Anthony Crolla: ‘Doctors told me I’m lucky, I might have died’
Boxer attacked with a concrete slab while chasing burglars determined fractured skull will not end world title dream.
Anthony Crolla at home, as he recovers from the attack he suffered in December. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
“It was dark and I was shouting as I chased them,” Anthony Crolla says in his front room in Chadderton, on the fringes of Oldham, as he describes the frenetic moments before he had his skull fractured in an attack which could have ended his life rather than just his boxing career. Crolla, an amiable and talented lightweight, was in training for his first world title fight which was scheduled to take place in Manchester next week – on 23 January – when he raced after two burglars who had broken into the house next door.
On the evening of 16 December Crolla had just arrived home when his neighbours’ alarm sounded and he interrupted the burglary. “I thought I’ll easily outrun them,” Crolla remembers. “I ran round the back and got to the end of the avenue. I could see them.”
Crolla was in supreme condition and, closing on the two men, he began to yell. “I was shouting at them: ‘I’ll get you,’” Crolla says with a cheeky grin. “‘Keep running, but I’m gonna get you.’ I was getting closer and closer and I was letting them know: ‘I’m catching you already.’ You could see them panicking and thinking, ‘We’re not getting away from this lunatic’.”
The fighter, who is 28, laughs huskily, as much at himself as at the distressed burglars but then, gently touching the scar on his forehead, where he was hit with such severity, Crolla becomes serious. “I caught them as they turned into a garden. They started climbing a fence. I got the one and I thought he’s just going to squeal but they got lucky.
“There were loose concrete slabs on top of the wall. As I’m holding the one burglar, the other one threw this slab down on my head. I’ve gone down on one knee. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, that didn’t half hurt.’ I knew it wasn’t a punch. I knew exactly what he’d hit me with. I also knew my ankle had gone straightway, but I jumped back up. The second burglar was halfway over the wall and I couldn’t catch him because my ankle had gone. I stumbled back home.”
Crolla made a terrible sight. His forehead was cut open, blood streamed down his face and his ankle had shattered. The boxer was more worried about his title fight. “I was talking a load of rubbish. I kept saying, ‘It’s nothing’, but I could feel the blood so I asked Fran (his girlfriend): ‘What’s the cut like?’ Fran wasn’t showing anything in her face. She said later it was so bad she thought I’d panic. It was a really deep cut but I said, ‘the headguard covers the forehead. I’ll put sparring back a week and I’ll be all right’. The ankle was hurting but I had so much adrenaline I kept saying: ‘It’s just a sprain. I’ll do more swimming instead of running’. I could see them thinking: ‘What’s he on about?’
“The blood was gushing out but my neighbour’s mother was a nurse and she stopped the bleeding. In my head I was trying to work out how many weeks of training I might lose. I was thinking, ‘It’s not ideal but I can still make the fight’. I know it sounds stupid but when you want something so bad, something you’ve dreamed about for so long, you get desperate. You start thinking like an idiot but, in hospital, one of the doctors knew I boxed. During the brain scan he asked, ‘When were you hoping to fight next?’ I said: ‘I’m fighting for a world title in five weeks’. You could see their faces … ”
The fighter mimics a grimace of disbelief and horror but he was still determined to look ahead to his title fight against Richar Abril, the WBA world lightweight champion. “In my head I was still thinking I was all right. One of the doctors told me after the brain scan that he wanted to talk about the ankle first. He said. ‘You’ve broken it in two places. It’s not going to happen for you in January’. And then he said: ‘You’ve also got a fractured skull’.”
Crolla shakes his damaged head as he searches for the right words to convey his despair. “I was … ” he says, before pausing, “… heartbroken. I thought, ‘Fucking hell. I can’t believe this’. I started worrying about whether I’d ever box again. I was devastated but when they told me there was no bleeding on the brain I felt better. I started to come to terms with it.
“They also told me: ‘You’re very lucky. Your head is not made to be hit with concrete slabs, is it? If it had been a different angle you might have died.’ A boxer is used to taking punches to the head and if it been someone else it might have been more serious. So I started to feel thankful.
“The next day I was on my way to theatre for an op on my ankle. I saw some old people and this sounds a bit morbid but when I went past I saw how ill they were. They didn’t have long to live. I thought, people out there are going to lose their parents, grandparents and I’ve got away lightly. I’ve got a little boy at home. You start to see there’s always someone struggling more than you.”
