Local hero Anthony Crolla fell to a second defeat in succession to his Venezuelan nemesis Jorge Linares in front of 15,000 adoring fans here on Saturday night and in spite of a gutful of courage and refusing to relent, the defending WBA lightweight champion returns with promoter Oscar De La Hoya to the United States. A unification contest with WBC champion Mikey Garcia is now the most likely option.
Repeat or revenge, the fight night had been billed, but this was a repeat on a scale Linares had insisted he would show.
It was sheer class from the 31-year-old, four-time, three weight world champion, and sheer grit from Crolla who never yielded under a hail of punches, uppercuts and combinations over the championship distance.
"What balls Crolla has," said Linares, who took the title from the Mancunian here six months ago. All three judges scored the fight 118-109. That was fair enough.
Linares' boxing skills were classy, as was the determination of the challenger, a folk figure in these parts for tackling burglars two years ago and fracturing his skull in the process.
The first and the eighth rounds were close, but Crolla was felled by a glancing uppercut which took his legs away in delayed fashion to his brain in the seventh as Linares landed with pinpoint accuracy.
For most of the rest of the contest, in spite of home fighter's come-forward belligerence, the champion had another gear, and a wider armoury. At every turn, Crolla was met with stinging replies, and reposit attacks.
Linares used clever angles and footwork in the first three rounds as Crolla looked to step inside and target the body. But as soon as the Mancunian had any success of his own up close, the Venezuelan fired back stopping the 30-year-old Manchester fighter in his tracks, so relaxed and on his game was the defending champion.
It set a pattern for the fight, from which Linares never budged. If styles make fights, this was made for Linares once more, and by the midway point, unable to wear out his opponent, Crolla had to throw caution to the wind, and was caught by a glancing left uppercut which crumpled Crolla, who was up at referee Howard Foster's count of eight.
Huge, arcing uppercuts followed as Linares took Crolla to the ropes, but the resilient former world champion was not broken, refused to buckle, and went back to his corner.
The intensity increased in the eighth, as the pair looked for power but Linares' speed was still there as Crolla's desperate punches seemed to just bounced off him. And so it played to the end. Ultimately a masterclass from Linares, who later said that he would favour a fight with Garcia, although his promoter Oscar De La Hoya told Telegraph Sport that a fight with WBO champion Terry Flanagan, also from Manchester, would not be ruled out.
"The better man won tonight, I'll go away and regroup and come back, thanks to all the fans for the support," said Crolla afterwards.
Earlier Katie Taylor, Olympic gold medallist and five time women's amateur world champion, won her fourth professional contest with a shutout 80-72 decision over eight two-minute rounds against Milena Koleva. Taylor did not have it all her own way bit came close to stopping the game Bulgarian. Taylor could be challenging for a world title "within two or three fights" according to promoter Eddie Hearn.
An emotional Crolla speaks
Jorge Linares is a great fighter and champion and he proved it again tonight. Manchester, I'm so sorry I couldn't do it for you. The way you turn out time after time, it means so much to me.
He caught me with a great shot that put me over. He moved very well and I got beat by the better man. No excuses. He's a fantastic fighter.
I'm 30 years old and I'm just going to rest. I've had some tough fights but I believe I can come again. I lost to a tough fighter tonight. Going into this I was better than ever but I lost to the better man. No excuses whatsoever.
Speaking through a translator, Linares says Crolla has "big balls" for lasting the 12 rounds tonight. Plenty of thanks to the team and to the Manchester crowd.
The two fighters embrace and they both know the result before it's announced. So much guts and determination from Crolla, but Linares looked something special tonight.
The judges' scores are in: 118-109, 118-109, 118-109. A comprehensive Linares victory
Frustration for Crolla and things looked tough for him as he took a fair bit of punishment in the last minute of Round 11. Can he at least ensure this fight goes the distance? Linares, unfazed as he has been throughout, doesn't need to risk anything big and he looks content to see this one through. What a display this has been by the Venezuelan. A masterclass.
The only way Crolla can win this fight is with a knockout, but can he land the killer blow? The class of Linares is making it so hard and the reigning champion slips under a couple of hooks. There's just nothing Crolla can do. Linares almost takes him off his feet with another huge right upper cut.
