LAST year, the story around Anthony Crolla was about how he returned from serious injuries sustained while trying to prevent a burglary to win a world title.
He was hospitalised after two thugs, who were fleeing from Crolla’s neighbour’s house, which they had just ransacked, dropped a concrete slab on Anthony’s head.
It cost him a world title shot at Richar Abril and almost ended his career.
However he recovered, defying the doctors who ruled out a future in the ring, and his promoter Eddie Hearn managed to earn him a crack at Darleys Perez, who had inherited the WBA belt.
Crolla turned in the performance of his career to date on an emotional July night in Manchester, only for the fight to be scored a draw.
He was granted an immediate rematch and rendered the judges useless with a career-turning left hook to the liver, folding Perez in half and snatching his crown. It was, and still is, an inspiring story, one which should have earned Crolla a place on the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year shortlist, though he was wrongfully snubbed.
Crolla still crossed over into the mainstream consciousness, charming UK sports fans with his unwavering kindness and pearly smile. But the narrative this year is quite different.
On Saturday, Crolla dwarfed his performances against Perez by knocking Ismael Barroso out in seven engrossing rounds. The sunken-cheeked Venezuelan was a pre-fight favourite, mainly due to his five-round demolition of Kevin Mitchell in December, which sent the Dagenham puncher into retirement.
That win turned the fairly inactive, relatively unknown power-puncher into the division’s danger man, and most felt Crolla was in for a tough first defence of the title he had overcome so much for.
“It was just fuel to the fire. It’s rare you get a champion who’s underdog, especially in his first defence but I’ve said it before, time and time again when I’ve been underdog it’s worked for me,” Crolla said after the fight.
“I don’t think I should have been the underdog, but it motivates me.”
He may have to look for motivation elsewhere now, as he’s unlikely to enter as underdog against any other lightweight in the world now.
Of course, like the title he was defending, the victory never came easy for Crolla.
After three fairly one-sided rounds it looked as though Barroso was overwhelming Crolla, whose face had already begun to mark up after the opening session.
The visitor was dissecting Crolla from his southpaw stance, all but silencing the fiercely loyal Manchester crowd. There was more going on that met the eye, however.
“I enjoyed it, I could feel him, shot by shot, more and more was coming out of him. I could see he was getting frustrated,” Crolla said of his mindset in those early stages.
“I didn’t feel like I got hit that much [laughs]. I know how to stick to a plan, Joe [Gallagher, his trainer] always says that.
“I felt round by round, I was getting more into it. It was in the second or third, I clipped him with a left hook and I knew he felt it. It was only half a shot really, skimmed off him, so I knew if I started landing more body shots it was only a matter of time.”
Barroso showed slight signs of tiring in the fourth before Crolla really brought himself back into things in the fifth. The sixth round was electric, Crolla imposing himself on a wilting Barroso, who looked at his corner for some sort of help. It didn’t come.
They sent him out for the seventh, during which Crolla slammed in a right hook to – you guessed it – the body, and Barroso crumbled. He was on his knees, once again staring at his bemused corner while what seemed like the whole of Manchester went bonkers outside of the ring. Referee Howard Foster reached a count of ‘10’ and pandemonium ensued.
“Unbelievable,” was how Crolla summed up the atmosphere.
“That crowd, they get behind me and I appreciate each and every one of them. I think it’ll just grow and grow now, I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
Crolla, still an amateur at the time, was in the crowd for Joe Calzaghe’s masterful 2006 dissection of Jeff Lacy in the Manchester Arena (the known as the M.E.N Arena). He was awe-struck that night, and turned over seven months later. Little did he know he would whip the same venue into a frenzy with an outstanding win over another highly-touted import.
When the dust settled and the giddy fans strode into the balmy Manchester night, chanting Crolla’s name, it became clear that the 29-year-old had announced himself as one of the best lightweights in the world. No longer is he just the plucky nice guy who produced last year’s feel good comeback tale.
He is the fighter who has gone from losing to Gary Sykes in Prizefighter and warring with Kieran Farrell for the English title in 2012 to becoming a division leader. The transition has been astonishing and you would struggle to find a more improved fighter in the UK.
Crolla, naturally, should take a hefty chunk of the praise but credit should also go to Gallagher, whose game plan for Barroso was wondrous and he has helped mould Crolla into the accomplished, cute boxer-puncher he is today.
So now the challenge for Crolla, and his team, is to attempt to prove him as the best at 135lbs – and that means fights with the likes of Jorge Linares and Terry Flanagan. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be able to pick any one of them over the others – they’re all terrific fighters and it makes for an exciting mixing pot.