Anthony Crolla: One in a million

Terry Dooley
27/04/2015 11:30am

Firemen are often held up as exemplars of bravery, the men who rush into a burning building when everyone else is running out of it. Boxers are the same, they walk to the ring with their trainer, team and friends, but, once the first bell goes, everyone else steps out of the ring and they step forward to forge their own fate. 

This instinctive bravery probably explains why Manchester’s Anthony Crolla gave chase after two would-be burglars triggered the alarm at his neighbour’s house on December 16. 

Despite having a world title shot on the horizon against then WBA title-holder Richar Abril, the 28-year-old did the right thing yet ended up in hospital after one of the criminals dropped a concrete block on the popular fighter’s forehead, fracturing his skull. 

Crolla hit the deck, breaking his ankle in two places in the process. His injuries were so severe he had to hobble home and was taken to the hospital by his concerned family, his world title dream in ruins. 

The former British lightweight titlist told Boxing Monthly that, given the opportunity to go back to that fateful night, he would not draw his curtains and leave it in the hands of the police.

“No regrets,” stated Crolla, 29-4-2 (11). “I don’t want to sound like a hero here, but what I did was a natural reaction. Even if I wanted to think before acting if it happened again, I wouldn’t be able to. Thousands of other people would have done the same thing.”

“Possibly, yeah, it is that mentality,” he said when asked if instinct had kicked in. “You look out for your neighbours. I was determined to catch them. I was talking to them as I was chasing them. They must have thought I was a lunatic. I was saying: ‘You’re not going to out-run me so you might as well stop’. I just kept thinking: ‘I have to catch these two’.

“It would have been hard walking back with two of them without letting punches go. I knew that if I got one he’d squeal on his mate. I got a grip of one of them, but the other one got lucky as there was a loose concrete slab where he was climbing. He smashed it on my head.

“I wasn’t knocked out even though it was probably the best shot I’ve ever taken. I went down on one knee, but knew what I’d been hit with. I thought: ‘That’s not a punch’. I’ve been hit hard in fights before, but never that hard.

“As soon as I went down, I felt the ankle go and the blood started pouring down my face. I jumped back up after a few seconds—even beating the eight count—but the other one had slipped out my hands and was halfway over the wall. I was annoyed. I went to try and chase them again, but there was no way I’d catch them, so I limped my way back home.

“Fran [Crolla’s partner] saw the blood pouring down my head. It wasn’t nice because my little boy was in the house. Luckily enough he is too young to understand what was happening.

“I was talking all sorts of rubbish. My mate came around and I said: ‘It’s not ideal, but sparring will just have to get pushed back, my headguard will cover that bit. I can put track work back a few weeks. I’ll swim and row, so it will be alright’. They were looking at me as if to say: ‘Never in a million years’. 

“In the hospital, I was waiting to get scanned. I still thought I’d be alright to fight. One or two of the doctors knew I boxed, they mentioned that I had a fight coming up and I told them it was a big fight. That’s when they told me my injuries and that it wasn’t going to happen. 

“I went back to sit with Fran and, I’m not ashamed to say it, I was so heartbroken I cried like a baby. I came around quickly, though, because I was looking at Fran, thinking about Jesse at home and the fact that I’ve got a beautiful family.”

It was a surreal time. As he moved in and out of consciousness, the story filtered through to the major news networks. At one point, Crolla came around from a deep sleep and discovered just how big a story it had become.

He said: “They put me in a normal ward at first, but there was a load of press on the phone, so they moved me to a different one as people were trying to get in and speak to me. I ended up in my own room. Fran put the telly on for me, I was literally on it straight away. I thought it might be something about the fight then saw they were reporting what had happened.

“Throughout that night, I couldn’t sleep as I was in quite a bit of pain. I dozed off for an hour at one point and was on Sky Sports News again when I woke up. So I put on the next channel, which was BBC1, and I was on that as well. I thought: ‘How hard have I been hit here, am I imagining this?’ Then I looked at my phone and saw hundreds of message of support.”

The attack topped a horrible period for British boxing. Jamie Moore was shot in Marbella in August. Kell Brook’s stabbing incident occurred a month later and Crolla’s attack made for a dark end to 2014. However, Crolla shares Moore’s perspective on life, opting to savour his family and success rather than dwelling on negativity.

“Everything for a reason,” he said. “[His promoter] Eddie Hearn said that to me after it happened. I’m not sure what the reason is, but I’m sure it will reveal itself over time—I believe in that.

