The education of Terence Crawford

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Editor’s note: This was originally published ahead of Crawford’s fight against Jeff Horn on June 9, 2018.

OMAHA, Neb. — Grover Wiley was 25, six years into a pro career that would see him retire the great Julio Cesar Chavez. Terence Crawford Jr. — “Bud,” as everyone called him — was in junior high.

It wasn’t a fair fight, what their trainer had in mind. It was an exercise designed to break an unhappy child at the cusp of adolescence. Midge Minor, a cantankerous former amateur, could see his talent. But the trainer remained beholden to certain orthodoxies, the most infuriating violation of which was Bud’s mystifying tendency to suddenly turn southpaw. These sparring sessions — a kid paired with an already hardened pro — were to cure him of that.

“I’m trying to rip out his insides,” Wiley recalls. “Crush his ribs.”

Then, as soon as Bud went lefty, Grover threw his most devious combination: a shot to the elbow followed by an uppercut intended to pierce the boy’s solar plexus. Not only did the kid stay southpaw, he seemed gleefully emboldened.

Bud liked to hurt you.

It felt like a ball-peen hammer, Wiley remembers, the knuckle denting his nasal cartilage. More than a decade had passed since Wiley had wandered into the CW Boxing Club. He’d been the only white kid in the gym, and perhaps because of it, never backed down. Wiley conceded nothing … until the day 13-year-old Bud Crawford hit him with that straight left. Then he turned to Midge.

“Can’t do it,” he said. “You can’t change this kid.”

Perhaps there’s a better fighter in the world right now, but only one. None are like Crawford though, a completely dichotomous being. His ability to shift stances in the ring seems a metaphor for something larger, the condition of his soul, perhaps. Just as he moves fluidly from left to right, orthodox to southpaw, so can he pivot from good to evil, sadism to empathy. He’s not a creature of contradictions, but a man whose conflicting natures exist in a peculiar state of harmony.

He’s a dutiful father to five children, but still on probation himself. A man who once fantasized about crushing an opponent’s skull, Crawford now plans another mission to Africa, this one to deliver medical supplies. Still, there are days when the hoodlum-cum-humanitarian will interrupt his shadowboxing to announce with rapturous delight: “I’m a knock Horn’s a– clean the f— out.”

“Horn” would be Jeff Horn, the large, rugged and perhaps underestimated champion he’ll fight for the title Saturday at the MGM Grand and broadcast on ESPN+. It’ll be Crawford’s maiden voyage in the welterweight division.

At 140 pounds, Crawford was the first unified champion in any division since 2006. He has been voted Fighter of the Year twice by ESPN, and once by the Boxing Writers Association. What the résumé fails to convey, however, is a predisposition — unnatural even among fighters — to mine pleasure from another man’s pain. If he considers an opponent to have been disrespectful — worth noting here that Horn’s trainer already has called him a “princess” — he’ll carry the guy for extra rounds just to inflict more injury and humiliation.

“Bud’s a kind dude,” says Brian McIntyre, his longtime trainer. “But he be wanting to hurt [people].”

While the gym was all male, the house on Larimore street was a de facto matriarchy. There was Debra; Bud’s older sisters Shawntay and Letisha, the latter known as “Titi;” grandmother Velma, called Pee-Wee; and aunt Jackie, who died of cancer in 2003 after an early and merciful release from state prison, where she was serving her sentence for cocaine possession.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, Jackie spent her last days on the porch, drinking strawberry pop. Before she died, her mother told her she loved her.

“I’ll always remember those words,” Pee-Wee said.

Jackie had long battled schizophrenia and addiction. Still, she died with what 15-year-old Bud coveted most: “I never had the opportunity to run up and hug my mom and tell her ‘I love you,’ and she tells me she loves me and hugs me back. I would want her to come to my fights and support me, but it never would happen.”

Instead, he heard:

“I don’t know why you training that hard. You gonna get your ass whupped.”

Or if he won: “You was fighting some weak people.”

Or if he got robbed: “You ain’t get cheated.”

