WILL OF IRON

Nick Halling
26/08/2016 4:49pm

Here is a sentence which, had it been written a few years ago, would have had its author speedily dispatched to a safe house for the deranged and delusional: Anthony Crolla is widely acknowledged as a legitimate world-class operator, and a genuine candidate to be called best lightweight on the planet.

Once written off, but now a world champion, Crolla will have a chance to see precisely where he ranks in the lightweight pecking order when he takes on Jorge Linares in Crolla’s Manchester hometown on 24 September. Crolla’s WBA title will be on the line, as will the WBC Diamond belt.

“As soon as his name was mentioned, this was the fight I wanted,” Crolla told Boxing Monthly. “There were other options out there. I could have had a voluntary against anyone in the WBA’s top 15, and then of course there was the Manchester derby [against WBO champion and one-time schoolmate Terry Flanagan]. Realistically, that was never going to happen because of the politics involved, so Linares was the best option out there. This is a chance for me to prove what I firmly believe, that I’m the best in the world at the weight.”

Crolla said he has watched Linares a lot over the years and admits to being a big admirer of the Venezuelan boxer. “Technically, he’s brilliant,” Crolla said. “He has part of his camp in Japan, and that’s where he gets his footwork down, and his footwork is superb. But I think I have the tools to beat him.

“Linares definitely has weaknesses, and I will be looking to exploit them. He has a tendency to come apart, and we saw that a little against [Kevin] Mitchell. He was on the floor, but fair play to him, he came through it, and answered a few questions. But the vulnerability is there.

“I know he’s travelled the world, and he’s been to the UK before, but home advantage is going to play an important part. He will never have experienced an atmosphere like he is going to hear in Manchester in September. There will come a time in this fight where that is going to have an effect on him. And I’ll thrive on the lift the crowd will be giving me.

“I think I’m capable of stopping Linares, but when you’re up against a world-class fighter, you have to prepare for 12 hard rounds, and that’s what this is probably going to be.

“This is just too good an opportunity to pass up. I’m improving with every fight, and I’ll improve again come September. Let’s keep this thing rolling.”

If Crolla can indeed defeat Linares — a world champion in three weight divisions — it would greatly enhance his claim to the status of world No. 1 at 135lbs. Yet this is the same Anthony Crolla who was edged out by Youssef Al Hamidi in 2008, and then comfortably outpointed by Gary Sykes in a British super featherweight title eliminator a year later. Having rebuilt his career to the extent that he won the British lightweight title, the Manchester man lost it to Derry Mathews via a sixth-round stoppage in 2012. And then there’s the attack from would-be burglars who smashed a concrete block into his forehead, putting his entire future in jeopardy.

This is hardly the career trajectory of a world champion. Talk to Crolla today, and he will tell you of the many who wrote him off. He will also admit they probably had a point. Yet, in May, he confirmed his status as the WBA’s champion by taming and neutralising the dangerous Ismael Barroso, whose power had sent Kevin Mitchell into retirement and which had made him the most avoided lightweight in the business.

Crolla exposed the Venezuelan’s limitations in a stunning display of technical accomplishment and sheer physical courage. As the champion and his team celebrated in the ring, it was possible to forgive an over-excited Eddie Hearn, who anointed his man as the best lightweight in the world. There may be other contenders, but the list is extremely short.

“After I lost to Sykes, everyone gave up on me,” recalls Crolla. “There were people locally who said I was never going to do anything. There was no power, no this, no that. If you’d told anyone that I’d be a world champion after losing an eight-rounder and a British title eliminator, they’d have laughed at you. I never doubted that I’d get to a level, but you do question yourself sometimes.”

Gallagher CrollaJoining Joe Gallagher’s gym proved to be a life-changing decision. “He’d beaten a kid of mine in the schoolboys area final, and was good friends with the Murrays [John and Joe] going through college, so I knew him,” Gallagher says . “I asked around and got the same message: ‘Lovely lad, but he won’t do anything. Lucky to challenge for a British title.’ That suited my mentality. I thought: ‘Right, we’ll show you. Let’s get to work.’”

Work officially began in September 2009 with a four-round win over John Baguley, a performance that left veteran cutman Mick Williamson, working the corner, less than impressed. “He was just flying around the ring, like a will o’ the wisp,” Williamson remembers. “I told Joe he’d better lock all the doors because there’s a whippet in the ring. Future world champion? Not in a million years. But the way he’s improved is incredible. He just gets progressively better and better.”