“I read Jamie’s interview (in Boxing Monthly), he said something about not wanting his son growing up without his dad. It sounds dramatic, but although you’re devastated that your dream’s been snatched away, you still have your life, and family and friends around you.

“I went down to theatre the day after it happened. I was pushed past an old man. I looked at him and—without wanting to sound morbid—you could see he didn’t have long left to live. I thought: ‘Someone’s going to lose their dad or granddad in the next few days’. I’ve always been a believer that there’s always someone out there who has got it worse.

“I can comeback from these injuries, sadly it looked highly unlikely that that old man would get back to full health. You’ve got to be thankful for what you’ve got.”

Crolla has been medically cleared to box again. The contender will have to go to the Board to apply for a licence to fight. Everyone around him is confident that he will fight on. However, he also had to consider the possibility that he may not fight again. 

“Boxing’s a massive part of my life, so if it came to that there’d be a massive void in my life,” he said when asked what he would have done if he was unable to climb between the ropes again. “I’ve always planned to stay involved. I don’t just want to get back into the gym, I also want to get back to training the amateurs again so, if I couldn’t come back, I’d always be involved in boxing in some way. I knew I loved the sport, but you do moan about certain things, now I’ve realised just how much I love it after sitting about on the couch.”

A fighter down to the soles of his boots, Crolla made it home in time for Christmas. Understandably, the anguish of his aborted world title shot kicked in January despite the best efforts of his family and friends. 

“When the 22nd and 23rd (of January) came about, I was thinking about it being the weigh-in day then fight day,” he revealed. 

“Fran took me out with friends to take my mind of it, but I was looking at the clock thinking: ‘I’d be getting my hands wrapped now’. Then checking it again about 10:15, my ring walk time. You do get full of anger or disappointment, so I remembered that I’m still here—it could have been a lot, lot worse.”

A host of people wished Crolla well, but there was one phone call in particular that really bucked him up—although he almost didn’t take it. 

“My phone rang,” he recalled. “This Scottish accent says: ‘Hello Anthony, this is Sir Alex Ferguson’. I thought it was a wind up. He said: ‘You think this is a wind up, don’t you?’. My mates are the types of people to do stuff like that. I was star struck even though it was over the phone. After it, I was thinking: ‘I hope he doesn’t think I sounded like an idiot’. That bucked me up.”

Support from family, friends, fans and his fellow professional also lifted the fallen fighter. He told me that he wishes he could respond to every single message, even though it would be physically impossible to do so. 

“There’s not many sports like boxing, the way we pull together in the fight game when something bad happens,” he said. “My family showed me the Tweets of support, cards and flowers arrived at the house. The support was amazing and genuine, from people like Lennox Lewis to amateur kids up and down the country. It meant so much to me and my family. I wish I could thank them all personally, but I’d be there a long time doing it! The support’s a big thing. I want to come back better and stronger as a way of thanking everyone for it.”

Crolla believes that he is destined to win a world title, telling me that he is determined to bring a belt back home to Manchester. 

“I love this city, it sounds cheesy but I do. I also want to repay all the people around the country who have supported me by becoming a world champion. There’ll only ever be one Ricky Hatton, but bringing a title back to this city would mean the world to me.”

It would mean the world to his fans, too, and he earned the right to represent the city he loves by defeating friend, former gym mate and local rival John Murray in a fight that was named BM’s FOTY for 2014. Crolla told me that it was as tough as he had expected and that Murray will forge a fine career for himself now that he’s retired and become a trainer.

“That fight went to plan. I know John, the type of character he is, so if I wasn’t prepared he’d have walked right through me,” he said. “Joe [Gallagher] has added so much to me as a fighter. I can’t thank him enough for that. I’m always adaptable, with a Plan A, B and C.

“John’s doing well now with his own gym. He’ll be a great trainer because he’s got a very good boxing brain. I believe he’ll have champions of his own.

“I actually learned from John in the past, one of the best bits of advice I’ve had was from him. We were running and he told me to always enjoy fight night, because they’re special nights and it won’t last forever—I’ve done that ever since.”

Crolla has vowed to cherish every moment of his eventual comeback. “I want to go straight back into a big one. I’ve always been focused, but I’m starving for the world title now.”

After we finished our coffees and stepped out into the street, a passerby wished Crolla well before telling him that he had done the right thing. I asked him what he would say if he had the chance to stop and talk to his attacker. 

“I hope they get better, because they’re in a worse place than I am—you must be in a bad place if you’re robbing houses because you can’t stoop much lower than that,” he answered. The fighter known as “Million Dollar” might want to consider changing his moniker to “One In A Millon”.