The energy in the building was at a fever pitch. Thousands of fans chanted his name.
But Terence "Bud" Crawford's memory of that spring night in 2006 is of an empty, raw feeling, one he vowed he'd never feel again.
Crawford met Jesus Mendez III in the 132-pound finale of the National Golden Gloves at what then was known as the QWest Center in his hometown of Omaha, Neb.
Crawford was favored, but he lost a decision that marked his last appearance in a ring in his hometown.
"That was a big loss for me," Crawford said. "Man, that hurt. The championship of the Golden Gloves. It still hurts when I think about it now. I kind of took it hard. Ask anyone who knows me and they'll tell you how much I hate to lose at anything. And I mean anything. But that one, man, that one hurts."
Crawford, now the unbeaten WBO lightweight champion, will get the chance for redemption in a way when he defends his belt against Yuriorkis Gamboa at the CenturyLink Center in the first title fight in Omaha since Joe Frazier destroyed Ron Stander in 1972.
Crawford has long stood out on the Omaha boxing scene, such as it is. He was urged many times to leave the city and relocate to a place like Las Vegas, where boxing was serious business and, the theory went, he could accelerate his professional development.
He resisted, and now sits on the verge of stardom. If he can get past Gamboa, a highly talented though enigmatic figure who won an Olympic gold medal in Athens in 2004, he'll have a slew of big-money options at his fingertips.
He may never turn Omaha into a boxing hotbed, but like Hall of Famer Virgil Hill did for Bismarck, N.D., a generation earlier, Crawford will force the community to learn about boxing in Omaha.
"There are people here who love boxing and know what is going on and understand what I've been able to accomplish, and there are a lot of people who don't follow it and don't think about it too much," Crawford said. "It's like any place else. But I want to give them a reason to pay attention."
He did that in March, going to Scotland to defeat hometown hero Ricky Burns to win the title. It wasn't going to be easy to get the title out of Burns' hands in Scotland, but Crawford put on such a one-sided, dominating performance that the judges' had no option but to score the bout for him.
That win led directly to his bout against Gamboa on Saturday. Both men are 23-0 with 16 knockouts, but Gamboa is a legitimate opponent.
Crawford wanted no part of a C-level fighter with a puffed up record that he was expected to beat easily. When he was going to fight at home for the first time as a pro, he wanted it to mean something.
"There was no way I was going to allow them to give me a tomato can for this fight," Crawford said. "I want to be the best and I know you can't get that kind of recognition fighting guys people never heard of. I made it clear I wanted to fight someone who people knew and where it would be considered a 50-50 fight."
For all his physical gifts, and they are plenty, Gamboa has been disappointing at times in his career. He's been knocked down four times and really doesn't have a signature victory, despite being out of the Olympics for 10 years and fighting as a pro since 2007.
At this stage, Gamboa has gotten less out of more. But he's extremely quick and powerful and has the ability to beat anyone in his class.
Crawford knows he's in for a battle.
"It's not my place to [critique] him," Crawford said. "I know this: He's a great fighter who can do a lot of things. I don't have much bad to say about him. How could I? Look at his record. He's gotten dropped a few times, and that's just from being careless.
"But he has a lot going for him. That's why I'm happy to be fighting him. A win over this guy will mean something."
A win for Crawford might see him jump in weight where there are plenty of quality opponents awaiting at 140 pounds. He's already beaten WBA/WBC super lightweight champion Danny Garcia in the amateurs and he could make a lot of money against some of that division's big names.
First, though, he needs to handle business on Saturday. And though he has a lot on his plate fighting at home, he insists he hasn't gotten ahead of himself.
"People ask me what's next or what I'm going to do, but you haven't heard me talk about that," he said. "I'm focused on one thing: beating Gamboa. I just want to hear two words on Saturday night: 'And still.' Nothing else matters to me right now other than getting the job done against this guy."
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