Wayne Crolla was an OK fighter. A staple of North England fight nights during Britain’s turbulent early 1980s, Crolla satisfied his region’s fans for a night or two before retiring in 1986 with a 16-12 record. In April 2008, inside a heaving Bolton Arena, Wayne sat ringside as his son, Anthony, lost for the first time as a professional against a Brit-based Syrian named Youssef Al Hamidi. It appeared likely that the man nicknamed “Million Dollar” was on course to become another OK fighter.
This Saturday, at the Manchester Arena, a venue where a young Anthony had screamed gleefully for Ricky Hatton, Crolla will take part in the final the fight of a career that has been anything but ordinary. After Hamidi, there would be multiple setbacks—in and out of the ring—but despite the industry of Gary Sykes, the viciousness of Derry Mathews, and the cowardice of a slab-wielding burglary gang, Crolla reached a place that no one forecast for him. It was a remarkable journey, and the type of story that would draw approval from the most morbid cynics who diminish boxing daily from the comfort of their Twitter accounts.
“If Anthony has a title, then that means he has something to defend,” Joe Gallagher, Crolla’s trainer, once said. Gallagher was a desperate man the night Crolla and Kieran Farrell were scrapping for Manchester bragging rights during the winter of 2012. The previous eleven months were torrid for Crolla, who entered the year as a rejuvenated British champion with impressive wins over John Watson and Willie Limond. On April 21, 2012, Derry Mathews, a major underdog, had ripped his Lonsdale lightweight belt from him, and Sykes piled on more misery during the Prizefighter tournament in October 2012. Farrell was nowhere near Crolla’s radar when the year started, but he was now the most important opponent on his record as he chased a belt that would emphasize his purpose.
Crolla’s wide decision win over Farrell provided a platform for him to resume his career in front of the Sky Sports cameras that every British fighter craves. A draw in a rematch with Mathews in March 2013 was fair, but wins over Gavin Rees, a former world champion, and his former stablemate, John Murray, catapulted Crolla up the rankings. Now a lucrative portion of Eddie Hearn’s expanding Matchroom squad, Crolla’s warm personality, radiant grin, and huge popularity ticked critical boxes for the Essex promoter, but a disturbing incident away from boxing almost ended things much sooner than anticipated.
“Knowing that your career could be over and there’s nothing you can do about is a frightening thought,” Crolla once told me. In December 2014, Crolla disrupted two thieves during a Christmas break-in, and his bravery was punished with a spiteful pasting that left him hospitalized for a lengthy period. Recovery replaced boxing as his central priority, but once he healed, boxing had a pleasant surprise for him when he returned in July 2015: Darleys Perez and his WBA lightweight crown.
Following a grueling battle that twisted more frequently than a typical Crolla showdown, eagle-eyed spectators close to the ringside judges informed those in floor seats that the fight was a draw even before the ring announcer confirmed the disheartening news. Most believed that Crolla had done enough, but he left nothing to chance five months later when, at the same Manchester venue he had cheered on those who were paving the way for him, he became world champion with a well-placed body shot in the fifth-round.
With success beyond his wildest imagination obtained against Perez, Crolla perhaps peaked at this moment. His time on top was played out against several quality opponents. Jorge Linares, a master with flawless offensive technique, visited Manchester in September 2016 and took from Crolla his recently acquired belt. A return the following year followed a similar pattern and, with it, Crolla’s run had come to a sudden end. Wins over Ricky Burns and Duad Yordan led to Vasyl Lomachenko, but his trip to Los Angeles earlier this year was a painful experience as Lomachenko’s wizardry overwhelmed Crolla in four rounds. Crolla knew the end was approaching.
In a sport often afflicted with series of maladies, anything Crolla did in boxing was typically beautiful. From his days winning amateur titles at Fox ABC—a club where he still offers his valuable wisdom—to finding his professional feet with former light-middleweight star Anthony Farnell, and then going all the way with current coach and father figure, Joe Gallagher, Crolla has done it all in boxing with a smile on his face. Boxing can be the worst of sports, a derelict house in a bad neighborhood, but when Crolla occupied it, boxing was a happy home.