By Terence Dooley
Anthony Crolla stepped up to lightweight at short notice in February to win the vacant British belt with a stunning 9th round technical count out win over John Watson. ‘Million Dollar’ was a slight underdog going in against the rangy Liverpudlian but found that the rarified air of a title fight suited him right down to the ground.
The 24-year-old is rumored to be taking on Osumana Akaba for the vacant WBA Inter-Continental 135lb strap at Wigan’s Robin Park Arena on June 18th. The Ghana-based southpaw dropped decisions in Commonwealth title bouts with Paul Truscott and Ricky Burns in 2008; he has since racked up two wins over modest opposition and holds a 23-5-1 (16) record.
“I can’t wait,” said Crolla as he looked ahead to his latest title fight. “It has been four months since I won the British title against Michael Watson so I just want to get out there again. You’ve got Joe [Murray] and me on the same card, Matt Macklin fighting Felix Sturm for a world title [on June 25] and John out against Kevin Mitchell [at London’s EXCEL Arena] a few weeks after with Callum [Johnson] and the Smiths on the bill. The atmosphere is bouncing at the gym.
“This place is full of champions so I’m just one of many in a way and don’t get any special treatment from anyone. Stephen and Paul [Smith] have joined us recently. It is one of those situations where the banter in the gym is great. Boxing is not a team sport but training is a team thing, you drive each other on everyday in the gym.”
Common convention states that contenders improve by 10-20% when they pick up a title. Crolla agrees with this accepted wisdom yet insists that it is down to others to gauge whether or not the win over Watson has given his skills and confidence a boost.
“I believe that, yeah,” says Crolla when reminded of the old adage. “But you’d have to ask [trainer] Joe [Gallagher] because he’s the one who’d know. I work on little things all the time. I definitely feel that winning the British title has given me great confidence, great belief and also showed me things to work on.
“I enjoy being British champion and want to defend it but I also enjoy going in for titles so I think this next one will get me a title and ranking against a good opponent. I can’t take anything for granted. I have to be on my game.”
Crolla had hoped to defend the Lonsdale belt against former holder Gavin Rees on the undercard of Amir Khan’s April 16th win over Paul McCloskey only for the Welshman’s troublesome nasal problem to flare up and nix the contest.
Rees picked up the EBU title vacated by John Murray on Saturday night courtesy of a decision win over Ireland’s Andy Murray at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena. Both men have expressed an interest in taking the other’s title. Hatton Promotions and Matchroom guide Crolla and Rees; Sky TV have expressed an interest in the bout; leaving the way clear for a possible British and EBU dust up.
“I want it, definitely,” stated Crolla. “We both signed for it on the Amir Khan show but Gavin had a nasal injury so we have to wait. Gavin has come back against Andy to win the European title. I won the British title because Gavin did the right thing by letting people know he was injured so they could give me the shot. Now I owe it to Gavin to do my bit so we can get it on. I want the European title.
“John and Kevin will have fought so a fight with me and Gavin would be another big fight for the domestic lightweight division. Andy Murray is a good fighter but Gavin has that style where he can dig in on the inside and get you in the late rounds.
“I’m sure Gavin wouldn’t have any problems with accepting a fight with me. We agreed it last time and both talked about how much we wanted it but it wasn’t to be. Gavin got a big European title fight so I don’t blame him for taking that one. It won’t be a problem to make. It can’t fail but to be a good fight, it is a fan’s fight and is sure to be TV friendly.”
Rees made a name for himself at 140lbs. Out-hustling Souleymane M’baye to win the WBA crown in 2007 only to lose the belt in his maiden defence, Andriy Kotelnik proving too canny and strong, the Ukrainian stopped Rees at 2:34 of the final stanza. Gavin stuck around to win Prizefighter: The Light-Welterweights in 2009 before moving to lightweight and posting a final round stoppage win over Watson last November.
Crolla’s started his career at super-feather, losing to Youssef Al Hamidi and Gary Sykes down at 130lb. His decision to move to 135lb was prompted by that shock British title opportunity. The 20-2 (8) fighter feels that serendipity stepped in, placing him and Rees in each other’s path.
Saying, “Gavin said that he feels better at lightweight but he got a great chance up at light-welterweight to win the world title and then Prizefighter. Just like I had a chance to step up in weight to fight Watson and took that. We’ve both shown that we will take a chance when an opportunity pops up. Gavin won a genuine world title campaigning up in weight.
“I feel stronger all the time. I believe I’m strong enough to hang in there with any lightweight in Europe. My dream is to win the Lonsdale belt outright, everyone wants to own one. I always said that I wanted to come out of boxing with one of those titles for keeps.
“Hatton Promotions deal with all of that, I just train hard for fight night and stay focused when they’re working on an opponent. I just get myself into shape first. Then we get word of an opponent and work on the game plan when I’m already in good shape. That is just me, a lot of fighters are like that – they stay in shape in case a late call comes.”
An ABA titlist at lightweight in 2006, Crolla turned over with a fair amount of fanfare only to be sidelined after the defeat to Sykes. The boxer believes that his recent resurgence proves that the age of the mighty ‘0’ is coming to a close.
“I lost two fights, people thought it would be tough for me to come back but I did and I showed that a defeat is not the end of your career. James DeGale losing a fight isn’t the end of the road, he’ll come back stronger, just like I did, and it takes a bit of pressure away,” he mused.
“I wouldn’t change my two defeats for the world. They highlighted things that I was doing wrong at an early time. It proves that a loss doesn’t mean you have to quit. We’ve seen in recent years that a lot of the best fighters are the ones who have suffered a loss but come back from it.
“An undefeated record is nice but one of the biggest tests is to lose fights and titles then go onto get revenge or win those titles back. I love this game and want it more than anything so I never got discouraged.
“I’ve always said that I’d love to have a rematch with Sykes, wherever it came, and would always be there if he wanted to fight me again. Sykes fought a great fight on the night but without being disrespectful I know what I did wrong and how to put it right.”
John Murray was setting the pace when Crolla arrived at Gallagher’s CNP-sponsored base and is now set to join Macklin at the world level should he get past Mitchell. There have been jokes made about a Murray-Crolla clash. Anthony, though, believes that Murray is ahead of him at this moment in time.
“Oh yeah, of course,” joked Crolla to my question of whether he is glad that his stablemate looks set to move into world title contention. “John is a good mate of mine. I do believe he will get to world level. Him going from English, British, European and then the world is the best route and the one I hope I can do. But I want John to keep moving on so we don’t meet!”
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