Indongo embracing newfound stardom ahead of Crawford title bout

Julius Indongo will put his belts on the line when he faces Terence Crawford on Saturday in Nebraska. AP

Eight months ago, Julius Indongo was unknown to even the most hardcore boxing fan. He was a 2008 Olympian but toiling in fights against obscure opponents and far from the world stage in his home country of Namibia in Africa.

Now he is on the precipice of history.

What a ride it has been for Indongo in recent months. He unified two junior welterweight world titles, and now he has the opportunity to face fellow unified 140-pound champion Terence Crawford for the undisputed world championship. They will meet on Saturday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, a short drive from Crawford's hometown of Omaha.

The main card will air live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes beginning at 10 p.m. ET with the entire card streaming live on the ESPN app beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET.

Crawford-Indongo will be only the fourth fight of the four-belt era in which all four major titles will be on the line in the same bout, and only the second to unify all four titles.

Then-middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins was involved in the previous three four-belt bouts. He put his three belts up against Oscar De La Hoya's one and knocked him out to unify the 160-pound division in 2004. In 2005, he retained the four belts by outpointing Howard Eastman but then lost them by decision in his first fight with Jermain Taylor.

It's a big deal for any fighter, and Indongo is no different.

"I'm very proud for this opportunity and feel confident and focused," Indongo, a southpaw, said. "I have the courage and the boxing technique and a plan. It's history; it's for the undisputed championship. I'm 100 percent ready for this fight. Africa, all of Namibia, is on my shoulders, and it has motivated me a lot."

In the co-feature, light heavyweight contender Oleksandr Gvozdyk (13-0, 11 KOs), 30, a 2012 Ukrainian Olympic bronze medalist, will face Craig Baker (17-1, 13 KOs), 33, of Baytown, Texas, in a scheduled 10-round bout. Also, 2016 U.S. Olympic silver medalist Shakur Stevenson (2-0, 1 KO), 20, of Newark, New Jersey, is slated to be on the telecast in a six-round featherweight match against David Paz (4-3-1, 0 KOs), 23, of Argentina.

Indongo's trek from unknown to possible history maker began in December. That's when he traveled to Moscow to challenge world titleholder and hometown hero Eduard Troyanovsky. Indongo pulled off the upset by spectacularly knocking him out in the first round.

There's a bit of irony in that outcome given that Crawford's promoter, Top Rank, was trying to lure Troyanovsky to the United States to face Crawford in a unification fight, but Troyanovsky's team opted instead for a supposedly easier assignment against Indongo and paid the price.

Titleholder Ricky Burns' team saw that outcome and thought Indongo would be easy picking for a unification fight of their own. Indongo once again packed his bags and went to Burns' home country of Scotland on April 15. Indongo (22-0, 11 KOs), 34, toyed with Burns, easily winning a near-shutout decision to unify two belts.

Crawford, 29, a former lightweight world champion and the 2014 fighter of the year, won a junior welterweight belt in 2015 and last summer unified two titles with a masterpiece decision against Viktor Postol, whom he knocked down twice. He'll be making his sixth title defense.

Crawford (31-0, 22 KOs), who easily beat Burns to win a lightweight title in 2014 in Scotland, wanted to unify the junior welterweight division against Troyanovsky. When he heard that Troyanovsky had been drilled by Indongo, he took a look at the video. Before that bout, Crawford said he had never even heard of Indongo, and he wasn't alone.

"We wanted the Troyanovsky fight, and he turned us down and decided to go with Indongo. When we heard he got knocked out, we looked at the replay, and that's when we first took notice of who [Indongo] really was," Crawford said. "We wanted the Ricky Burns [unification] fight at 140 as well. They didn't want to take the fight. They wanted to take the fight with Indongo, and perhaps later in the year we could have made the fight again. Indongo beat Ricky Burns, and we were like, 'Let's go after this guy because he has the other two titles.'"

And here they are, getting ready for a historical match after a deal was made with relative ease. Considering Indongo came from a poor family in Namibia, one of seven children whose father died when he was 3, he has come a long way. He will earn a seven-figure purse, by far his biggest.

He became a boxing fan by listening to fights on the radio when he was a child.

"I used to hear it on the radio, and when I am listening on the radio, I would imagine being ringside," he said. "I wanted to experience it, and I ended up loving it."

He had his first amateur fight when he was about 17. He said he had trained hard for it, but only conditioning and hitting a bag -- without gloves, which were too expensive. It was only when he had his first amateur bout that he put on gloves and faced another man.

"The first time I wore boxing gloves was the first time I punched somebody," he said. It was also the first time he ever got punched.

Indongo performed well in national competitions. One of his early amateur wins came against Paulus Ambunda, a countryman who eventually won a bantamweight world title. But his blossoming amateur career was derailed for two years when he came down with tuberculosis.

"I was very sick, and I did not know what the problem was," he said. "They said it was malaria, but later it became worse. I was coughing all the time -- for two years."

He recovered and was back in the ring in 2006. In 2008 he made his country's Olympic team, though he broke his right hand in a warm-up fight shortly before the Games. He went through with his opening round bout anyway and lost.

He turned pro in 2009, and now, against all odds, has the most significant fight of his career and one of the most important in boxing this year.

"This is boxing. This is what happens with boxing," Top Rank vice president Todd duBoef said, comparing Indongo's road from obscurity to possible stardom to that of Azumah Nelson, one of the greatest fighters in African history.

Nelson, of Ghana, who won world titles at featherweight and junior lightweight and is now in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, was an unknown when he came to New York on less than two weeks' notice as a replacement opponent for legendary featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez in 1982. Although Nelson was stopped in the 15th round, he opened many eyes and went on to stardom because of the opportunity he received.

"This is no different than Azumah Nelson coming over on 10 days' notice and making a name for himself in the United States," DuBoef said. "People can change the tide very quickly in the sport of boxing. That happens because of their performances. We have to recognize this is a global sport. There is a very talented fighter who has mastered a trade in Namibia.

"The door of opportunity opened, and he stepped through it. That is the story of boxing. This is not a miraculous one, but this goes back to what makes boxing so special. He took advantage of opportunities, and a diamond in the rough is discovered."