Six rounds in 28 months turned out to be insufficient prep-work for lightweight John Murray against his cross-town rival Anthony Crolla — who reached his peak in Manchester, Saturday. For a handful of rounds, Murray, in furious form, suffocated Crolla with a brand of total war that bordered on the psychotic. Crolla, though, showed courage, a sound chin and boxing acumen to resist Murray’s assault, before coming on strongly from the midway point to register a 10th round TKO over his former friend and training partner who, by that point, was thoroughly spent.
This was the third occasion that Murray, 33-3 (20), had breathed fire in the early stages of a major contest only to wind up coughing and wheezing with a mouthful of smoke. Having now lost his three biggest fights — each time in a similar fashion — Murray, a fiercely proud fighting man, runs the risk of being reclassified as a stepping stone; promoter Eddie Hearn had even suggested that the loser of this contest could be pitched in with five-fight Olympian Luke Campbell – which is the equivalent of a footballer falling out of favour and being made to train with the youth team.
Contrast that with the winner’s prospects: Hearn suggested he’d try to buy Crolla, 28-4-1 (11), a crack at the Cuban octopus Richard Abril’s alphabet world belt, which only serves to highlight how disproportionate the ramifications are when compared to the small margins that decide fights like last night’s.
As anticipated, Murray hunted Crolla from the opening bell — yet the younger man (at 27, Crolla has two years on Murray) had little trouble walking Murray onto punches. Unable to miss with his left jab, Crolla, under close attention, persevered with his plan to pot shot on the back foot. Murray continued to swarm over Crolla, backing him into the ropes before discharging volleys of blistering hooks and uppercuts. Yet, as early as the 3rd, the dreaded eye damage that had blighted Murray’s career came back to handicap him once more. A mouse under his right eye – punched into place by Crolla’s percussive left hand – welled into view and from thereon in provided the New Moston marksman with a bullseye to aim for.
Murray — suddenly clicking into kamikaze mode — decided to kick for the line in round 4; it was a high-risk move. Into his rhythm and refusing to entertain the notion that pace might become a factor, Murray, a raging larrikin, ravaged Crolla with a furious onslaught. Pumping his arms like a sailor winding a winch, Murray threw the kitchen sink at Crolla, ransacking his body while repeatedly stinging him to the face with right hands. It was utter disdain for the fighter Murray remembered; the kid he’d always had the better of in the gym.
Crolla, though, has come on immeasurably since then. The underdog withstood Murray’s insane drive before finding space to work (and breathe) in the 5th — still blind to the fact that Murray had emptied his chamber. After bossing the 6th, a round in which Crolla completely outboxed his unravelling foe, the penny slowly began to drop. Murray, though, reduced to operating on muscle memory and guts alone, dredged up a stand of Rorke’s Drift proportions in rounds 7 and 8, with his nose bleeding, his chest heaving and his right eye closing fast.
Informed that he was “one down” by his trainer Joe Gallagher, Crolla raised the pace in the 9th. Tellingly, he made Murray give ground before moving inside to unload short uppercuts that smacked Murray’s head around on his shoulders. Murray stumbled on into the 10th. Exhausted and on rubber legs, he swung a desperation Hail Mary that sailed off into Manchester night. Crolla stepped inside expertly and clipped Murray with a left behind his ear that dropped him to his knees.
Murray glanced mournfully into his corner – his face spattered in blood and welts like a gruesome pastiche of a Stone Roses album cover. Grimly he rose to take the obligatory pasting afforded to beaten men that refuse to stay down. Referee Terry O’Connor rescued Murray in a neutral corner at the 2:20 mark; both men had weighed 134 ¾.
Murray proved yet again that a pressure fighter without a knockout punch — think Wayne McCullough, Dereck Chisora and Juan Diaz to name but a few – will often succumb to heroic failure against top opposition. Head movement is a prerequisite for this style of fighting and the lack of that, more than any other factor, is Murray’s Achilles heel. In that regard, Gallagher sowed the seeds for John’s destruction – not over the past eight weeks as some will suggest – but many moons ago.
“I gave it my all. I started to suffer as the rounds went on,” a magnanimous Murray said from the ring apron. “No excuses man, Anthony beat me at my best there.”
“I prepared for this fight like no other,” Crolla said. “Honest, John put the fear of God into me – not just because it was in front of the Manchester people – I remember how strong he was and how tough those sparring sessions were. I was only saying to Eddie [Hearn] on the way in: ‘I’ve got to keep a cool head in a hot kitchen.’”
Crolla couldn’t have been any cooler had he worn an asbestos balaclava.