Joe Gallagher, Crolla’s trainer, was more worried, even if he starts his anecdote by looking at Crolla and relating his amusing first reaction. “When I first walked in that night and saw him with his foot up I was bursting to say: ‘What the fuck were you thinking, Crolla? You’ve got a fucking world title fight in five weeks!’ Deep down, I was also thinking, ‘It’s all right, he’s alive’. But you hear them words you never want to hear … ‘fractured skull’. The worst were days three to four. He couldn’t stay awake. As a boxing coach you’ve heard all the stories about brain injuries. I was thinking: ‘They’ve missed something here’.” Crolla smiles at Gallagher.
“Fortunately, they hadn’t. Any boxer will tell you he doesn’t want to get hit in the head but your forehead seems the toughest part. The temple would have been far worse.”
The flood of support on social media, television and in newspapers overwhelmed the boxer. “Fran got me the card which allows you to watch TV in hospital,” Crolla says, “and I saw myself on Sky Sports News. They had been at the gym a few days earlier so I thought it must be a repeat but then they said I’d had an accident. I flicked to the next channel – I was on BBC1. I thought I’m seeing things. I’m thinking: ‘Bloody hell, how hard did they hit me on the head?’ I was in the papers. Fran was telling me about all the well-wishers and I thought: ‘I’m going to beat this’.”
Gallagher knew that, just before Christmas, Alex Ferguson had asked to call the boxer – a Manchester United fan. “Jim Rosenthal the broadcaster tipped me off but I didn’t say anything to Anthony. Around half four Anthony’s phone goes and he’s tired. He looks at the screen and says, ‘No caller ID …’ He wouldn’t answer so I picked it up and it was Fergie. I said, ‘Hold on’. I gave it to Crolla and he’s going, like he’s not bothered, ‘yeah, OK, go on …’”
Crolla bursts out laughing. “I honestly thought it was a mate taking the piss.” Gallagher raises his eyebrows. “The next thing he realises it really is Fergie. He’s sitting up and beaming and going ,‘Oh, thanks very much, it means so much …’
Anthony Crolla celebrates with trainer Joe Gallagher after defeating John Murray to win the WBO Inter-Continental Lightweight Title. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images
“(Ferguson) did say, ‘You think it’s a windup, don’t you?’” Crolla remembers. “That’s when I clicked. It meant the world to me.” Wayne Rooney, a long-time fan of Crolla and Gallagher’s stable of fighters, also arranged for a shirt to be signed by the United squad. “I was buzzing!” Crolla says, looking like a teenager.
Crolla, nicknamed Million Dollar, might be one of the nicest men in sport but he has suffered. He makes the telling point that his most distressing weeks followed his fight with Kieran Farrell in December 2012. It was a bitter local battle which Crolla won on points – only to see Farrell sink to the canvas after the decision. The boxer had suffered an acute subdural haematoma. Farrell nearly died and, when I interviewed him three months later, he explained that neurosurgeons told him he had lost 30% of his brain. The fight with Crolla had left him with “a ridiculous amount of blood on the brain”.
Farrell has made an inspiring recovery but he can never box again. He is reconciled with Crolla who says, gravely: “That was far worse than this, without a doubt. It was the worst part of my career – and the darkest moment of my life. It upset me for a long time …thinking what happened to Kieran.”
It explains why Crolla’s mother can no longer bear to see him fight. “My mum loves boxing but she won’t watch me no more. She’s not been for years. She always gives me a hug before I go and fight. And to be honest I hate it because I can see her fear.”
Crolla will fight again but Gallagher stresses “the big judgment day will be when he gets his brain scan. That’s the crux. If it wasn’t for that ankle he would be in the gym wanting to fight in five weeks. So the ankle injury is good because it gives the skull more time to heal. Once he gets his ankle right it’ll be two months and then we’ll have six weeks of training so it will probably be April before he takes another blow to the head. The brain scan will be done before then and that’s the elephant (in the room).” Crolla looks up. “I have no doubt I’ll be all right,” he says. “It was fine in the hospital.”
The arrest of a 17-year-old boy, suspected of being involved in the attack, has led nowhere. “I went on the ID parade but it wasn’t him,” Crolla says. “So they’ve not got them yet.”
His bleaker experiences, and compassion, mean Crolla responds thoughtfully when asked if he would wish to talk to his attackers if they were caught. “You know what … it’s not so much the lad I gripped. It’s the lad that put the slab over my head. He could have killed me. Sometimes your anger builds up but it can send you mad, so I try not to think like that. Also, and I don’t want to sound like a good Samaritan but if you’re a house robber then you’re desperate, aren’t you? You’re in a bad place. They need help. You want them to get better because you don’t get much lower than that.”
Crolla looks out of his front-room window at the rainy sky. When he turns back his face is lit by hope and determination. “Positive thinking is a big part of this and I know I’ll fight again. And if a world title comes up I’d have no hesitation taking that. I’ll make sure I come back stronger. That’s a promise.”
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