“I was fighting for her approval, for her to tell me she was proud or happy,” Crawford says. “But she never would. So I stayed angry.”

Terence Crawford will fight at welterweight for the first time against Jeff Horn. Kayla Wolf for ESPN

The angry teenager never endeared himself to the sport’s amateur establishment. Perhaps it was the time Crawford stepped over the fighter he’d just knocked down at the national Golden Gloves. Or the state tournament, when he went outside and dropped a kid who insulted the gym. Or threatening to kill Gary Russell Jr. while training for the Pan Am Games. What’s more, as much as Crawford wanted to represent, coming out of Nebraska provided no cachet in boxing circles. It would be years before America knew what they knew in north Omaha.

CW, in its way, was an egalitarian society. Boxing’s normal class distinctions — weight, age, experience, amateur or professional — didn’t apply there. Everybody fought everybody, and no one fought more than Terence.

When BoMac signed to fight Eric “Butterbean” Esch — who went about 350 pounds — he used 17-year-old Bud, then a 132-pound lightweight, as a sparring partner. Months later, as Wiley prepared to face Chavez, Bud was his main guy. But it was another training camp for a super welterweight contender that Wiley remembers most clearly: right to the elbow, followed by a right uppercut — his favorite combination.

“I saw it coming, but there was nothing I could do,” Wiley says. “Too fast.”

His nose exploded. Blood pumping like a fountain.

The fight was just days away. Wiley looked at Bud. “Dude?”

“Me? … You taught me.”

Terence Crawford, left, punches Henry Lundy during their WBO world championship bout at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 27, 2016 in New York. Mike Stobe/Getty Images

By 2008, Crawford turned pro. He was 4-0 on Aug. 30, a night that began typically enough, with an altercation with a bouncer. Then there was a fight, Bloods and Crips (while Larimore Street was Crip territory, Crawford never claimed an allegiance). “A cop maced me for no reason,” he says. He washed out the chemical agent with milk, got a slice of pizza, and went to shoot some dice. At 1:34 a.m., while counting winnings in his ’86 Cutlass, the back window shattered. From the police report: “CRAWFORD stated he thought he heard 12 shots. CRAWFORD then drove himself to CUMC.”

The path of the near-fatal bullet was altered by the windshield and went around Bud’s skull, not through it. Doctors at Creighton University Medical Center patched him up. By the time BoMac arrived, the wound was merely “a big-ass gash in the back of his head.”

If part of Bud felt lucky to be alive, another part demanded vengeance. Soon enough, he learned the shooter’s identity. But the attempt on his life bothered him less than hearing that the guy bragged about it in jail. The guy had lots of kids. And if Bud found him, they’d all be daddyless.

“I don’t care if I go to jail the rest of my life,” Crawford told his uncle DeArthur. “I’m going to kill him.”

“You got that choice,” DeArthur said. “Won’t be nobody’s fault but your own.”

If Bud’s mean streak came from Uncle Mike, he got something else from DeArthur Davis.

“You think there’s a reason,” he asked his nephew, “God hasn’t let you see him yet?”

Crawford didn’t kill the man who shot him. Maybe because he was in and out of jail and Bud never saw him again. But he didn’t ride out to kill him, either. In Bud’s world, that was progress.

Years passed and Crawford remained undercover in the pro game. Even his girlfriend, Esha Person, admitted her disappointment: “When we met, I thought he had a job.”

Then, in 2011, as Tim Bradley was preparing to defend his 140-pound title against Devon Alexander, McIntyre got a call for sparring. If Bud took the gig, however, he could only fight southpaw, like Alexander. Bradley was undefeated. He had won both the WBO and WBC belts and was sending sparring partners home with frightening regularity. But Crawford schooled him.

“Beat my ass,” Bradley says.

As it ended, the two men sat on the ring apron: Crawford picking at the tape on his sprained wrist, Bradley exhausted.

“Who are you?” asked the champion.

Crawford shrugged.

“You ain’t no sparring partner, dog. You a world champion,” Bradley said.

