FEW world champions have lost to Youssef Al Hamidi. In fact there is only one, Anthony Crolla. His 2008 defeat to Al Hamidi, a lowly journeyman, was an inauspicious beginning to his career. It’s strange to think back on it now. Eight years on from that lowlight, Crolla is the very picture of a world champion. He walks into his gym in Bolton, a pair of dark glasses concealing a stitched cut beside his right eye and bruising round the left. Two days previously the Mancunian has come through the most thrilling fight of his tumultuous career, defending his WBA lightweight title from marauding Venezuelan Ismael Barroso.
A contented man, Crolla can reflect on the highs and bitter lows of his life in boxing. “When I look back now, I knew the amount of people who had written us off,” he says. “I don’t take it personally, it’s just their opinion, they were probably right to have that opinion after losing to Youssef.
“Those losses, I wouldn’t change them now. They made me go away and assess things, make tweaks here and there. They improved me to be the fighter I am today. I always work very hard. I knew that I’d get results in the end.
“It’s been a proper roller coaster. I’m enjoying good times at the minute,” he adds with a bright smile.
There have been further losses, to Gary Sykes and Derry Mathews. Many doubted he could become a British champion, let alone go on to be a world ruler. He was up against it in his first world title defence. The way Barroso started, hammering power shots off Anthony’s guard, it looked like an assault of such ferocity would ultimately overwhelm him.
“He could really punch, really punch with that backhand. When that backhand was coming there was some whip and some weight behind it. I took very little. I took a lot on arms and gloves. I purposely done that to let him throw the shots,” Crolla says. “There were one or two good shots but they never troubled me. But he could really punch.”
But Crolla has a special quality. Endurance. Life and boxing, not to mention Ismael Barroso, have thrown a lot at Crolla. In 2014 he stepped in to prevent thieves burgling his neighbours’ house before Christmas, only to be struck down with a concrete slab for his trouble. That injury not only ruled him out of a dream world title fight at Manchester Arena, it could have ended his boxing career. He endured, only to see Darleys Perez hold him to an unfair draw last July and once again deny him his world title.
In November he finally halted Perez to win the world crown. It couldn’t have been scripted more perfectly. But now in May, with Barroso, storming forward, attacking hungrily, looking to smash Anthony into submission, the fairy tale could have ended there and then.
“I honestly think that Barroso felt, and his team felt, he was going to get us out of there early. I think they thought it was going to be an early night. We suspected and Joe [Gallagher, his trainer], he was convinced he was going to try and get me out of there in three rounds. When you look back at the fight, there was a strong case for that. Honestly, a minute in, that fight went exactly how I thought it was going to go, with me taking shots, taking shots, walking him down and in the end I feel I broke his heart,” Anthony says.
Boxing introduces all its practitioners to misery. Crolla has seen the very worst side of the sport. Four years ago, on a cold, cold night at Bowler’s Exhibition Center in Manchester, Anthony was boxing young prospect Kieran Farrell. If Crolla lost then he could have been out of the sport. A job in the office of a security company was waiting for him on Monday morning. A nightmarish night that began with Crolla boxing to salvage his career finished with Farrell fighting for his life. At the end of the bout, which Anthony won on points, Kieran collapsed. He survived but would never box again. It’s a memory that has lingered vividly with Crolla ever since. “I still think about it,” Anthony says.
“It kills me when I think about it. I think it was his mum and it was breaking her heart when he was getting carried out on a stretcher. It haunted me for ages.”
“I was in a dark place,” he continues. “That is the darkest part of my career, after the Kieran Farrell fight. At the time I didn’t really think it but Joe thinks it stuck with me.”
If anyone is too nice for his own good, it’s Anthony Crolla. The accident did affect his boxing. Crolla reflects, “I’ve never been a big puncher… How can I put it? I don’t know… If it needed to get tough, I was happy to box a little bit. I was training hard, I was training hard and all that but I’d lost a bit. It wasn’t fire or owt like that, I was always super determined. Just lost a bit of ruthlessness, when it had to get vicious or stuff like that, I lost that.”