There is no disputing the success of the Crolla-Gallagher partnership, yet it seems an unlikely one. The trainer is driven, relentless; his fighter casual, laid-back. “We’re opposites, but it works well,” Crolla says. “Joe’s the most organised person — I actually think he’s a bit mad. But I’m as laid-back as you can get. I know my timekeeping infuriates him! We have our moments, but I’ll be forever in his debt. He’s turned my career around. I wouldn’t be in boxing if it wasn’t for him.”

Gallagher was also shrewd enough to recognise that behind the relaxed persona lay a similarly driven individual, and a deceptively strong personality that would be repeatedly tested in coming years. “There were times in sparring where I’d be shouting and screaming at Anthony,” the trainer admits. “He was always so nice, but I wanted to see a nasty side in a fight. Did he have it?” Gallagher had his answer against Michael Brodie in November 2009.

Fellow-Mancunian Brodie had come within a whisker of winning a world title, and Crolla was selected as the opponent against whom his rebuilding process could begin. “You had to bully Brodie, because if he got on top, he’d do anything,” says Gallagher. “I forget the round, but there was a point when Crolla stood his ground, pushed him off, and Brodie was on his arse. You should have seen the look on his face. That was the first time I saw substance to Anthony.”

There has been plenty shown since. Brodie, stopped in three, never boxed again, and nor did Andy Morris, a top-level domestic super feather who retired after losing an English title fight against Crolla in October 2010. Against both, Crolla had been the underdog, the opponent, the soft touch brought in to lose. His mental toughness and desire were seriously underestimated.

Victory over John Watson secured the British title, which Crolla successfully defended against Willie Limond, who barely managed a share of a round. But that merely led to the next crisis, the loss to Mathews. Gallagher still blames himself for an error of judgement that left his man exposed, but Crolla believes the blame should be shared.

“I wasn’t as strong then as I am now, and when I watch it back, I cringe at what I was doing,” Crolla observes. “I was trying to walk through a big, strong lightweight, and I paid the price for it. I never blamed Joe. You win together, you lose together.”

But his career was on the line yet again. An unsatisfactory Prizefighter appearance (where Sykes completed his double over Crolla) set up an English title fight against Kieran Farrell. Had Crolla lost, he was finished. “I had a job lined up on Monday morning, working in the office at my mate’s security company,” he remembers. Crolla won a gripping battle, but Farrell collapsed with a bleed on the brain, and although his recovery was little short of miraculous, his boxing career was over.

“Kieran would have beaten a lot of good lads, he was so strong and determined,” Crolla says. “It was a cold, freezing night, and obviously what happened overshadows everything, but it was one of my best performances.”

Good enough to earn another high-pressure engagement, this time against former world champ Gavin Rees, no-one’s idea of an easy night. “I was the underdog again,” Crolla says. “They were bringing him back after his loss to [Adrien] Broner. It was another huge night for me. I had a baby on the way, and I thought: ‘If I win this, there’ll be a contract off [promoter] Eddie [Hearn], but if I don’t, I’ll be just another away fighter.’ There was so much riding on it.”

Crolla edged a bitterly disputed decision, and after outclassing Stephen Foster in an all-Manchester battle another high-pressure opponent loomed in the form of one-time stablemate and sparring partner John Murray.

Once the top lightweight in the Gallagher gym, Murray and his one-time trainer had fallen out, and the build-up to the fight was poisonous and deeply personal. Yet somehow, Crolla managed to smile through the press conferences and the weigh-in, his friendship with Murray surviving a torrid night in which Murray threw everything he had at his old mate, but couldn’t break Crolla’s resolve. Utterly spent, Murray was stopped in the 10th, with Crolla again resolute, strong and determined. His eye badly damaged, Murray joined Brodie, Morris and Farrell in never boxing again.

By now battle-hardened and tested to breaking point by both opponents and thugs brandishing concrete, Crolla boxed beautifully against Darleys Perez last July, only to have his dream of winning a world title dashed on the scorecards. It proved to be merely a delay, as a brutal body shot destroyed Perez in November’s rematch.

“That was the longest 10 seconds of my life,” he recalls. “I remember [the count] getting to six, seven, and thinking: ‘He’s cutting it fine here.’ And then, bang, it was 10 and you could see my reaction. Mission accomplished. I’d had that dream of being world champion since the age of 10.”

Then there was the win over Barroso, with Crolla calm and relaxed in the dressing room. “We're going into the eye of the storm tonight,” trainer Gallagher advised. Given everything that's happened to him over the course of a turbulent career, where else would you expect Crolla to be? The eye of the storm. That's where he does his best work.