Debra Crawford believes her critical words to Terence always aimed to encourage him ahead of fights. Kayla Wolf for ESPN

Word of those sessions got around. Still, it was 2014 before Crawford finally got a title shot in Glasgow, with 10,000 fans cheering for a Scotsman named Ricky Burns. Midge, now 73 and in declining health, made the trip, hoping to see Bud become his first protege to win a world title. Miss Debra offered her usual prefight benediction: “You ain’t s—. Gonna get your ass kicked.”

As it happened, Crawford won the WBO lightweight belt by unanimous decision. And now, four years hence, Debra explains her prefight remark as a motivational tactic.

“I know it’s gonna stick in his head,” she says. “And he gonna go over there and whup some ass.”

As for her feelings on corporal punishment: “I was just being a parent. I raised them mostly all myself with a little help from my family. He was the only boy, so I had to do something to keep him out of trouble.”

“You never told him you love him?” I asked.

“I don’t like that word,” she says.

Love?

“That’s a hurting feeling,” she says.

How so?

“Love turns to hate.”

Ah, the real duality.

“My kids know I love them,” Debra Crawford says.

As great champions inevitably discover, the title doesn’t come alone, but with a hastily reconstructed backstory. Crawford’s centered on the bloody night he drove himself to the hospital. It was presented as his epiphany, the existential incident that put it all in perspective. Yes, it changed him, but not like a light switch. He didn’t suddenly get it.

That hoodlum in his psyche? “I still had that in me,” he says. And if he wasn’t careful, it would claim him.

In other words, Crawford didn’t suddenly stop getting shot at. Eight times in all, he figures. The last incident — around the time he beat Burns — was right there on Larimore Street. Just as he pulled up in a black Chevy, someone started blasting. Apparently, the shooter was looking for Bud’s cousin, who just left in a black sedan.

“Shot my whole car up,” he says, again acknowledging his outrageous good fortune as it pertains to gunfire. First, he wasn’t hit. Second, his vehicle was clean, as his mother had finally prevailed on him not to be driving around in an ’84 Monte Carlo with unlicensed firearms. Still, the cops cuffed him and threw him to the ground.

“No,” said Miss Debra. “He’s the victim.”

They put a gun in her face, too.

“Why you always getting shot at?” one of them asked Bud.

“Why you always harassing me?” he responded.

As for the Monte Carlo, Bud fixed everything but, for some reason, the windshield. It remained cracked a year or so later when he brought it to Extreme Custom Fleet and Auto Spa. The car stayed there for many months. Bud says he asked only for a basic paint job, and that the owner kept adding on extras. The owner said Crawford still owed $1,350 when he arrived with three friends on April 14, 2016. According to the police report, Crawford pushed around the owner and damaged the hydraulic lift in the process of liberating his Monte Carlo. Judge Marcena Hendrix gave Bud 90 days.

The jail term was eventually overturned. But the idea that Crawford remains on probation belies his other half. If one self was led from the courtroom in handcuffs, there’s another guy who, before he ever won a title, rehabbed an old warehouse with BoMac and built the B&B Boxing Academy, free of charge for any kid who maintains a satisfactory report card. This other self desperately wants to do good.

Family members gather around the TV to watch Terence Crawford, center, play NBA 2K18 with his nephew Tre’vion Crawford, center right, during a family gathering at Terence Crawford’s childhood home on Larimore Street. Kayla Wolf for ESPN

In 2014, after knocking out Yuriorkis Gamboa (a beating from which the once-great Cuban never really recovered), he reconnected with his fourth-grade teacher, Jamie Nolette. Over lunch, she explained that she was now the mother of three and the founder of Pipeline Worldwide, a humanitarian organization working in Africa.

“Will you take me?” Crawford asked.

A lot of people say they’re interested, thought Nolette, but six weeks later, they landed in Uganda. It would be the first of Crawford’s two missions. He spoke at a gym in Kampala, fed kids with cancer, purchased and installed mattresses and mosquito netting for widows of war. He gave away everything except the clothes on his back. But it was Rwanda — amid the crushed skulls of children, museum artifacts of the 1994 genocide that killed almost a million people — that seemed to change him.

