By John Evans
We may only be in March, but Anthony Crolla’s performance when claiming the British lightweight championship against John Watson is likely going to remain as one of the best performances of 2011. Having recently completed negotiations to make the first defence of his title against Gavin Rees on the undercard of Amir Khan’s world title fight with Paul McCloskey, BoxingScene.com caught up with ‘Million $’ and found him in an excited mood.
“The Gavin Rees fight is confirmed and a done deal for April 16th on the big show at the Manchester Evening News arena. It’s a massive showcase in my home town. Obviously it’ll be full when Amir’s on but hopefully there’ll be a good crowd in when I’m fighting and it’s a chance to really get my name out there. I’ve always had a good following and it’s been growing, especially after my last few fights. I was gonna say I hope this one lives up to them but I don’t see how it can fail to!” he declared.
Although he is only 24 years old, Crolla seems to have been around for years. There has never been a question about his ability but if somebody had told him a year ago that he would have been defending a British title on a massive pay per view card against a former world champion, what would he have said?
“At lightweight as well! I’d have told them to shut up” he laughs. “You have to pinch yourself at times. Twelve months ago I couldn’t have imagined it. I always believed I was capable of it but these are exciting times and I’m glad to be part of it.”
As Crolla says, twelve months ago, a fight with Rees probably wouldn’t even have entered his head. The Welshman had just announced his comeback by winning the Prizefighter tournament up at light welterweight whilst the Mancunian was readying himself for an assault on the British super featherweight rankings. That the fight is now such an appealing one for British fans is largely down to Crolla’s improvement.
By fight night, it will be almost two years since he came up just short against Gary Sykes in an exciting final eliminator for a shot at the British super featherweight belt. Since that setback, Crolla has come back strongly, recording seven straight bouts and taking the scalps of former British champion Andy Morris and former champion and world title challenger Michael Brodie. With Rees shaping up to be his toughest test to date, what are Crolla’s thoughts of his challenger?
“He’s a former WBA world champion and I think he’s a very, very good fighter. I personally think he’s world class. He’s lost one fight to Andriy Kotelnik who lost to Amir Khan and then pushed Devon Alexander very close. Since then he’s come back and won Prizefighter up at light welter and there were some quality names in there. Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at Gavin’s fights with Joe and looking to see things that I can work on.”
Crolla was deep into preparations for another final elimination bout for the British super featherweight title, this time against Carl Johanneson, when Rees’ late withdrawal offered him the chance to step up 5lbs and fight John Watson for the lightweight crown. Although it was an unexpected chance, Crolla grabbed it with both hands.
He said, “We weren’t planning on moving up but the chance came up and that was that. I felt great at the weight. I can still make super featherweight and if the right fight comes up then we’ll drop back down and take it but I’m at lightweight, I’m feeling good and I’ve got a British title! I won’t give that up.”
In an exciting battle, Crolla was too fast, too clever and seemingly too strong for Watson and his performance drew widespread praise. What are his recollections of the fight?
“I’ve watched it back a few times! I couldn’t have asked for it to go any better. Joe came up with a game plan and it went right to the letter. I knew from going there that night and during the warm up that it was gonna be my night. A lot of the pressure was on him and I’m looking at that situation again. I’m gonna be the underdog for the Gavin Rees fight and rightfully so but it seems to be working for me lately so I don’t mind it.”
Whilst avenging the defeat to Sykes and claiming the British 130lb belt was forefront in his mind just two months ago, Crolla now seems determined to cement his position as the man to beat at lightweight. He does however remain open to a possible clash in the future.
“Gary Sykes is a fight I’ve been asking for the past 18 months. There’s still a chance our paths will cross but at the moment I’m at lightweight and he’s at super featherweight so we’ll each go about our business. There are some brilliant fights to be made at lightweight.”
Crolla is another of the success stories to emerge from Joe Gallagher’s gym which, after 44 straight victories, currently holds the record for the longest unbeaten run in British boxing. The gym is home to fighters such as European champions John Murray and Matthew Macklin, former British champion Paul Smith and promising Olympian Joe Murray. Crolla seems to be thriving in such high company.
“The gym’s absolutely bouncing at the minute. They say success breeds success and there’s a great vibe with everybody pushing each other on” he says. “Obviously there are some talented lads there but to go with that talent you need hard work and determination and Joe’s bringing the very best out in all of us”.
“The in house sparring at our place with myself, John Murray, Joe Murray and Stephen Smith, well, you’d have to go some distance to beat that. We’ve all got different styles, the calibre of sparring is brilliant and we’ll bring someone in to imitate Rees’ style too.”
Meticulous planning is another trademark of Gallagher’s gym and Crolla is keen to heap praise on his trainer for providing the blueprints for his fighters to follow. Saying, “That’s something that Joe does and it’s something that he does very well. He really comes up with some great game plans for us all. He watches a fighter from their best to their worst and really dissects them. He studies them and studies them and studies them! He’s as good a tactician as anyone and I couldn’t ask for anyone better.”
With a British title belt strapped around his waist and his biggest fight so far just a month away the future looks bright for Anthony Crolla.
“I’m only 24 and although I’ve been in some good fights I’ve not taken a lot of punishment, I live clean and I’m planning on being around for a good while yet,” insisted the 20-2 (8) fighter.