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Terence Crawford, happy to be fighting in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, for the first time as a professional, delivered a star-making performance as he knocked out Yuriorkis Gamboa in the ninth round of a thrilling fight to retain his lightweight world title on Saturday night at the CenturyLink Center.
Not only did Crawford deliver the goods before 10,943 screaming fans, but he and Gamboa - a former unified featherweight titleholder and 2004 Cuban Olympic gold medallist - put on a clear fight of the year contender, an intense battle in which Gamboa was knocked down four times but also rocked Crawford.
"I told Gamboa he picked the wrong fighter and the wrong city and I was right," Crawford said. "I never felt any danger in the fight."
Through a translator, Gamboa said, "There were just two warriors in the ring trying to get the victory, and he won."
It had been 42 years since there had been a world title fight in Omaha - Joe Frazier defended the heavyweight world championship against Omaha's Ron Stander, winning by fifth-round knockout at the Civic Auditorium on May 25, 1972 - and it proved worth the wait. Crawford's victory did not come as a huge surprise, but the way it unfolded did because many expected the bout between two supremely skilled boxers to be more of a boxing match than street fight.
"What we thought was going to be a tactical fight turned into a tactical brawl, which turned this crowd into a frenzy - and they were already in a frenzy," Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti said.
Crawford, 26, was fighting in his home state for only the second time as a professional and in Omaha for the first time - a little more than three months after he went to Glasgow, Scotland, and outboxed hometown hero Ricky Burns to win a 135-pound title on a unanimous decision.
After winning the belt, Crawford wanted to make his first defence in his hometown and promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank also wanted to bring him to Omaha, where he believes Crawford can become an attraction. Based on Saturday's result and the raucous crowd Crawford drew, he is on his way.
"We've got another centre for boxing. We'll be back there before the end of the year," said Arum, who was forced to watch the fight on American network HBO because he is laid up in his Los Angeles home recovering from knee replacement surgery last week. "I would say 90 percent of the people who came to the fight had never been to a prize fight. I think they'll all be back. That was so exciting."
Crawford had dreamed of fighting at home as a pro since a disappointing loss in the 2006 National Golden Gloves finals, which took place in Omaha. He turned pro in 2008 and had a breakout 2013 before winning the title in March.
"It means a lot," Crawford said of his long-awaited homecoming fight. "This is what they've been waiting on since I turned pro."
Early on, however, Crawford (24-0, 17 KOs) was having problems with Gamboa's blazing hand and foot speed. He seemingly lost at least three of the first four rounds, and perhaps all four, but he never panicked - even after turning to a southpaw stance in the third round and immediately eating several straight right hands to the head and body.
"I was warming up, getting used to his style the first couple of rounds, just wanted to test him out, see where he was and adjust," Crawford said. "[After the fourth round] my coach [Brian McIntyre] told me to keep my hands up a little more and catch him coming in."
It worked because Crawford took over in the fifth round, dropping Gamboa as he nailed him with a clean right hand and chopped him to the mat with a left.
Gamboa, who is promoted by rap star Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson, was still discombobulated when Crawford unloaded another hard right hand that hurt him again in the final seconds of the round.
A counter right hand dropped Gamboa to a knee in the eighth round, a huge one for Crawford. The 32-year-old Gamboa (23-1, 16 KOs), the smaller man who was also coming off a year lay-off and was fighting as a lightweight for only the second time, was taking heavy punishment. But as much as Gamboa looked done early in the ninth round, he rallied to badly rock Crawford and send him staggering backward.
"He caught me with a good shot. I got careless. I commend him. He caught me with a good shot I wasn't ready for, and I felt I came back strong," Crawford said.
After Gamboa hurt Crawford and went on the attack, Crawford hammered him with a left hand to the chin, sending him down hard. Moments later, Crawford demolished him with a right uppercut. Gamboa went down again and referee Genaro Rodriguez waved off the fight without a count at two minutes, 53 seconds.
"When you fight a shorter fighter you attack with uppercuts. This is what we worked on during training camp," Crawford said.
According to CompuBox statistics, Crawford landed 146 of 348 punches (42 percent) and Gamboa connected on 82 of 345 (24 percent).
Gamboa, a Cuban defector who lives in Miami, had that brief window of opportunity in the ninth round before the end came.
"I was avoiding some of his punches and then I was able to come back and hit him with my right and my left, but as time went on he got better," Gamboa said. "He was able to recuperate from those punches and he was able to get back into it and that's when he caught me again.
"I think I could have continued the fight and proved we were the champion, but the official decided to stop the fight and we respect that."
Whether Crawford remains at lightweight - not a very deep division for making a big fight in - or goes up to junior welterweight, which he said he might do, Arum said he plans to bring Crawford back to Omaha for his next fight. After that, he thinks a really big fight is in store for Crawford - one against superstar and welterweight titleholder Manny Pacquiao.
"When you get a guy like Crawford, who is a great technical fighter but who also can slug, you have something special," Arum said. "He fought intelligently. Gamboa had the better of it for the first four rounds, but the kid was figuring it out and timing him and he did his job.
"Down the road - and it's very possible - that a year from now we put him in with Pacquiao. That would be a huge fight and a great fight. If you really think you have a great fighter with superstar qualities you move him that way, you don't protect him. You move a superstar into the biggest fights you can make for him, and that's what we are going to do."
This article originally appeared on ESPN.com