It’s a fact. British boxing is booming.
For the the last few years British fans have been treated to big fights that have asked “David and Goliath-esque” questions of the nation’s creme-de-la-creme pugilists.
For example, the question was asked if outspoken and talented heavyweight, Tyson Fury, could pull off an upset abroad and surmount a Vladamir Klitchko who had made 20 odd defences and hadn’t been beaten in almost 10 years.
The answer was yes.
Highly touted heavyweight prospect, Anthony Joshua, was questioned on whether he had sufficient experience and the skills needed, at that particular stage in his career, to win the heavyweight championship and defend it.
The answer was yes.
Northern Ireland’s masterful boxer, Carl Frampton, was questioned on whether he had the tools to go to the U.S. and defeat the highly respected and favorite in that fight, Leo Santa Cruz, in order to win a title in a second weight class.
The answer was yes.
Olympic silver medalist and “speedster”, Amir Khan, asked the question if it was possible to jump two-weight divisions from welterweight to middleweight to defeat one of the best boxers gracing the division in Saul “Canelo” Alvarez.
This time around the answer was no.
The highly talented(and avoided), Kell Brook, also asked a similar question as his fellow countryman and domestic rival if he too could also move up 2 weight divisions from welterweight and defeat not only the top middleweight out there, but also arguably the top pound-for-pound fighter on the planet.
The answer, similar to his welterweight nemesis Khan, was no.
And just recently, Liverpudlian light-middleweight, Liam Smith, asked the question if his skills were enough at this stage in his career to be able to “mix it” at elite level by also challenging Canelo.
The answer was no.
This weekend’s upcoming bout will prove no different than any of the aforementioned match-ups(and the numerous others, which I haven’t mentioned for the sake of brevity more than anything else) when asking a similar “million dollar” question of one of the country’s best in the sport: namely does Anthony “Million Dollar” Crolla have what it takes to not only be considered the best lightweight out there, but does the Mancunian battler have what it takes to compete at the elite level when he faces the hardest fight of his career in defending his WBA world lightweight championship on Saturday at the Manchester Arena?
Crolla’s “acid test” this weekend comes in the form of Venezualian, Jorge Linares(also known as ‘El Nino De Oro(The Golden Boy)’, a highly talented and athletic multi-weight world champion who has extensive international experience having left home and a ‘boxing family’ behind at the tender age of 15 to “curiously” start a fight career in Japan.
A path, that as curious as it sounds, allowed him to escape the crushing poverty that exists in his native land and for the talented south american to have a chance to participate in boxing bouts in not only his adopted homeland of the ‘Rising Sun’, but to progress with his career in the U.S., Mexico and the UK at varying levels in the sport and an opportunity to work under some of the best defensive and offensive minded boxing trainers in the world, including the highly respected Ken Adams and Freddie Roach, leading to numerous awards and belts in different weight divisions.
You could say that Linares has earned his stripes the hard-way.
Crolla, in retrospect, has also done it the hard-way(albeit a bit differently from his Venezuelan counterpart) having overcome setbacks in his career at domestic level and “defeating” some notable British opposition in his ascendancy that have graced UK screens over the years, such as Gavin Rees and John Murray.
But perhaps the biggest setback of his life occurred out of the ring when he came to the aid of his neighbors who were being burgled and ended up in an altercation that saw a concrete slab smashed over his head and a subsequent CT scan at his local hospital to determine the extent of the injury inflicted and the fate of his boxing career. As it transpired, it wasn’t just his career that could have been on-the-line, he was also lucky to escape with his life, as had that “slab” made contact on his head at a different angle we might not have had the opportunity to watch this fight at the weekend.
Outside the ring – Crolla like Linares, comes across as down-to-earth, amiable and approachable with both possessing facial appearances that belie their some 80-odd combined fight record and the wars that have came with it.
There’s no pretence, flash or controversy with these two. Just a couple of honest pros willing to put it on the line for top honors.
Inside the ring they are different. Both fighters possess distinct qualities with the Venezuelan edging out his British adversary on speed, experience and skill.
When it comes to pure boxing, i.e. hit-and-not-be-hit, the south american, when he’s on point, can be bedazzling and almost flawless; working behind a sharp stinging jab while moving around the ring with the balance of “tightrope artist”, drawing leads out of his opponent to evade and countering with his own blistering combinations in conjunction with little flashy single shots thrown here and there that express his superior level of dominance, such as the “cheeky” lead uppercut whilst pivoting to the left that he likes to exhibit from time to time.
Linares can also box effectively on the offensive and possesses respectful punching power that has saw him fell 27 of his 40 victims by K.O. on his resume.
For me, the best of Jorge Linares comes out when he boxes on the backfoot, as this seems to be a more natural fit for his style. Sometimes when he decides to press offensively it can seem a bit laboured or forced depending on who he is fighting.
Linares as good as he is, also possesses flaws and can be a bit of a hit-and-miss: at times looking like a pound-for-pound legend in the making, while other times looking ordinary, lackluster and struggling in some cases to find his range and timing. He also has a tendency to get dragged needlessly into wars, and in some fights he didn’t appear to follow the instructions of his corner which has maybe caused him to make bad decisions in some of his bouts.
Where Crolla falls short, vis-a-vis the mesmerizing skills and craftsmanship of the south american boxing maestro, he makes up for it in other areas.
