Danny Flexen says farewell to Anthony Crolla, who took a debatable decision in his final fight but has enjoyed a fairytale career
If you are looking for repudiation of the judges’ scores in favour of Anthony Crolla over Frank Urquiaga, in what was the Manchester man’s final professional fight last night, I am afraid you have come to the wrong place. Not that I agree with any suggestion that sentiment should trump justice, but the whole subject of those scorecards deserve an article of their own, and not one I feel like writing on this chilly Sunday morning. The best thing about the struggle Crolla endured is that he can replay it in his mind when confronted by the inevitable temptation to return.
The record books will state that Crolla emerged from his farewell fixture a victor, via majority decision, over a tough Spaniard who was booked to lose but nonetheless came to win. Over the course of an entire career, however, there is no doubt Crolla is a winner and several times over.
Crolla, who turned over a month shy of his 20th birthday, lost two of his first 15 pro fights, one of which was to a journeyman, albeit an exceptionally tricky one, in Youssef Al Hamidi. Only three of those bouts took place at the Manchester Arena with which he would become synonymous. The other early setback, a closer defeat to the respected Gary Sykes, came just three fights into a relationship with trainer Joe Gallagher that would help define Crolla’s career. Anthony was always determined and a hard worker, but Gallagher added the structure and tactical nous necessary to succeed at domestic level and beyond. It just did not happen overnight.
Crolla rebounded from the Sykes reverse to build a 10-fight winning streak that would establish a well-earned reputation as one of the most exciting warriors in the country and a reliable TV fighter, labels that never left him, even in his last contest. Victories over Michael Brodie, Andy Morris and John Watson – the last of which saw Crolla win the vacant British lightweight title at short notice on away turf, having jumped up a division – thrilled crowds and bolstered Anthony’s burgeoning reputation.
Crolla had already proved the modern-day adage that ‘setbacks lead to comebacks’ but 2012 would take that theory to another level. An upset stoppage defeat to Derry Mathews cost him the Lonsdale Belt, while a gamble in entering a Prizefighter tournament failed to pay off as Crolla fell to old foe Sykes in their three-round semi-final. He ended the year with a win over Kieran Farrell, but even that was tinged with sadness, as the loser suffered a career-ending brain injury. Farrell is now an accomplished trainer and one of Crolla’s closest friends, but the amount of mental strength it required for Crolla to overcome that experience and achieve all he has, cannot be overestimated.
A rematch with Mathews in 2013 was declared a draw, much to Crolla’s chagrin – or as much chagrin as you are going to get from such a laidback, generous individual – but triumphs against Gavin Rees and John Murray, the latter an incredible scrap, solidified his standing not only as an outstanding entertainer but as a fighter at his peak knocking on the door for a world title shot.
The rest of the story is pretty well documented. He suffered a broken ankle and fractured skull after chasing a couple of reprobates who he’d witnessed trying to burgle his neighbour’s house. I recall vividly Crolla taking me on a grim ‘tour’ of the immediate area, showing me the wall from which the offending concrete slab had derived, allowing his attacker to wallop the have-a-go hero. He spoke about the incident with genuine bemusement, making, as he often did, the spectacular seem matter-of-fact, like it could happen to anyone. I also remember meeting his partner Francesca (now his wife) and son Jesse (now five-ish), seeing his eyes light up as they came home while we were chatting.
Miraculously, just seven months later, he was fighting for a world title, but the fairy tale ending would be delayed by a harsh judges’ verdict against WBA ruler Darleys Perez. That was the first of a startling six straight fights at Manchester Arena, all but the first as the unopposed main event. Four months after that, Crolla took matters into his own left hand, wiping out the with a signature body shot to achieve his dream. Then came the only successful defence, but what a night it was at Manchester Arena – where Crolla has appeared as many times as another everyman hero, Ricky Hatton – when “Million Dollar” produced a career-best performance to dismantle dangerous Venezuelan Ismael Barroso in seven rounds.
Four defeats in his last seven was the unfortunate result as Crolla advanced from world to elite level, falling twice to Jorge Linares and once, painfully, to Vasyl Lomachenko. No shame in those losses of course and Crolla ends his career still ranked by most independent observers as a top 10 world lightweight.
Far beyond his in-ring accomplishments is his unofficial legacy as ‘boxing’s nicest guy’. Now, a great number of boxers are nice people, that is true of the vast majority I have met. But Crolla, helped by promoter Matchroom, managed to translate that sincere warmth and likeability to the masses, allying admirable sporting achievement to his boy-next-door (especially if you’re getting burgled) personality and become Manchester’s biggest boxing star since Hatton. It is a sign of his enduring thoughtfulness, despite significant paydays and numerous starry nights, that a week before his final fight, Crolla was calling me to apologise for missing a couple of Whatsapps about an article I had written on him. “I didn’t want you to think I was being rude,” he said. Like anyone would ever think that of Anthony Crolla. This brief anecdote is typical of the man and many other boxing reporters, several of whom know Crolla a hell of a lot better than I do, can share myriad similar stories.
Crolla leaves the fight game with a 35-7-3 (13) record from a 13-year career and, unlike the vast majority of boxers, exits with a win, however contentious, and on his own terms. In a sport that is becoming increasingly targeted at a casual fanbase, and in which the barriers of access – never lofty – are at an all-time low, Crolla was a refreshing antidote to the cynical pandering to the digital generation that has infected an historic pursuit. It feels like he is one of the last of a dying breed and for that, as much as all the other reasons, Anthony Crolla will be much missed.