You have to think that it's too late for Crolla to win this on points. Surely he can't pull a knockout from somewhere can he? To even still be in this fight is so impressive after Linares's efforts in the first half. Linares is upping his work rate now, unleashing a couple of combinations. Crolla continues to catch his opponent though and it's another even round. The crucial factor is that Linares is not really being troubled by anything Crolla is throwing.
Was that round just one hurrah from Crolla or can he sustain it? Is Linares looking tired? Crolla is turning this into more of a slugfest and it's working for him, pulling Linares around and he lands a big right hand on the Venezuelan. Great stuff, but back comes Linares. This is a cracking fight. It really is. Blood is pouring from Crolla's face and that was an even round, perhaps Crolla edged it.
That was a brutal blow last round from Linares and Crolla did well to get back on his feet. He momentarily looked to be out of it. Crolla seems to have shaken it off now though and is coming at Linares, landing a few body shots as he pushes his opponent from corner to corner. This is a fine round for the British fighter and the crowd are finding their voice again, willing him on. Crolla is dictating the centre of the ring and that has to be his round! Who would have predicted that?!?
Linares is smiling as he slips and slides his way out of trouble. Crolla is certainly trying to get in close, but it's the same old story.... and Crolla is floored!!!
Linares completely shocks the home fighter with a huge left upper cut that comes from nowhere and floors him. Crolla beats the count, but his legs have gone haven't they? No they haven't! What bravery from Crolla. He survives to see another round.
Even when Crolla gets Linares back on the ropes, he cannot land anything. The Venezuelan is so smart at ducking and slipping his way out of trouble before getting straight back on the offensive. Linares lands yet another upper cut and then a big right hand. He's cut Crolla's left eye and the blood is starting to flow. Linares is another level with his combination punches. What on earth can Crolla do?
This is really hard for Crolla. He's working so hard, but Linares seems to have an extra gear, landing a strong left upper cut and slipping anything that's thrown at him. Another Linares left hook to the body thuds into Crolla's midriff and the Manchester fighter can't get close enough to do any damage. It's not for lack of trying. Big punches coming from Linares, with speed to boot. What a round from the visiting champion.
It seems to be a clear tactic of Crolla's to target the body and he's not doing a bad job. The trouble is Linares's hand speed, not to mention his rock-solid defence and head movement. He's a classy operator and looks totally untroubled as he keeps Crolla at bay with some phenomenally quick punches. Crolla half-lands a left hand but there is no damage caused. Surely another round for Linares.
Crolla is still trying to get in close and go for Linares's body, as the referee steps in and tells him to keep the punches up. He's aware that Linares has the speed and power though, and the Venezuelan lands flush with an upper cut. Every time Crolla comes in, he knows he is giving Linares every chance of doing some damage. Both fighters exchange upper cuts, but that must be the visitor's round.
That was a close opening round. Carl Froch on commentary thinks Crolla edged it, but there wasn't anything in it. Crolla seems keen to get in close to Linares and target the Venezuelan's body. Linares throws a couple of good overhand rights to ensure everyone is in no doubt that he has some big punches in his locker.
Linares, black shorts (and black socks almost up to his knees football-style), begins by poking the jab repeatedly in the direction of the white-shorted (and white-shoed) Crolla. The crowd is singing loudly for the home favourite, who ducks under a Linares jab and lands a decent body shot with the left. Not a lot happening in this opening round, but Linares finishes with some smart body work as he lets his fast hands fly.
Huge cheers echo around the Manchester Arena as Crolla is announced to the crowd, who then give the customary boos to the reigning WBA world champion Linares.
Let's get this thing under way...
Linares opts for a bit of Eminem's Without Me - "Guess who's back, back again" - that slips into some AC/DC.
Here comes Crolla... to a strange acoustic version of Adele's Hometown Glory that then turns into Whitney Houston's Million Dollar Bill. He looks comfortable and confident in front of his home crowd.
'A sparring contest'
Johnny Nelson and Tony Bellew were not at all impressed with that fight from ringside, with the latter calling it "a sparring contest". It is done and dusted now, so we can move on to the main event: Crolla v Linares.
Arnfield takes it
It's a unanimous decision! Arnfield has it with the judges scoring it: 115-113, 115-113, 116-112. I'm very surprised by that and Rose, who had been celebrating at the bell, is as well.
Your guess is as good as mine. Rose came back well in the final couple of rounds and may well have done enough to claim it. It could go one of three ways, with Arnfield win, Rose win and draw all live possibilities.
