By James Allen
The best thing about any rematch is that we as observers have a baseline example, something tangible to base our thoughts on regarding the outcome. It is refreshing, as the media preamble to boxing matches can sometimes verge into Stalin-esque propaganda, as representatives and supporters of each participant angle a case for their man.
On March 25th Jorge Linares (48-3, 23KOs) and Anthony Crolla (31-5, 13KO’s) will return to the Manchester Arena almost six months to the day after first contesting for the WBA World lightweight title. This time the opposite man will walk in wearing the belt, and I suspect he’ll still have it around his waist by the time he leaves.
A collective Mancunian sigh greeted the final bell of that first encounter when even the unashamedly partisan Sky Sports commentary team (at that time thankfully anchored by the superb Paulie Malignaggi) had a hard time making a convincing case for a hometown win. Crolla was soundly beaten. His belt and his chance to unify against next-door rival and WBO World lightweight champion Terry Flannagan had been empirically scuppered by the Joropo dancer from Venezuela, whose rapidly moving feet were second only to his explosively quick hands.
It would have been Manchester United vs Manchester City, red vs blue, Oasis on every promotional video. Crolla’s promoter Eddie Hearn and Flanagan’s Frank Warren would have been swimming in a sickly-sweet concoction of cash and their own ecstatic juices.
But the itinerant Linares scuppered those potential plans. Anyone outside of Manchester can see that he is the tougher opponent for Crolla, which is why a second go-around is so commendable of the former champ, especially considering the shape their first contest took.
Throughout the twelve rounds, Linares had more advantages than a prime Roger Federer. He was faster, more decisive, his movement more succinct, his accuracy astounding. His sustained body attack of sharp jabs and whipping left hooks had more to do with slowing Crolla down over the second half of the fight than the haymaker right he landed to the temple in the sixth, the one that turned Crolla to jelly for a moment and pushed him to a hasty retreat.
If Crolla was totally outclassed his will was not dampened. The man with the most abhorrent moniker in boxing gamely jigged forward, his lead left leg a bucking horse dragging the heavily muscled cart behind it. He edged towards the skating Linares, pressuring with his feet and holding a tight guard to his temples, trying to pick bullets out of the air as they flew towards him. In the end, his poking singles were insufficient ammunition to do any real damage.
I wonder what has changed since that night. Neither man has taken an interim bout. The stakes and setting will be the same, most likely the result will be too.
Crolla has a real dilemma on his hands regarding how he will approach this fight. If he sits back and tries to box he’ll have the face slapped off him. If he pressures more than last time he runs a real risk of taking something big. Linares has this habit of letting go of eight, nine, ten punch combos when he feels the heat of his pursuer. Most of the time it is enough to buy him space and comfort, to re-establish his rhythm and get back to work from mid-range.
The line on Linares before and maintained during that first bout by the Sky team was that he has a habit of fading late in fights. This despite only a single defeat on his record that took place after the second round. He can be gotten to, but two more early KOs suggest if Crolla is to do it, it must be early. I doubt he has that kind of power, despite that impressive physique of his.
Accuracy may well do the job for him now, though. We saw what a seemingly innocuous, perfectly placed left hook did in the rematch with Darlys Perez when he won his maiden world title. If he can slip one of those in when Linares is catching his breath, recovering from throwing a flurry, he could definitely cause an unlikely upset.
The problem is Linares is so fluidly vengeful. Even against the ropes, he finds pockets of space where there is none and detonates hard flurries in perplexing blends as soon as he has an inch. If he won the first at a canter he might blast through the second at a sprint, knowing what he can land and that the man across hasn’t the force to knock him off track.