By Gary Shaw
Anthony ‘Million Dollar’ Crolla upset the odds and defied boxing convention on Saturday night to win the vacant British lightweight title in sensational fashion in his first fight in the 9st 9lbs division.
Making a mockery of pre-fight predictions that the reigning English super-featherweight champion would struggle with the step-up in weight, facing opponent John Watson in his home city of Liverpool, and taking the fight at just two weeks notice, 24-year-old Crolla put on a superlative display of precise pressure boxing from the opening bell to halt the brave Liverpudlian in the ninth round.
Looking calm and relaxed as he entered the ring to a wave of acclaim from his large travelling support, Moston-born Crolla laughed and joked with trainer Joe Gallagher in their corner as the much more focused and determined looking Watson entered to one of his beloved Liverpool FC’s songs, Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire.
The taller, naturally bigger Watson was expected to make much use of his longer reach and the opening spells were dominated by the 27-year-old flicking out his jab in an attempt to back Crolla up with a pre-fight promised high-tempo approach.
It soon became clear however, that Crolla had more resilience at the bigger weight than originally thought and it was this, coupled with his constant pressure boxing that, even at this early stage, began to swing the fight in his favour.
Looking nervous, out of sorts and at times predictable, Watson was finding the accuracy, pace and tactics employed by Crolla difficult to counter and the Mancunian won the first two rounds without taking too much punishment in return. Watson improved in rounds three and four with a number of body shots and uppercuts finding their way through Crolla’s tight guard, but between rounds his trainer, Dave Coldwell, was already exerting the scouser to be more aggressive and adventurous.
The fifth saw Crolla increase the pace of the fight even more but, after a brief stoppage to allow him to recover from an accidental low blow, he was forced to stand and trade in the centre of the ring as Watson enjoyed his best period of the fight so far.
Planting his feet and putting together a number of combinations that backed Crolla up for the first time, Watson looked close to a stoppage victory of his own here but the moment was only fleeting and amazingly Crolla stormed back to apply significant pressure of his own. Both sets of supporters applauded their fighters’ efforts at the end of this round.
Looking to capitalize on his good showing in the previous round, Crolla staggered Watson with a right hand and then an uppercut early in the sixth, forcing the home fighter to hold. To his credit the Liverpudlian, making his second attempt at winning the title following an earlier loss against Welshman Gavin Rees in November, saw the round out despite the Mancunian’s onslaught.
Both fighters seemed content to take a breather in the seventh, a round that although it didn’t contain as much action as the previous six, saw Crolla continue to beat the taller man to the jab and he connected with Watson’s head far too many times for Coldwell’s liking. Knowing he was behind on the scorecards, Watson tried to take the fight to Crolla in the eighth but, leaving his defense wide-open, it was Crolla, looking immensely strong at the weight, who appeared to be an imminent winner.
Amazingly, and with both sets of supporters on their feet, Watson staged a comeback of sorts mid-round, catching his opponent with a number of unanswered heavy shots. As he had done previously however, the busy Crolla responded with an attack of his own at the end of the round that almost stopped Watson in his own corner.
It appeared a matter of when, not if, the Mancunian would force the stoppage his speed, strength and skills had warranted since the first bell, and in the ninth round, with his guard still high and tight, he caught an exhausted Watson high on the temple with an overhand right.
Later described by coach Gallagher as, “a south-paw right hand,” that they had practiced in training, the punch floored Watson with 2.35 on the clock. Such was its impact that referee Richie Davies had no hesitation in foregoing the count and waving the fight over immediately.
Amid wild celebrations by his supporters at ringside, it was to Crolla’s credit that, seeing the doctor rushed in to the ring by fight officials and Watson’s corner alike, he declined to celebrate with them, gesturing to them instead to be more muted in light of Watson’s state. For a few moments the scene was one of concern as the stricken Liverpudlian was given oxygen by the medical team and it was a few minutes before the brave 27-year-old was sitting upright in a neutral corner. He was taken to hospital for observation soon after.
Afterwards, an ecstatic Crolla was delighted at winning the Lonsdale belt but also paid credit to his opponent’s bravery and his coach’s tactics in overcoming the odds. “John Watson is a brave fighter,” he said, “but we saw things that we could capitalize on. We knew the southpaw right hook was the shot that was going to beat John Watson. I’ve wanted to win a Lonsdale belt ever since I got into boxing, ever since I was a schoolboy. I’m so, so happy.”
Saying he was privileged to work with boxers as talented as Crolla, Gallagher responded to queries regarding any magic formula or secrets he may have that have contributed to his fantastic record as a trainer. “Hard work, dedication and desire, that’s all it is,” he said. “Anthony deserves success. He’s an old-time fighter in the modern era. Always in the gym. Always fit. That’s a lesson for all youngsters, all prospects who are turning over now. You’ve always got to be in the gym and be in shape.”
Not only does the result herald a new British lightweight champion and the emergence of a new talent on the domestic front, it also underlines coach Joe Gallagher’s gym in Denton as one of the finest in the country. Crolla’s victory here was the 42nd in a row by a Gallagher fighter – a winning streak stretching back almost four years. No wonder a host of highly ranked British stars are beating a path to his door.
Earlier in the evening Wallasey’s Steve Williams, having his first fight since losing to Londoner Lenny Daws in a tilt for the British light-welterweight title in September, stopped Motherwell’s Paul ‘Charlie’ King in the second of a scheduled eight-rounder.
A looping right hook caught the over-powered Scotsman in the closing stages of the round and, visibly shaken with legs wobbling and his hands by his sides, Williams showed remarkable mercy to pause and glance at the referee, before the official stepped in to wave the fight over with King in no position to defend himself.
Williams’ actions surely saved King from even further punishment.