There is an edge to Manchester’s Anthony Crolla, a steely glint of determination in his eyes that is belied by an easy smile and laid-back air. It first bubbled to the surface following his first defeat, an eight-round decision reverse against troublesome journeyman Youssef Al Hamidi in 2008 when “Million Dollar” was adapting both physically and stylistically to the professional game.
Another reverse came in 2009, Gary Sykes out-bustled and hustled Crolla en route to a 10-round points win for in a fight that served as an eliminator for the British Super featherweight title.
“The Nicest Guy In Boxing” (look it up, it is in the Magna Carta) showed a ruthless streak by relocating to Joe Gallagher’s eponymous gym, then based at the back of Kerry Kayes’s Betta Bodies gym in Denton, and took on John Baguley, a pale, deceptively tough Rotherham-based boxer who handed the then-undefeated Vinny Mitchell his first professional loss two fights later (W TKO 4), and one of those defeats came against Liam Walsh, so Baguley knew his way around the ring.
It marked the start of Crolla’s first golden run, a sequence of 10 straight wins that brought in English and British lightweight titles while stable mate John Murray chased EBU and possible world lightweight honours. Then the sometime upset king Derry Mathews halted those halcyon nights by relieving Crolla of his British belt courtesy of a sixth-round stoppage win.
A rematch loss to Sykes in 2012 Prizefighter: The Lightweights tournament left the former titlist with a job to do, and he did it in style by bouncing back with wins over Kieran Farrell (W10) and Gavin Rees (W MD 12), with a moral-boosting draw with Mathews sandwiched in-between the two vital Ws.
The contender then consolidated with a victory of Salford’s Stephen Foster Junior (W RTD 6) in 2014 before weathering former gym mates John Murray’s early onslaught to claim a 10th-round TKO win at the Manchester Arena in April of the following year. The arena had been a sparingly used supporting venue in the sport since Ricky Hatton ruled its roost, but for Crolla it become the place he would come to call home that night.
He marked time in his next two fights, a technical draw over three against Gamaliel Diaz followed by a decision win over Gyorgy Mizsei Jr, and was on the verge of a world title shot only to have his world ripped to ribbons after suffering a fractured skull and ankle following an attempt to chase down a pair of burglars who had tried to rob his neighbour and friend.
Getting back on his feet at this point would have been seen as a nice success story, that he was cleared to box again and, following a majority draw in their first fight, KO’d Darleys Perez with a left hook to the body in round five to win the WBA’s World lightweight title was the icing on the cake.
Crolla, though, went one further, icing the dangerous and undefeated Ismael Barroso in seven in his maiden defence, and in his third fight on the bounce at the Manchester Arena. A vacant Ring title fight against Jorges Linares, who had been dropped by Kevin Mitchell only to rally and stop his man in the 10th, was served up by promoter Eddie Hearn with home advantage a big spur for the co-challenger and WBA holder.
Famously declaring that no one could come into “his house” and take his WBA belt, Crolla was out-boxed by Linares in September, the Venezuelan did not run away with it, but he was always one step ahead of the former ABA titlist and was a deserved loser: scores of 113-115 (Fernando Barbosa), 114-115 (John Keane) and 111-117 (Guillermo Perez Pineda) ending another 10-fight streak—although this one had been peppered with the two aforementioned draws.
The former WBA holder has since stated that he learned from that fight; Linares learned something new, too, after going 12 rounds for the first time in his storied, three-weight world title winning career last time out. Despite a reported 94-fight amateur career (89-5 according to BoxRec), 44 professional bouts (41-3, 27 early) and 31 years on clock, the bearded boxer looks and fights like an eternal rocker—a rolling stone who strutted around the Mancester Arena ring in the early going of his encore in the (Dis)United Kingdom’s once industrial city.
Cut by the left eye in the sixth, Crolla tried to prise open Linares’s guard, but the visitor has not tasted defeat since losing to Sergio Thompson in 2012, which had been preceded by an 11th-round loss to Antonio DeMarco for the vacant WBC World lightweight title in October of the previous year. However, the DeMarco reverse was his last defeat in a world title career that has seen him annex the WBC and WBA lightweight belts—albeit not at the same time, not in this game.
Following a repeat of the early rounds of their first fight, with added dominance from the visitor, a sweet, sweeping left uppercut swept Crolla down in the seventh stanza and prompted Crolla to try to turn it on in the following round.
Around or about 2011, Crolla and I sat in his car as he told me about the frustration he felt treading water against the likes of Herve De Luca and Juan Montiel (KO 1 and W SD 8 in Wigan and at the MGM Grand respectively) whilst holding the British lightweight belt that he had taken with a ninth-round TKO win over Liverpool’s John Watson for the vacant belt in February of that year. There was an edge to him that day, one that was on display when he made the first defence of the Lonsdale belt by out-pointing Willie Limond in Scotland to close out the year, unaware that his next fight would be the upset loss to Mathews in April 2014.
That edge bubbled back to the surface as the rounds trickled away from him against Linares tonight, he was being posed even more questions than he had faced last time out, and was struggling to figure out just how to put in the concerted effort required to put a dent into Linares’s smooth, confident groove.
It was a case of repeat, rather than revenge, as Linares trotted out a 118-109 winner on all three cards.
“I know out there I have admiration from you,” said Linares (42-3, 27 KOs) when addressing the partisan crown. “I am in the best moment, I worked three times as hard because I know what I had in front of me. People of Manchester, Anthony Crolla has got big balls.” (Cue Sky apology, Dooley noted.)
He added: “Now I want to go back to the United States and get the best opponents possible.”
Crolla drops to 31-6-3 (13 KOs), but few gave him a chance of even British title honours following his first career loss, let alone some world title nights. However, and despite an horrific personal attack a few years back, he scaled the heights, made the right moves and in a world when some sneer at title wins that are beyond most he tried to make his reach exceed his grasp, and has had some memorable nights as a result.
“I am so sorry I couldn’t do it for yous,” said Crolla when addressing his crowd. “The stage was there. I am 30-year-old and will just rest. I’ve had some tough fights, but can come again. I lost to the better man, no excuses whatsoever.”