spent much of the two-and-a-half hour drive home listening to the Steelers’ 23-13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and pulled into the driveway precisely at 5 p.m. After unpacking, I caught up on all the boxing I missed while I was away before ending another eventful day at 2 a.m.

As of this writing, my next trip will begin the day after Thanksgiving. The destination: Quebec City for a card topped by James DeGale-Lucian Bute.

Until then, happy trails!

 

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 13 writing awards, including 10 in the last five years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or email the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.

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