Crolla on the comeback

Danny Winterbottom
05/06/2015 10:10am

Instead of helping his girlfriend Fran Sanderson with final Christmas preparations, as he looked forward to a world title challenge on 23 January, Anthony Crolla lay in a hospital bed nursing a fractured skull and a badly broken ankle after a neighbourly deed turned sour.

He gazed at his body, usually in prime physical condition after months spent in trainer Joe Gallagher’s gym but now wired to machines that monitored his vital signs on a ward at the Royal Oldham Hospital, and wondered if he would ever lace on a pair of gloves again. In fact, he was lucky to be alive.

Ask anyone in boxing who has been fortunate enough to either talk to the Manchester lightweight or spend time in his company and they will tell you that Crolla is one of life’s genuine nice guys. So when he returned from training that winter’s night and heard his neighbours house alarm blaring he wasn’t about to go home, close the curtains and tuck himself in bed.

“I checked over my neighbour’s fence and one of the burglars popped his head up and the next thing I know I’m giving chase but I caught up with them quickly,” said Crolla, whose superior fitness was more than a match for the burglars.

“I was gonna walk one of them back because he was cowering in the corner but on my blindside one of the burglar’s picked up a loose lump of concrete and smashed me over the head with it.  That’s when I suffered a broken ankle in two places and a fractured skull.” 

In the space of a few crazy minutes Crolla, bleeding heavily from a head wound and hampered by a badly broken ankle, watched in vain as the two youths made a hasty escape into the darkness and his world title fight with then WBA champion Richar Abril went up in smoke.

But after an enforced eight month lay-off and hard graft in the gym, not to mention several rigorous British Boxing Board of Control medicals, promoter Eddie Hearn announced Crolla’s return to the ring would be on 18 July against dangerous Colombian Darleys Perez for the WBA 135lbs world title following Abril’s reclassification as ‘Champion in recess’ after a string of injuries ruled him out of competition.

A remarkable recovery and a fantastic story if Crolla can claim Perez’s title when they clash at the Manchester Arena (formerly the M.E.N Arena) home to Ricky Hatton’s famous win over Kostya Tzsyu in 2005.

“I could have come back with an eight or 10-rounder but I know how these fights can come and go so I was never gonna turn it down,” said Crolla, as he revealed it took all of five seconds to agree to face Perez and a potential third meeting with Derry Mathews who holds the Interim belt.

“I feel in a brilliant place and I never doubted that I would fight again.  Since I got back in the gym I feel as though in a strange way the break (from boxing) has done me good because prior to this enforced lay-off I can’t remember the last time I had time off.  Maybe a couple of weeks for a family holiday but that’s all.

“I’ve had no ill effects from getting punched on the scar, no dizziness, nothing.  My ankle has given me a few more problems and as a result I’m not running as much as I used to do but for me that’s a good thing because I was running too much if the truth be known. It’s been a hard camp but Joe (Gallagher) is pleased and Joe isn’t easily pleased!

“I would never look past Perez but a third fight with Derry would be fantastic,” said Crolla, who lost by stoppage to the Liverpool warrior in 2012 and then drew with his rival 11 months later.

The former British lightweight champion last saw action back in November when he scored a six-round decision over Gyorgy Mizsei Jnr in a keeping busy fight in Dublin, following an anti-climactic three round technical draw with veteran Gamaliel Diaz (when Diaz suffered a cut following a head clash) in September 2014. So I asked Crolla, was he was concerned that ring rust could be a problem? 

“Not at all. When I sparred for the first time and everybody who watched the spar said that they couldn’t believe how sharp I was. It will be eight months (since the Mizsei Jnr contest) come fight night, which obviously isn’t ideal, but I always remember Sugar Ray Leonard having three years out before he fought Marvin Hagler. If the fight is big, I don’t think ring rust comes into it and, when you train hard and so much is riding on the fight, it brings out the best in you.”

Last Saturday night Dagenham’s Kevin Mitchell was the first of a trio of British lightweights to challenge for a version of the world title in the space of a few weeks. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old, he came up short in a terrific and brutal battle with the superb technician Jorge Linares for the World Boxing Council strap at the O2 in London, eventually succumbing to the Venezuelan’s fast combinations in round 10 after dropping the champion in round five.

A week before Crolla challenges WBA champion Darleys Perez in Manchester, another fighter from the city, Terry Flanagan, faces little known but unbeaten Californian native Jose Zepeda, 23-0 (20 KOs) on 11 July at the Manchester Velodrome with the vacant WBO lightweight title on the line and Crolla revealed it will be a special occasion for the two North West warriors. 

“Me and Terry went to the same school, Saint Matthews RC High in Moston,” said Anthony. “He was a few years younger but for two lads from the same school to fight for world titles a week apart is absolutely fantastic, it’s a great achievement and I’m sure that the school will recognise it in some way. We are both in very tough fights but I’m positive that we can both come out with a victory.”