Most affecting was a program called Cows for Peace, which bound a survivor and a perpetrator to the care and bounty of a single cow.

“You can’t live again until you free yourself from hatred and pain,” Nolette says. “Perpetrators found that they could not forgive themselves without the forgiveness of their victims.”

They’ve remained close, Crawford and his former teacher. In July, after what he intends to be a soul-snatching knockout of Horn, he’ll head back to Africa on a mission to deliver medical supplies. Meantime, he sees Nolette whenever she’s in town, often with Esha. They ask a lot of questions, most having to do with parenting:

How do you create a budget?

How do you impose a consequence?

Is it OK to spank your child?

“How Terence grew up is all he knows,” Nolette says. “There’s no rulebook for what he’s trying to do.”

Bud was at college football’s national championship game in January when Wiley called to tell him they finally took Midge off life support.

“Can he hear?” Bud asked.

The doctor said he probably could, and Grover put the phone to Midge’s ear.

“Hold on,” Bud said. “Wait ’til I get home.”

The next morning, with Bud, Wiley and other CW alums in his room, Midge Minor took his last breath. He was 78, eulogized as a dominant 112-pound amateur. His proteges can still be found working Crawford’s corner. Midge didn’t just raise a champion, he found him a home, as there was no place more suited for Bud’s split self than boxing.

Consider Crawford’s postfight interview after knocking out Dierry Jean, for example. Basking in the adulation of 11,000 Omahans (among them Warren Buffet), his kids at his side, a microphone in his face, Crawford turned to the man he had just broken.

“Did you get what you came for?” he asked.

If there’s a perfect Crawford moment, however, it came last February as his 2-year-old daughter approached the ring apron at the B&B gym. Talaya — Lay Lay, as she’s called — was determined to get her father’s attention.

“Hi, Daddy,” she said with a wave, somewhat delightedly. “Hi, Daddy.”

Crawford looked down from the ring, somewhat delighted himself: “Hi, baby.”

And then: the right hook. Crawford’s opponent staggered forward, a strand of bloody spit hanging from his mouth.

Terence Crawford’s daughter, Talaya, dances around the living room during a family gathering at Crawford’s childhood home on Larimore Street. Kayla Wolf for ESPN

Edel Gomez, 23, is a local amateur of some repute. He’s big and strong and reminds BoMac of Jeff Horn — if only Horn fought at 178. Still, Edel was pretty much useless after that right hook.

Frustrated, Crawford called him out loud enough for the trainers, who were putting the afterschool kids through their paces, to hear. Edel remained unwilling to engage. When their rounds were done, Bud got in his face. But it was consolation he brought, not more torment.

“He’s teaching me,” Edel said.

What?

“How not to be scared.”

Crawford still keeps dogs at the house on Larimore Street. His pregnant bully, Ruby, resides in the basement with a crated pit, but his prized caucasian shepherd holds dominion over the fenced-in yard. A furry beast, with eyes set back in a gargantuan head, Zeus looks like something a Star Wars villain would take into battle. He’s the size of a small lion.

“Can’t be around other dogs,” Crawford explains.

Judging from the way he’s straining at the metal leash, he can’t be around many humans, either.

“Big and stupid,” Miss Debra says.

Even she won’t mess with him.

“Who’s that?” she says, nodding at me. “That’s the writer, mom.”

“Oh.”

“I told him everything, mom,” Terence says. “I mean, everything.”

“Ain’t no thing to me,” Miss Debra says.

“I love you, mom,” he blurts out.

“I love you, too, son,” she says, her eyes fixed on the big flat-screen in the living room. It’s snowing outside. The house is dark.

“See?” Terence says. “She loves me.”

Terence Crawford rests during his midmorning training ahead of his fight against Jeff Horn. Kayla Wolf for ESPN

From Larimore Street, we head north in his Ram truck. It’s worth noting, for the record, that Miss Debra has said she was proud of her son. That was last August after he knocked out Julius Indongo to unify all four championship belts. He’s 30, younger than the music now coming from his iPod: Anita Baker and Chaka Khan and the SOS Band. It’s his mother’s music, songs she first heard Papa Gator play on KOWH, stuff she had on cassette.

