By Nick Halling
Manchester lightweight Anthony Crolla could be on the threshold of a world title challenge. The former British champion is being lined up to take on Cuba’s Richar Abril for the WBA belt. No deal has been done, but whispers out of Abril’s Miami base suggest talks are progressing and an announcement could be forthcoming shortly.
Until the deal is done, dates and venues are pure speculation, but September is being touted as a likely month. Crolla’s people would love the fight to be held in Manchester, and the city certainly has a venue big enough to stage such an event. Abril, however, has spent his entire professional career in the US other than a couple of fights in Panama and Costa Rica. It’s going to take a lot to tempt him across the Atlantic.
But nobody should make any travel plans any time soon, given Abril’s recent run of what should charitably be described as misfortune. The gifted but tricky Cuban hasn’t boxed in 15 months. His style isn’t popular or crowd pleasing, and as a consequence promoters aren’t exactly clamouring for his services.
There was a suggestion 12 months ago that Abril could engage in a unification fight with then-WBO boss Ricky Burns, but that talk went nowhere. A planned defence against Jorge Linares for November in Tokyo went up in smoke when the champion damaged an ankle.
Most recently, there has a stop-start tango with the Russian Eduard Troyanowskiy. Originally slated for March, first Abril withdrew, then Troyanowskiy pulled out, leading to a further rescheduling. The two were then supposed to meet in Moscow this weekend, but the whole thing has long been scrapped.
Since beating Sharif Bogere in March 2013, Abril has effectively been inactive. In contrast, Crolla has beaten three European champions in Gavin Rees, Stephen Foster Jr and, most recently, John Murray, and is considered to be one of the most improved fighters in the UK over the last two years.
Given Abril’s recent history, this is a long way from being a done deal. But if it comes off, Crolla can tear up any plans he might have had for a summer spent by the beach.
Another leading British lightweight, Kevin Mitchell, is also waiting anxiously by the phone. Mitchell’s impressive stoppage of Ghislain Maduma last weekend should have guaranteed the Dagenham man a direct shot at IBF boss Miguel Vazquez.
It isn’t as simple as that. Mitchell failed a morning check weight, which required him to come in at no more than 10 pounds above his official weigh-in the previous afternoon. Mitchell missed it by 24 ounces.
That failure technically means that, while he is still in the IBF picture, the situation isn’t quite as clear-cut as it should be. Vazquez now doesn’t have to face him as a mandatory – by missing the scales, Mitchell forfeited that right. But he could still be the next opponent, albeit as a voluntary defence for the Mexican.
The situation is further clouded by another twist. Under IBF rules, Mitchell should have been granted two hours to take the weight off. But the British Boxing Board of Control does not allow such a two-hour extension. It leaves the whole issue open to interpretation and argument.
Mitchell’s people may well say to the IBF that their man could have shed the offending 24 ounces within the time parameters set by the sanctioning body, and if they win that argument, then Mitchell will be the mandatory, and Vazquez will have to face him.
The Mexican is reportedly not thrilled at the prospect of boxing the much-improved Mitchell, and will wriggle off the hook given any opportunity to do so. The horse trading on this one is continuing.
Vazquez employed successful delaying tactics in steering clear of Ricky Burns last year, citing first illness, then dissatisfaction with the terms on offer. If he’s looking for an excuse to avoid boxing in the UK, Mitchell’s errant check weight might give him the reason he needs. This one will take some patient and delicate untangling.
James DeGale’s victory over Brandon Gonzales in an IBF super middle final eliminator last week was a personal triumph for DeGale’s long term trainer, Jim McDonnell over the rather more storied handler of Gonzales, Virgil Hunter.
McDonnell heard about Hunter’s plan for Gonzales to arrive late in the UK and prepared accordingly. Assuming the American would still be recovering from the effects of jetlag following an 11 hour flight from Northern California after arriving on Tuesday before Saturday fight night, McDonnell instructed his fighter to start fast. He even thought a first round stoppage might be achievable.
DeGale duly went off like an express train, rocking a seemingly half-asleep Gonzales with the first punch of the fight, and the American was never able to settle after that. The former Olympic champion was also at his sharpest physically, after McDonnell made significant changes to his training regime.
Ten days prior to the fight, McDonnell switched things up to begin gym sessions at 9pm, the expected time of the first bell, to acclimatise his boxer’s body. Then, the first three minutes of the training session, whether sparring or bag work, were conducted at a flat out pace.
The result was that a superbly-conditioned DeGale came flying out of the blocks, dominating from the start. McDonnell expected jetlag to be a factor for Gonzales, and was determined to capitalise on it. By doing so in such an effective manner, he made Hunter’s preparations look amateurish in comparison.
It didn’t help that Hunter’s fighter Amir Khan accompanied Gonzales on his ring walk. True, they are now stablemates at Hunter’s Oakland gym, but Khan had also been a teammate of many years’ standing with DeGale in the Great Britain squad. The sight of his former colleague in the other guy’s corner merely served to sharpen DeGale’s icy aggression to an even finer point.
But McDonnell cannot take all the credit for DeGale’s most exciting performance in years. His physio, Gary Lewin, gets a special assist too. Late last year, DeGale finally had an operation to cure a troublesome hernia-related illness known in medical terms as Gilmore’s groin. It’s an injury common to kicking sports, such as football and rugby.
That’s where Lewin came in. The veteran physio currently works with the England football team, and for 28 years was also in charge at Arsenal, which by coincidence also happens to be the team DeGale supports. Lewin has seen that injury many times before, and was the perfect man to help with rehabilitation. Prior to departing for World Cup duty with England, Lewin applied his healing hands to help ensure DeGale’s complete recovery.
The big question, of course, is what next for DeGale, and right now, nobody has the answer. Technically, he is in line for the IBF title currently held by Carl Froch. The Nottingham fighter has made it clear that he wants his next fight to be in Vegas. After six months of George Groves yapping in his ear, Froch is not thrilled by the prospect of another British young pup nipping at his ankles.
The IBF could strip him – unlikely – or grant an exemption – more likely. They are probably not going to jeopardise the kind of hefty sanctioning fee that a Froch fight would bring. Whichever way you look at it, it seems unlikely that DeGale’s immediate future includes an IBF world title fight.
Ironically, WBC champ Sakio Bika was ringside at Wembley last weekend, and immediately began to argue his cause for a fight with Froch. A DeGale-Bika affair would be relatively easy to arrange – except that in boxing in an IBF eliminator, DeGale forfeited his No 1 ranking with the WBC, and is now no longer ranked by them. Perhaps they could be persuaded to re-install him once again.
With WBO champ Arthur Abraham deep in negotiations to defend against another British boxer, Paul Smith, there is no obvious route open to DeGale. Some short-term frustration looks to be the order of the day. But when his chance comes, the London southpaw looks physically and psychologically well-placed to take full advantage. The feeling within his camp is that DeGale is only now beginning to tap into his full potential.
Nick Halling is a commentator for Sky Sports