It’s a mid-March morning in Omaha, Nebraska. Allegedly, it’s Spring Break across other parts of the country but in the edges of the Great Plains, the cold continues to bite. Grass and leaves have yet to spring back to life and instead of green, everything appears a shade of brown. The trees look naked and cold. Scattered islands of snow on dead grass—where a building’s shade guards against the sun—have yet to melt. This side of the holidays and close enough to imagine warmth, the weather feels especially cruel.
There are areas in downtown Omaha, mostly its northern parts, where it’s hard to distinguish between abandoned and occupied buildings. That distinction becomes clearer the closer one gets to Interstate 480, or Gerald Ford Freeway, named after what’s likely Omaha’s most famous son. Omaha is also the birthplace of Malcolm X but unlike Ford, there’s no freeway named after him. Instead, a historical marker in the predominately African-American part of the city—north Omaha—retells how as a young child, the Ku Klux Klan’s Night Riders chased Malcolm Little and his family out of town.
Around Interstate 480, downtown Omaha’s identity intertwines with Creighton University and—since the city hosts the College World Series—baseball. Here, new apartment and university buildings are under construction. Several bars and restaurants take their names from baseball-related terms. If you stand on Cass Street, between North 15th and 16th Streets, you can see the area’s transition. There’s Creighton University’s Morrison Stadium, where the Bluejays play soccer. There’s CenturyLink Center that, within the past 2 weeks, hosted Miranda Lambert and Kid Rock. And of course, there’s TD Ameritrade Park where Creighton plays its baseball, but most importantly, it’s the park that each summer attracts fans from all over the country to cheer on their college baseball team.
Each of these structures are relatively new. They are part of what I imagine local politicians—always careful with their phrasing—would show as proof of downtown’s “revitalization.” But also on Cass Street, there is a few city blocks that with each passing month seem more out-of-place. Among them, a non-descript boxing gym. A real boxing gym, not a fitness gym that uses boxing exercises as part of its work out routines. Instead, the boxing gym on Cass Street is the sort where the owner knows they’ll likely never make money from it and in fact, they’re much more likely to lose it. This is C.W. Boxing Club.
In terms of details—how old and worn bags are and where they’re placed, the size of the ring, the degree to which it smells of stale sweat, etc.—each boxing gym differs. But in what they represent, all boxing gyms are essentially the same.
Inside, there’s a father telling his son, in Spanish, to work his jab. While his young son shadow boxes, the father—again in Spanish—tells another father how his son just can’t lose his prepubescent paunch. “No le baja esa pinche panza,” he says. There’s also a raspy-voiced trainer yelling instructions in both English and Spanish. “Manny,” is how he introduced himself. He’s a former boxer-turned-trainer who seemed excited when he found out where I was from.
“You’re from El Chuco?” Manny asked, almost as if yelling though I stood a foot-and-a-half in front of him. “I fought in the fucking Lower Valley. I used to train in San Juan gym.” I know that gym, I told him. It’s a few miles from the Mexican border, in a part of El Paso that even local politicians aren’t interested in redeveloping—at least, not yet.
“I used to go across to the coliseum in Juárez. Fuck, I’d only go spar once in a great while over there cause them dudes…,” Manny pauses, contemplating his words while sitting on the ring’s apron and tying his shoes, “they’re dirty fighters, man.”
Our conversation ends abruptly when a young, lanky boxer—5 foot 11 inches, 135 pounds, I’d guess—arrives and Manny asks if he’s been running and if he’s ready to spar.
There’s another young boxer, 9 or 10 years old, who for the last few minutes has been telling Carl Washington—the gym’s namesake—why he can’t spar that day. He shows him his hand, apparently bruised, and mimics throwing the punch that caused the hurt. Washington, a quiet but welcoming man who wears an old, blue Dickie’s work shirt and pants, listens patiently before telling him he must spar. The boxer’s father, also dressed as if he just finished another day’s worth of manual labor, agrees. He tells his son, “sin miedo y sin llorar”—without fear and with no tears. The advice sounds so simple.
Inside of a gym like C.W. Boxing Club, even those with realistic expectations allow themselves, even if only on rare occasions, to dream. A way out, perhaps, of either a place like the forgotten blocks of downtown Omaha or from fear and self-doubts. The frequency of these dreams increase in direct proportion with those who made it out. C.W. Boxing Club, like every gym, lines its walls with memorabilia of its past Golden Gloves champions and even those who became professionals. Included in these pictures is a young Midge Minor, who all boxers out of this gym credit as a father figure and a reason for their success. Still, there is one boxer who stands out above the rest. And while even the gym’s most accomplished boxers may have their pictures and newspaper clippings scattered about, one boxer has an entire wall dedicated to his accomplishments. That boxer is Terence Crawford, or Bud, as everyone here calls him.
Crawford may be the best boxer in the world. And even if he isn’t here physically—he now owns a gym in north Omaha—he remains omnipresent. His wall of fame includes a photocopy of a young Crawford, with the phrase, “C.W. Youth Needs You”—presumably, a flyer used to raise travel funds. A pair of boxing gloves hang next to the picture, autographed by Crawford and dedicated to C.W. Another pair, dedicated to Carl, hang nearby.
Grover Wiley, the last person to beat the great Julio César Chávez, also came up in this gym. During his day, he was the only white kid here. Wiley, who is in his early 40s, tells me he immediately saw Crawford’s greatness. “I knew since he was…12 years old. Just the work ethic and the want to win.”
“He was just mean,” Wiley says, as if finding it difficult to reduce Crawford’s talent to a few, easily understood adjectives. Finally, Wiley simply states, “I always knew. I always knew.”
If you see Crawford fight, you understand what Wiley means. Crawford looks like a sadist with gloves on—the boxing kind. You also understand why Crawford inspires so many people in C.W. Boxing Club and around Omaha. Parents and their young boxers use Crawford as a motivation on mornings when naturally, they’d rather sleep under warm blankets than walk into the cold. The former wakes up to work and rush home to make sure their child gets to the gym on time. The latter wake up to run during early mornings when the wind chill adds to the discomfort and lonesome part of boxing. Those mornings when it’s raining and frigid but rather than hearing your trainer tell you to take the day off, he instead says something like, “Yes, it’s cold in Omaha. What did you expect?”
In a few months, it’ll be summer. The cold will retreat, grass will grow green, and leaves will again cover trees. The College World Series will come to Omaha and fill its downtown streets and hotels. Baseball in the United States has always been the romanticized ideal by which society wants to represent itself. And yet, it’s boxing—and all its bullshit—that reflects what that society really is.
One can’t help but wonder how long C.W. Boxing Club’s gym will stay open, at least in its current location. It feels inevitable that, like most inner-city boxing gyms, it’ll soon disappear. But I suppose what matters now is that it’s open today. That today, like every other day, Carl Washington drove his white van to pick up young boxers and bring them to the gym. Or that, today, former boxers dedicate as much attention to young boxers who on their best day won’t have a fraction of the talent that Crawford had on his worse.
As the sun goes down on downtown Omaha and it again feels empty and cold, the gym is open. The student traffic from Creighton University has ended for the day, and CenturyLink Center, just like TD Ameritrade Park—as they are for most of the year—are empty along with their large parking lots. The only sign life in downtown Omaha is C.W. Boxing Club and the dreams that, for today, live within.