The Murrays moved around a lot when their eldest son, John, was a kid. As perpetual newbies on a series of Manchester sink estates, the boys, predictably, caught the attention of Levenshulme’s local toughs and ne’er-do-wells — who were hell-bent on clarifying the area’s social hierarchy with them. The buck would usually stop with John; and if the brothers fled indoors, they’d be sent back out and made to fight.
Perhaps this explains Murray’s fighting style; the 29-year-old is a macho and uncompromising bull terrier of a lightweight, one built to endure, erode and ultimately outlast. An aggressive and unremitting boxer with only one speed – super urgent — he renders Gerrie Nel positively irresolute.
Maybe, also, this helps elucidate Murray’s ire towards former trainer Joe Gallagher, who, in Murray’s mind at least, shut him out of a bustling gym when Murray’s back was against a wall. Putting amateur psychology aside (for the time being at least), there’ll be a sense of revenge in the air on Saturday night, when Murray goes up against Gallagher’s replacement protégé, Anthony “Million Dollar” Crolla.
Murray and Crolla were once friends. They trained together, ran together, sparred together. In 2011, Crolla, then a budding understudy to Gallagher’s headline act, held John’s gum shield in between rounds of a competitive but terrible drubbing administered to him by American knucklehead Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios in New York. In boxing, though, there are no such things as teammates; rarely does a paycheck succumb to kinship.
Along with Gallagher, Murray and Crolla can be viewed as beneficiaries of Phil Martin’s Champ’s Camp gym in Moss Side. Martin’s influence brought about the emergence of men such as Maurice “Hard” Core, Paul Burke, Frank Grant, Carl “The Cat” Thompson, Ensley “Bingo” Bingham, Billy “The Preacher” Graham (along with the Phoenix Camp gym in Denton), Joe Pennington, Bob Shannon, Ricky Hatton and Michael Brodie; across town, Brian Hughes’ Collyhurst base ran parallel to it while nurturing the “Black Flash” Pat Barrett, Robin Reid, Anthony “Arnie” Farnell and Michael Gomez.
As a youth, Murray followed a resurgent fight scene from the stalls of the former M.E.N (now rather unfortunately renamed as the Phones 4u) Arena — Manchester’s cathedral to Ricky Hatton. There, he’d sing the “Hit Man” home, along with the likes of Farnell and Gomez, as they bled and broke bones. A budding amateur at that juncture, Murray pledged to one day follow in their tracks. He and Crolla will take over the joint this weekend, regardless of the fact they’re, officially at least, support acts as opposed to the main event. The bars dotted around inside the complex will quickly empty when the duo take to the ring.
Crolla (27-4-1, 10 KO) is unbeaten in Manchester derbies. In an eight-year career, the photogenic sharpshooter with the winning smile has, in turn, bested Brodie, Andy Morris, Kieran Farrell and Stephen Foster Jr. (Brodie, Morris and Farrell never boxed again). He could be the poster boy for a lost generation of modern-day, working class British males; tough, image-conscious, personable and good-looking — even down to his neon boots and colour-co-ordinated shorts. He’s The Only Way Is Essex or Geordie Shore (save for his thick Lancastrian brogue). Presentable enough to land TV punditry work for BoxNation, it remains to be seen whether — to draw a football analogy — he’s more Jamie Redknapp than Gary Neville.
No one in boxing has a bad word to say about Crolla. Charismatic, honest and likeable, he sells tickets and attracts sponsors; it’s probably fair to say that he’s part of the “in” crowd (if there is such a thing). He’s connected. Indeed, a win over Murray would likely see him thrust onto the “world stage” by his promoter Eddie Hearn. His pinpoint and natty boxing perfectly reflects his appearance, yet some question whether Crolla is more style than substance.