Ten rounds in now and Arnfield has grown with every minute. There is a spring in the younger man's step and the feeling is that he will go on to win this after a sluggish start that saw Rose take the first few rounds. Two more remaining.
You can't help but get the feeling that everyone inside the Manchester Arena just wants this fight to end and get to the main event. It's not been a thriller.
The clock is ticking down until Crolla v Linares and the home favourite has been getting up to speed with some work in his dressing room. We'll be going round-by-round for that fight, which follows this one between Arnfield and Rose.
It has taken a while, but Arnfield has begun to get to work, using his jab well and moving Rose around the ring. It's a close-run thing though and there has been little to choose between them in these opening seven rounds.
Fun and games
Our man Gareth A Davies is ringside tonight and it seems he's been letting his hair down:
We are a third of the way through this fight and it has not quite caught fire yet. Rose settled a little better and dictated the early rounds with his jab, but Arnfield (who is the man in possession of the WBA international middleweight title) started to grow as the fourth went on. Little to choose between the Blackpool duo.
The weigh-in was more exciting than the fight so far.
The action continues
Next up is the fight between Brian Rose (29-4-1) and Jack Arnfield (23-2), who were gym mates but have put their friendship aside to battle it out for the WBA international middleweight championship.
The two Blackpool fighters have already come close to blows this week when this happened at the weigh-in...
World title aspirations
Some words from Taylor:
We're trying to progress fast. That was a great contest for me against a very strong opponent. That was a great fight for me and all credit to her. She gave it everything she had.
Hopefully in two or three fights I hope to challenge for a world title. I definitely feel ready now. It's an honour to be here.
Taylor wins 80-72. Simple enough. Undefeated in four professional fights.
Taylor's first eight-rounder of her career and it has been an utterly dominant performance. She had been looking to finish things inside the distance and stuck Koleva on the floor in the seventh round, but the Bulgarian showed guts to last the distance. The win, though, will be going to the Irishwoman.
Halfway through this eight-round fight and Taylor is well on top of her opponent. The speed behind her combinations is just too much for Koleva and there should only be one result here, regardless of whether there is a stoppage or not.
This was Taylor before she came out and she has taken that speed into the ring:
Crolla out for revenge
Anthony Crolla has just said a few words to Sky Sports from his changing room:
I certainly believe it will be revenge. I've gone away, trained hard and smart, and made the improvements. I'll take those into the ring tonight and I believe I'll get my belts back in front of this Manchester crowd.
It's hard to put into words what has been a rollercoaster of a career. This would be the pinnacle, beating a great fighter like Jorge Linares.
Next up is Katie Taylor, the London 2012 champion who is up against Bulgarian Milena Koleva. Will it be a fourth pro win for the Irishwoman?
Welborn takes the victory over Morrison, with the judges scoring it 96-93, 96-93, 97-92.
Well he's managed to survive the 10 rounds, but there is surely no way Morrison is going to avoid defeat here. We'll go to the judges and, my word, Morrison is going to be in some serious pain tomorrow. His face is a mess. Claret all over the place.
On we go
Blood is pouring from Morrison's nose, but he's hanging on in there as Welborn continues to throw a barrage at his opponent. Eight rounds have gone in this 10-round contest and Morrison (who dominated the first couple of rounds) looks to be staring at a first professional defeat.
The second televised fight is already into the seventh of 10 rounds and there may well be an upset on the cards.
Marcus Morrison's career has only gone in one direction since his professional debut in September 2014, with 14 wins and no defeats. He was expected to see off the more experienced Jason Welborn tonight in their middleweight contest, but Welborn has just unloaded on the 24-year-old and this may not last much longer...
The ringwalk for the big fight of the night is expected to take place at around 10/10.30pm, but the action has been under way for some time at the Manchester Arena.
Here are the four undercard fights on Sky Sports tonight, working from bottom to top:
The first televised fight is done and dusted, with Martin J Ward successfully defending his British super-featherweight title against Maxi Hughes with a 116-112, 118-111, 116-113 points decision.
Let's all get behind @ant_crolla cmon lets have it! ����— Kell Brook (@SpecialKBrook) March 25, 2017
If you don't know Crolla's recent history, I suggest you start with this interview here from January 2015. Just over two years ago, Crolla came close to not only losing his career but also his life when he was hit over the head with a slab of concrete.
