Crolla with an eye on history
Luke G. Williams
If he defeats Venezuelan Jorge Linares on Saturday night at the Manchester Arena, Anthony Crolla will make history by becoming the first Englishman to win The Ring magazine lightweight championship. Such a victory would thus, in the eyes of many boxing traditionalists, establish a new title lineage in the lightweight division.
"Very few fighters get the chance to fight for The Ring magazine title," Crolla told the American-based journal recently. "It’s the prestige and the history that has got me motivated."
British boxers have seldom prospered at world level in the lightweight division. The oft overlooked ‘Welsh Wizard’ Freddie Welsh was the UK’s first lightweight world champion, earning the title courtesy of a 20-round decision victory against Willie Ritchie in London Olympia in July 1914.
It was not until 1970 that a Brit could once again claim to be the king of the lightweights - Scot Ken Buchanan wresting the title from Panamanian Ismael Laguna on a split points decision on a sweltering evening in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Although some traditionalists omit his name from their list of lineal world champions, Glasgow’s Jim Watt was the third Brit to be widely regarded as the lightweight champ. After Buchanan’s conqueror Roberto Duran moved up in weight, Watt won recognition from The Ring in 1981 courtesy of his WBC title winning effort against Alfredo Pitalua and a victory against Sean O’Grady, who after losing to the Glaswegian had subsequently won the WBA crown.
However, it was not until July 2015 that an English lightweight won a ‘world’ title – Terry Flanagan earning the vacant WBO crown with a victory against Jose Zepeda.
A week later Crolla - Flanagan’s fellow Mancunian and former contemporary at St Matthew’s RC High School - was denied the WBA crown when he fought a majority draw with Darleys Perez. Crolla finally lifted a ‘world’ title four months later when a crushing body shot saw Perez counted out in the fifth round of an explosive rematch.
Ever since, a unification showdown between Flanagan and Crolla has been mooted, but has been complicated by promotional differences, Crolla being on the books of Eddie Hearn, while Flanagan is aligned to Frank Warren.
Now, though, ‘Million Dollar’ Crolla has secured the opportunity to get one up on his city rival by defeating Venezuelan Linares and annexing The Ring magazine strap – a feat that would see him emulate heavyweight champ Tyson Fury, currently the UK’s only undisputed divisional number one.
Linares is widely, albeit not exclusively, regarded at present as the world’s premier lightweight. The 31-year-old has enjoyed a stellar career, winning alphabet titles at three weights - feather, super-feather and lightweight - since making his pro debut aged just 17 in Japan in 2002.
Although he is no longer the WBC champion Linares did not lose the title in the ring and his overall resume of 40-3 demands respect. Nevertheless, Crolla will be encouraged by the fact that all three of Linares’ defeats have come inside the distance. The Englishman and his team, led by trainer Joe Gallagher, will certainly have noted that the Venezuelan is vulnerable against big punches and also has a tendency to get cut up around the face. In his last two fights, stoppage victories against Perez and the dangerous Ismael Barroso, Crolla has looked stronger and more explosive than ever before,
However, the Mancunian needs to be mindful of the fact that ‘El Niño de Oro’ possesses formidable powers of determination and a true fighting heart, as evidenced by his off-the-canvas tenth round TKO victory against East Ender Kevin Mitchell in May last year.
Crolla - who is two years younger than Linares at 29 - is certainly wary of the challenge provided by the Venezuelan. "I rate Linares very highly but I genuinely believe I'll have an answer for whatever he shows me," he has declared in the build-up to the fight.
“He's technically brilliant and I've got to be switched on from the opening bell. He's a very good counter-puncher, so I know I can't be lazy at any stage. He likes to fight at his pace and I can't allow that. I've got to take advantage of some weaknesses that I think I've seen there. I'm confident I can do that.”
Crolla’s form-line is certainly encouraging. His last reverses were a stoppage defeat against Dery Matthews in April 2012 and a split points decision against Gary Sykes in a Prizefighter tourney later the same year. At this stage of his career, Crolla looked destined to remain defined as a domestic level operator, but his gradual ascension to world class has proved as inspiring as it has been unexpected.
When Crolla finally lifted the WBA title against Perez it was one of the feel-good sports stories of the year, given that late in 2014 the Mancunian's career had been under threat when he was left seriously injured after bravely tackling a group of burglars who had broken into a neighbour's house.
Home advantage and his unlikely back-story will doubtless inspire Crolla on Saturday night, although it is worth pointing out that Linares, whose peripatetic career has seen him fight in eight countries (England, Japan, the USA, Venezuela, South Korea, Mexico, Argentina and Panama), seems unconcerned by the prospect of competing in Manchester.
“I love fighting in my opponent’s back-yard with all the noise that comes with it from their fans,” he remarked recently. “The supporters cannot get in the ring with their fighter, it’s just me and him … The best fighter on the night is going to win, and I think that’s going to be me.”
Picking a victor in what is essentially a 50-50 fight is a thankless task, although it’s also a refreshing challenge after the all too predictable results of the last two big fights involving British boxers – namely GGG vs Brook and Canelo vs Smith.
My gut feeling is that although Linares has the edge in experience, and probably technique too, he is a little more shop-worn than Crolla and probably entering the final act of his meritorious career, whereas ‘Million Dollar’ is at the apex of his fistic powers.
Mitchell gave Linares fits and, bearing that and the Venezuelan’s recent inactivity in mind, I fancy a disciplined and hard hitting Crolla to channel the energy of the crowd, as well as his own unquenchable desire and current sky-high confidence, to nick a close, but deserved points victory, or even force a late stoppage.