Anthony Crolla says it will take a long time for his incredible WBA Lightweight title win over Darleys Perez at the Manchester Arena on Saturday night to sink in.
Crolla delivered a stunning body shot in the fifth round to KO the Colombian champion in their rematch in front of a vociferous hometown crowd to rip the title from Perez and complete his fairy tale comeback.
The Manchester favourite was roared into the ring by the fans and absorbed that energy for his second crack at the title after a controversial draw with Perez in July – and set about the champion with gusto. Crolla, who turned 29 during fight week, said ahead of the fight that he felt confident he could both hurt Perez and take the champs’ power.
Crolla enjoyed success early in the piece and, most pertinently, hurting Perez at the end of the fourth round to the body, and with 42 seconds of the fifth round to go, ‘Million Dollar’ sunk home a lethal left hook to the body that poleaxed the visitor and saw a crazy year in the life of Anthony Crolla come full circle.
Just before Christmas in 2014, as he was in camp for a January World title battle with Richar Abril, Crolla was recovering from a brutal attack in a hospital bed after confronting intruders at his neighbours house, and he didn’t know whether he’d box again.
A successful rehabilitation led to a shot at Perez at the Manchester Arena in July, only for the fight to end in a controversial draw – but Crolla’s brilliant performance Saturday night ensured that he’s ready to write a sparkling new chapter in his life.
“This is what I have dreamt about since I was a kid,” said Crolla. “To achieve it, well, it is going to take a long time to sink in – I'm absolutely made up. I couldn't have picked a better setting to have achieved my dream, all my family and friends were in the arena and the fans were incredible.
“The people who have been with me from day one were all there and I am so happy to have done it for them too. It's a tough time of the year for people to dip into their pockets and pay for tickets so I am grateful to them and I hope they had a great night.
“It's just under a year since the attack and all that has been well-documented, I promised myself when I was laying on that hospital bed that I would come back stronger than ever and that's what I have done.
“I knew after a few rounds that he was feeling the pace and he made a few noises when I hit him with some shots, he was sharp though and he was hitting harder than he did last time, I took a few stupid shots early on but I thought I would get to him and it paid off. I felt confident before the fight that I could get him out of there.
“That's the best body shot I’ve thrown in my career. I was touching him up top and I knew as soon as he went down that he was going to struggle to beat the count. He was sat down for a few minutes after the decision so it caught him perfectly, I'll look forward to watching it back again and again.
“I am capable of more than that - it was a good finish but it wasn't a great performance.”
Crolla’s trainer Joe Gallagher was pleased with his charges’ performance though, and now has three World champions in his Bolton gym, with the promise of more to come in 2016.
“It was a good fight while it lasted,” said Gallagher. “It was nip and tuck, Anthony caught him early in the fight with a body shot and I told him not to get carried away to the head, look to the body and take the legs away from him. I thought Perez was beginning to come apart a little bit but what a beautiful shot that was.
“I thought to myself at times, if you can't win when you have a two-point deduction in the fight like we did in the first one, you are not going to win. When you have seen some iffy decisions in the past, I've told the boys, you have to look to win World titles by KO, and Anthony has set that example.
“I wanted a nasty Anthony Crolla, that has always been in him and he pulled it out tonight. He knew he could hurt Perez and he did it. I'm so proud of all the boys in the gym, they have all had their setbacks but they've worked very hard to get the rewards that they are enjoying now.”
Promoter Eddie Hearn added: “Perez started well and looked fit and sharp, but in the fourth round Anthony started having success to the body and Perez looked uncomfortable. Very rarely at World-level do fighters not get up from body shots, when the count was at five I shouted to Anthony 'stay calm', but then I looked over and you could tell he was not going to recover. It was a beautiful shot.
“I always say that he's the nicest guy there is, and it's true. I was worried that with the first fight being close, that was his chance gone, and he was so relaxed in the dressing room that I was a little concerned too, he was laughing and smiling, but that was just how relaxed and composed he was.
“Kevin Mitchell has a really tough fight with Ismael Barroso but Crolla vs. Mitchell is a massive fight, Jorge Linares and Crolla is a really big fight, there's Luke Campbell and Ricky Burns, Terry Flanagan could be a stadium fight in the summer – there’s some huge fights ahead for Anthony and he completely deserves it.”
Over in Germany, Martin Murray came agonisingly close to making it a double-celebration for north-west fighters in World title bouts, only to come up on the wrong side of a split-decision in a tense clash with WBO World Super-Middleweight belt holder Arthur Abraham.
Abraham now joins Gennady Golovkin, Sergio Martinez and Felix Sturm as champions who retained their crowns despite being pushed all the way by Murray.
Murray tried to finish it off but Abraham held on and made it safely to the bell. In the ninth he came again. Murray's counters were good but the champion seemed to have regained all his wits quickly enough.
The challenger tried to impose himself upon Abraham in the latter rounds after that success, but crucially in the 11th round, the referee took a point from the St. Helens’ man for holding.
Murray pushed the Armenia-born German all the way, but scores of 115-112, 112-115 and 116-111 saw him come away from the bout in Hanover empty-handed, and his first reaction was to think about his future.
“Obviously I'm gutted,” said Murray. “I really thought it was my night and when the final bell went - even though we were in Germany - I still thought I had it. I still thought I had done enough. When they said it was a split decision even then I still thought I'd got it.
“I know I'm too good to retire but the way I am feeling now, what can I do? It was my fifth shot. I just can't keep doing this. I just can't keep doing it to my family.”
Hearn believes that Murray still has plenty to offer though, and has urged the 33 year old to return strong and aim for a fifth shot at glory next summer.
“There are so many big fights at Super-Middleweight for Martin and I want him to have a little rest, come back in the New Year and go again in a big fight at World-level in the summer,” said Hearn. “Abraham is so underrated.
"People say he's one-dimensional, but he has a wonderful defensive guard, he hits hard, he's strong and fit, and he's very hard to beat. I hope he keeps his head up as he put in a great performance and he should be proud of himself.”