Below is a snippet from that interview, but I do recommend you click the link above and read the whole thing.
Anthony Crolla has never swerved physical confrontation, which explains why at 5ft 9in and nine and a half stone he was due to fight for a world title later this month.
But most of his fights do not involve opponents lurking in alleyways holding slabs of concrete. So when three weeks ago Crolla ran from his Oldham home in pursuit of two men who had burgled his neighbour, it not only cost him the world title fight he had dreamed of since childhood, it nearly cost him his life.
The lightweight boxer, 28, known as ‘Million Dollar’ Crolla, who had been scheduled to fight for a world title on Jan 23, suffered a fractured skull and broke an ankle in two places as he chased the two intruders in north Manchester.
Crolla heard the burglar alarm going off, rang his neighbour in Chadderton and then went around there. “They were coming out as I arrived and I chased them, cornered them, and as they tried to clamber over a brick wall one of them dislodged a concrete slab on the top of it, and the other one hit me with it,” he told Telegraph Sport.
“I’m very fortunate that I’m still here. If the slab had hit me a few inches either side, or even if I was someone not used to taking blows to the head, it could have been a lot worse. The doctors said straight away how lucky I was. You don’t feel very lucky at the time.”
Hello and welcome to Crolla v Linares II. You'll need no reminding of what is at stake tonight.
Crolla had to relinquish his WBA world lightweight title after a unanimous points defeat against the Venezuelan last September and his mind has been firmly on getting his hands back on the belt ever since.
Can he do it? Well, he goes into this rematch as the underdog - a position he says he thrives on. The bookies have Linares as the marginal favourite to retain his title tonight.
What is it?
This the rematch between Anthony Crolla and Jorge Linares, with the British fighter looking to reclaim the WBA world lightweight title after losing it to his Venezuelan opponent back in September. Linares's WBC Diamond and Ring Magazine titles are also on the line.
When and where is it?
The fight will take place at the Manchester Arena on Saturday March 25.
What time is it?
The bout should take place at approximately 10pm GMT, with the undercard fights starting a few hours beforehand.
What TV channel is it on?
The fight will be shown on Sky Sports HD1 with the programme beginning at 7pm to take in much of the build-up and undercard. Your other option is to stay right here where this page will turn into our live blog from around 8pm.
What is the story behind both fighters?
2015 was an extraordinary year for Anthony Crolla, who became WBA lightweight world champion just 11 months after suffering a fractured skull and ankle when tackling burglars at a neighbour's home in Manchester. He was hit over the head with a concrete slab, but made a full recovery and completed his recovery with victory over Darleys Perez.
The first defence of his WBA title saw a knockout win over Ismael Barroso, before losing on points to Linares at the Manchester Arena last September, with the three judges scoring the fight 115-114, 117-111 and 115-113 in favour of the Venezuelan.
Linares had previously beaten Britain's Kevin Mitchell at the O2 Arena, London and goes into this rematch unbeaten since March 2012. He has held world titles at three weights.
What have they been saying?
Crolla insists he has made crucial adjustments after defeat when the two fighters met last year: "Obviously, I'm not going to give too much away, but we have to be smarter in the ring.
"We have quickened things up a little bit, and there are certain shots there that we feel we didn't capitalise on last time and plan on doing it this time.
"I'm very much more business-minded. My head is just totally on the job.
"I am always confident and believe in myself, and the harder and smarter you train, the more confident you get.
"It could be another long fight - I've prepared for 12 hard rounds as always. But whether it is a points decision or not, I believe it is a different result this time."
He added: "I don't mind people saying I've overachieved. I get the best out of what I've got.
"There has always been a lot of money won on me when I've been underdog and I look forward to that again on Saturday."
Linares has warned Crolla that he is targeting a more convincing win this time.
"He knows he has had to work harder in order to get back what he feels is his," he said. "But the only problem is I have come even better prepared as well.
"I'm coming in and doing whatever is necessary to win more convincingly than I did in September. I think this will be a faster-paced fight, and I'm ready for whatever comes.
"A fighter has to prepare themselves for the long run, and if the knockout (opportunity) comes, I'm ready for that too. I will go for it, but the most important thing is that after the fight, my hand is raised as the victor."
What are the betting odds?
Anthony Crolla win - 7/4 Jorge Linares win - 1/2 Draw - 20/1