He pulls up just outside the city limits.

“All mine,” he says.

It’s a 20-acre compound, purchased after he won his first title.

The snow is heavy now, our voices muffled, the fir trees like great white spires. But you can see it: the pond below he’ll stock with fish. He’ll tear down the main house, but keep the shed for his dirt bikes, four-wheelers and his boat. If there’s any justice in commerce, Crawford will be the first fighter with a deal from Bass Pro Shops. Each child will have a bedroom. There will be a guest room, movie theater and a gym. He’ll hunt deer and fox and turkey without ever leaving the property. Zeus will roam free.

It wasn’t the origin he wanted me to see, so much as the destination.

The next day, he and Esha pile the kids into the Denali, handing out Twizzlers and cuing up “Toy Story” for the long drive to Missouri. Half an hour down I-29, everyone’s sleeping and Bud plugs in his phone. Al Green is the music of choice. The family heads to the St. Joseph Civic Arena, site of the 2018 Liberty Nationals Wrestling Championships, where Terence Crawford III will compete as a 60-pounder in the 6-and-under division. Li’l T, as he’s called, takes after his grandfather — a man with whom Bud has long had an affectionate, if physically distant relationship — already a champion in a singlet.

Bud adjusts his son’s headgear, then the boy settles in his lap. Li’l T will spend a good part of the day like this: in his father’s arms, waiting for his name to be called. There’s an odd rhythm to it: stretches of tender repose followed by bursts of ferocity.

Li’l T throws his first opponent all over the mat. The kid leaves crying, as Li’l T goes back to his father. Esha watches from a balcony — not at all impressed by some of these wrestling dads, the desperation with which they’re yelling at the kids and the officials.

“Don’t get me started,” she says. “You don’t even know.”

Li’l T pins his second, third and fourth opponents. Easy work. In between, Esha tells me that Bud has never missed a birthday, a basketball game, a wrestling match or a dance class. Even if he’s in camp, he’ll fly home. They have five kids, including Tamiya, Bud’s stepdaughter.

“But he ain’t never made her feel like that,” Esha says.

The fifth and final match is tougher. The 6-year-olds trade takedowns. Li’l T’s opponent gets points for his. Li’l T does not. Bud’s not happy. Li’l T will eventually win, but the apparent scoring discrepancy continues through the match. So do Crawford’s mounting complaints toward the official.

It wasn’t the kind of vein-bulging tantrum that had been common throughout the day. From the balcony, it seemed almost ambiguous. He might’ve cursed. But he didn’t really yell. He certainly didn’t get up in anyone’s face. Still, he was tossed from the gym. He’s the victim. It felt like the tournament officials had been waiting for an excuse.

One of the planet’s baddest men was then escorted from the gym by a police officer, right in front of his kids. She was blond, mid-30s, and in those moments, not looking too comfortable doing her job. Still, she remained at Crawford’s side as he stood by the door.

Li’l T’s coach came by, and Bud offered his critique: “T got the game. He got the talent. But he don’t have my mind for it. I would hurt people. You got to crunch ’em.”

“Crunch?”

“Crunch,” says Crawford, demonstrating, arms pressing into his chest, like a human boa constrictor.

Meanwhile, Li’l T was receiving his trophy. The undisputed 140-pound champion of the world wanted a photograph. But the tournament official who ejected him remained adamantly opposed.

He knew the rules, says the official.

Crawford understands that resistance is futile. There’s no changing people’s nature.

“We cool,” says Crawford, nodding at the cop.

“Yes,” she says. “We’re cool.”

The family went to Applebee’s to celebrate Li’l T’s championship. It wouldn’t be spoken about — how the evening ended — but it was there, the whole way home. The kids would be down again by the time the Denali hit I-29. By then, Terence was already lost in his mother’s music.

Source: espn.com

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