Crolla’s game is one of attrition, determination and sheer will. And in comparison to his opponent is more workman like. Relying on hurtful spearing jabs that he steps in with behind a high-held guard to set-up up his combinations and energy sapping body-shots. In addition, he can also box when he wants to and possesses good footwork that allows for him to dart-in-and-out of range or to use his legs to get out of trouble, which is also aided by a spartan level of fitness that provides him with options to vary the pace or press the action.
With-that-said, Crolla can also be a bit predictable and sometimes a bit too content to soak up his opponents punches behind his high-held guard.
As was witnessed in his fight against Ismael Barosa, where his “hard hitting” opponent had some early success penetrating through his defence, but eventually became unstuck and ran-out-of-gas mainly due to the pace and relentless determination of the man that was in front of him that night.
It would be interesting to see if the “Million Dollar” man could sustain that type of defence and strategy against someone with good accuracy, who punches hard and is prepared to go the distance?
A question that might be answered in this upcoming match-up?
Other suspect areas of the tough Mancunian’s game, is that he sometimes lacks side-to-side head movement and can be a bit “static” in this area at times.
Both men are warriors and have shown in the past that they are willing to bite down and slug it out in the “eye of the storm” if they have to.
And both men have also shown the ability to switch their style of fighting from offence to defence, which, in my opinion, is what makes this bout so intriguing….
They have also been stopped and cut in fights which also adds an extra aspect to the intrigue.
For me, the outcome of this fight depends on a number of factors: mainly what style and tactic each man chooses to deploy on the night and also what kind of Jorge Linares makes an appearance.
If the ‘Golden Boy’ comes into this bout as we expect him and fights the way he did against Antonio DeMarco for the first half of that fight, i.e. on his toes and boxing with blisteringly fast, sharp and accurate counter-punching and Crolla comes out pressing the action(much the same way he did against Barosa), then I can see Linares outclassing his Manchester based opponent and possibly winning by a late stoppage or a U.D., provided he sticks to that game-plan and doesn’t get dragged into any unnecessary wars, only engaging head-on with his adversary when opportune or congenial.
However, if Linares comes into this fight on the front foot and Crolla deploys the same tactics as he did against Derry Mathews in their rematch, i.e. cognisant and wary of his opponents power and capability to hurt him and utilizing cautious boxing skills early on, with the intent to tire and draw steam out of his opponent’s punches in order to come on strong late with his own offence, then I believe the Million Dollar man has a chance to win on a U.D. or even late stoppage, especially if ‘El Nino De Oro’ is having an off night or struggles to find his range and distance as he has sometimes shown in the past.
In recent interviews with both camps, Linares’s fight with Kevin Mitchell has been mentioned more so than other bouts. Although Mitchell came up short in that fight, Crolla mentioned the successes the crafty now retired londoner had in that particular bout, by boxing cautiously at the start then slowly coming in to the fight around the mid-range and later rounds, scoring a knockdown en-route against the talented Venezuelan who appeared to struggle with his range and timing at periods in the fight and who had also maybe underestimated his opponent to boot?
Based on this, it seems that the Gallagher camp may try to emulate Mitchell’s tactics by aiming for their man to box or stay out of range of their opponent early on with that darting leg movement that their man can employ, then to come on mid fight or later where his(Crolla’s) fitness and durability will excel and where Linares may have slowed down and whose power may have diminished.
The patience, determination, and fitness of the Mancunian battler cannot be underestimated here as those are exactly the sort of attributes that could unravel Linares, as was adumbrated in the DeMarco fight where the aggressive Mexican started off badly, but through sheer determination and will managed to claw his way back into the fight and win it(keeping in mind that this was admittedly due to cuts).
Interestingly, the Linares camp also referred to the Mitchell bout, but seemed to focus on the knockdown and how Jorge “managed” to come off the floor to win.
I am unsure whether this was just encouragement for Linares’s ears and possibly indicates that the fight with Mitchell may have given birth to some psychological frailty? Or was just a thinly veiled reminder to the Crolla camp on the Venezuelan’s mental strength when having to dig deep in the trenches?
Again, for me, the outcome of this fight depends on what Jorge Linares we get and his level of fitness.
If Crolla wins on Saturday, he will retain his WBA championship and also win a new belt in the form of the “Diamond championship” which will solidify his standing as the best lightweight in the division and more importantly he will also provide himself and his team (and the boxing community) with a bellwether as to whether he belongs at the elite level and the accompanying options that may lay ahead.
While Linares, in defeat, will have some deep thinking to do on where the direction of his career goes from there.
However, if Jorge wins then it’s business as usual for the south american pugilist and the sky’s the limit as far as potential fights at 140-pounds are concerned and possibly beyond where a showdown with old stable mate Manny Pacquiao might loom and all the money that follows.
Personally, I edge Linares to be the victor in this fight and either by late stoppage or a win by U.D., as I think he’s the more skilled and complete fighter and will perhaps show up this time more “switched on” and sharper than previous outings, due to not only the caliber of the opponent in front of him, but also because of his past experience with the Mitchell fight and the consequences for his career in the future should he lose on Saturday.
I also think that his victory may come by exposing the static head movement that Crolla exhibits at times and the contentment he has somtimes shown in the past to take most of his opponents punches on that high-guard defence he utilizes, which isn’t impenetrable.
With-that-said, a little part of me wouldn’t be surprised if Crolla came away with a win or if a call for a rematch were to occur either.
Regardless of the outcome on Saturday night, both fighters can walk away proud that they challenged the very best at the weight and made the sport of boxing the better for it, and that can’t be questioned.