Yet to be a world champion you need it. You need to be a ruthless finisher. As his latest world title fight turned and Barroso wilted before him, Crolla knew he had to end it. Becoming good friends with Farrell since that grim night had helped Anthony recover his fighter’s heart. “I didn’t see him for a long time, now me and Kieran are mates. He’s buzzing for me, he’s made up for me,” Anthony notes. “I think it does help. I’ve been up to his gym quite a few times. He’s doing well, seeing him doing well, now I’m pleased, I’m buzzing to see that.”
To win the world title Crolla had restored his edge. With a pinpoint bodyshot he’d rendered the judges redundant to seize the WBA belt and now, as Barroso punched himself out, Crolla saw his challenger was there for the taking. “Third round I’d clipped him with a left hook to the body and he felt it,” Anthony recalls. “Three rounds in I could feel him slowing and slowing, me not giving him a moment to breathe, he was finding it really uncomfortable in there.
“Five, I knew it was a matter of time, then six, I knew it was another 30 seconds I would have stopped him in that round… He thought he’s been knocked out, he was almost ready to go then.”
Crolla held off. It wasn’t compassion, that could wait until after the fight, it was calculation. “I knew, once I come back, the next round that was it. Joe said keep him moving round for a minute, he might have one last sort of hurrah and don’t do anything stupid. I knew it was a matter of time.”
He applied the finishing touches exactly as he’d envisaged, with the crowd at Manchester Arena erupting in delirious joy. “I’m pleased with the performance, I’m made up with the result, I’m made up with the night, everything,” he beams. “In anything there’s always room for improvement, but I’m glad I proved myself against Ismael Barroso.”
“I just want the big fights. I’m still improving. I’ll genuinely fight anyone, whoever Joe, [promoter] Eddie [Hearn], the team, whoever they think that’s a good fight, I’ll fight them. I think I proved that against Barroso,” he continues. “I’d have been a bit of a fraud if I fought for this title, with everything that happened, and gave it up to chase a bit more money, it would be a bit naughty I think. It was fair, [Barroso] was very avoided. That’s my mandatory out the way. Now it’s sitting pretty in a position where I can fight almost any lightweight in the world and they’d be up for it because they know it makes business sense.”
The only way to top that night would be unifying world titles. “I’m looking at some of those unification fights and the most obvious one is Terry Flanagan, being from Manchester, being from up the road,” Anthony says.
The two went to the same school, though there is no real bad blood between them. “I should have taken his dinner money,” Crolla jokes. “The fight with me and him, both Manchester lads, I don’t think it would need too much grudge, bad talk [to sell]… We both know it’s a huge fight and we’ve both got young families. That financially looks after them.
“I think I’ve got a strong, if not the strongest, résumé out of any of them. We’ll see, but I’m open to any of the fights as long as they make business sense. I just want these big nights,” he continues. “Because when I finish boxing I’ll miss it and I know I’ll miss it.”
Boxing can be cruel. But at times it can be beautiful as well. “There is a brutal side to it. In boxing the highs are so high, it’s unbelievable, I think when I won the title, the crowd all cheering, all these people come out to support you, then the lows, the lows can be so, so low,” Anthony says. “When I’d had that loss early in my career I felt like it was the end of the world, I lost my British title near home turf, I boxed like a prat on television, it’s one them. It’s a mad sport and a crazy sport.
“It’s done amazing things for me, it’s been good to me. I know it’s cruel with Kieran and stuff like that, and I had the lows early in my career. Some people would have walked away. I was forgotten about and people were talking in boxing saying I’ll never do anything, I’ll never win a Central Area title never mind doing anything more than that. It gives me satisfaction now that I have. Boxing’s been good to me.”
Crolla’s life just shows that in this sport everything can turn in an instant. “Those people are tuning in to watch me and I’m buzzing. It just seems mad that it’s happening. I came into boxing for two things, it was to win a world title, which was always going to be really tough, and I thought financially if I can get this house paid off, life’s just a bit easier, isn’t it? Life’s just a bit easier. My mum and dad grafted for 30 years. We never went without, don’t get me wrong, we never went without, but it wasn’t the best. My dad’s a postman, my mum works in a supermarket. They did work but they always made sure they took us on a family holiday each year. I was far from spoiled but I never went without,” he says. “It took them 30 years to pay off the mortgage and it’s not like a fancy house. I just thought if I can get it done out of boxing, life’s just a bit easier.”
The dream, a home of his own and a world championship belt, seems at the same time both ordinary and extraordinary. But Crolla’s done it now. And the story’s not even over yet…