Anthony Crolla believes he can defy the odds on Saturday night and claim back the world lightweight title he lost to Jorge Linares six months ago.
Crolla will be roared on by 15,000 fans at the Manchester Arena, having augmented his storied tale in the ring with his heroics outside it, battling back from a fractured skull and broken ankle tackling burglars who were ransacking a neighbour’s house, then going on to claim a world title.
Even then it was at the second attempt, after his first fight with Colombian Darleys Pérez for the World Boxing Association crown was ruled a draw. Controversially so, as Crolla looked a clear winner. Four months later, the 30-year-old finished Pérez off in the fifth round.
Crolla has focused all his malice into a second contest with Linares, a four-time, three-weight world champion who has been happy enough to return to Manchester to defend the belt he took from Crolla on a unanimous points decision, 114-113, 115-113, 117-111, in September.
Crolla will need a special performance after the first showing, when the Venezuelan overpowered him in periods through the contest, hurting him with a versatile armoury, clever footwork and hand speed. The underdog Mancunian will have to box brilliantly in their second encounter – arguably produce the performance of his life. But he has proved his doubters wrong before.
Even Linares himself told The Daily Telegraph that he believes Crolla should have looked elsewhere, rather than at an immediate rematch, suggesting that Terry Flanagan, the World Boxing Organisation champion, also from Manchester, would have been the better option.
“It made sense,” said Linares. “I’m going to be faster, stronger and more intelligent this time. I can tell you there will be no excuses this time.”
The contest with Flanagan would be an easy sell – and could still be, with both men having attended the same school in the suburbs of Manchester, the blue and red of the city’s two major football teams dividing them. But this course is now set. The winner of Crolla-Linares faces the prospect of a unification contest with World Boxing Council champion Mikey Garcia in Las Vegas later this year. The Mexican-American looks to be the best lightweight in the world at present, in spite of a two-year lay-off because of a promotional dispute with promoter Bob Arum.
Returning in January, on the same bill as Carl Frampton’s unsuccessful world title defence against Léo Santa Cruz, Garcia shook off the cobwebs quickly. He looked robust, fast, and dangerous when dealing with renowned puncher Dejan Zlaticanin, ending the night for the man from Montenegro with a brutal uppercut followed by a right hook, which left the defending champion on his back for several minutes and requiring oxygen. It was Garcia’s 30th knockout in an unbeaten 36-fight career.
Crolla, though, is undaunted by any of his rivals. “It’s going to be a huge night – I lost a close fight first time out [against Linares] and learnt a lot from it – but if I win there is the prospect of a Las Vegas trip for my fans and a unification fight,” he said. “Victory over Linares would be the highlight of my career.”
Indeed, the status of the two fighters is being compared to Ricky Hatton’s night of glory against Kostya Tszyu at the same venue in 2005. “Anthony will be considered a ‘British great’ if he wins this fight, and there are parallels with Hatton and Tszyu,” said Joe Gallagher, Crolla’s trainer.
“This is a massive fight for both men, given that the winner is looking at a Garcia fight.”
In another close fight, I see Linares emerging as the winner, by a similar margin.
On the undercard, Katie Taylor, Olympic gold medallist and five-time women’s amateur world champion, makes her fourth appearance since turning professional in late November. Taylor faces the Bulgarian Milena Koleva in an eight-rounder – women’s boxing has two-minute rounds – and could be challenging for a world title “within two or three fights” according to promoter Eddie Hearn.