Murray (33-2, 20 KO) is less image conscious. He always wears the same, unfussy black trunks; he shaves his head and is as blunt as a pickaxe handle. Not particularly fast, he is strong, big at the weight and relentless. Advancing constantly with his gloves cupped to his temples, Murray throws a sturdy right hand and an instinctive left hook underneath — a kind of pincer movement — to pull himself into his foe. There, he’ll wheel away with body shots and uppercuts (the latter a punch he has shown a susceptibility to himself).
He also busts up. Eye damage cost Murray dearly during the two blots on his ledger, defeats that have suggested he falls just shy of world class. Londoner Kevin Mitchell looked on the point of being overrun until he spotted Murray’s eyes closing, while Rios left him peering — broken-hearted — from a singular, periwinkle eye-slit. On both occasions Murray had to be rescued by the referee.
Crolla, 27, is in better form and closer to his peak. He moves well around a ring and throws punches in the form they are intended to be thrown. Despite this, he has won only four from his last seven — losing to Derry Mathews and Gary Sykes in bouts where he was, to varying degrees, roughed up.
Murray has fought only twice since 2011, picking up destructive wins over the lowly Michael Escobar — a South American journeyman based in Spain — and Scotland’s John Simpson earlier this year. Like a covetous neighbour, Gallagher peaked over the fence to downplay the latter of those victories, sniping that Simpson had been physically overmatched: “He fought a featherweight and he thinks he deserves a fight with Crolla?” Gallagher asked aloud in the aftermath (this despite the fact Murray had actually deputised for Crolla, who’d suffered a cut in training).
Insistent that Murray fight his way into contention by tackling one of his other fighters — Scott Cardle (whom Murray would most likely have mangled) — Gallagher received an offer from Hearn that signalled a U-turn. Suddenly, the Murray fight was the one he’d (they’d) wanted all along: “Anthony Crolla’s being paid huge money for this, three times more than ever before,” Gallagher said. “I cannot allow Anthony to turn that fight down.”
“That just sums up Joe Gallagher,” Murray snorted to me while in training camp last month. “He’s like: ‘I didn’t want to take the fight but I’m on three times what I’ve been paid in the past, so now I’m happy to take the fight. Win, lose or draw I’m still going to get paid.’” Whatever went down between these two, the situation has grown decidedly ugly.
So, how is the fight likely to pan out? Gallagher — borrowing from Jose Mourinho’s pocket guide on how to deflect attention away from his own players — blogged on Thursday that his man would win because: “John Murray hasn’t been training to beat Crolla — he’s been training to beat me.” During Thursday’s final press conference, Murray, after holding his head in his hands throughout an extended Gallagher monologue that suggested his blog might well hold some water, declared: “I’m ready to knock Anthony out. I wanna knock him out. I’m coming to knock him out. I’m vicious. I’m violent. Let’s get it on Saturday night – can’t wait.” Crolla, who looks respectful in Murray’s presence, although focused with it, shot back: “John can be as violent as he wants, as strong as he wants, tough as he wants — it won’t matter on Saturday.”
Bookmakers aren’t convincing anyone either. Unusually hesitant, they belatedly posted Murray an 8 to11 favourite deep into fight week (Crolla is currently 5 to 4). If Murray — who only has one method — can produce anything close to the level of intensity he managed against Gary Buckland and Andriy Kudryavtsev in 2010 — if he can bring back the thunder — then he should be able to overpower Crolla in the bout’s middle third. Should he have encountered terminal rust, however, then Crolla will pick him apart, jabbing his eyes shut en route to a lopsided decision win (a comparable scenario unfolded this time last year, when Cromer’s Liam Walsh proved too fresh for unhinged Glaswegian former featherweight world titlist Scott Harrison).
Unable to maintain a straight face at the obligatory head-to-head photo call, the pair exchanged coy smiles before offering one another a half-hearted hug. It was reminiscent of Avon and Stringer’s “Us, motherfucker” moment on the balcony of Barksdale’s condo. Yet, despite the air of ill-will that continues to pervade this promotion, you sense there’s nothing personal between Crolla and Murray. As they’re tended to on Saturday, in the aftermath of what could be a sadistic affair, we can be thankful for that at least.