THE top boxer who was viciously attacked on the eve of a World title bout has now hit the comeback trail – right here in Wigan.
Anthony Crolla was left with a broken ankle and a fractured skull from an assault near his home before Christmas, and told he may never box again.
But last weekend, a neurosurgeon cleared him to fight again – and Crolla is working with Wigan personal trainer Martin Cullen at Total Fitness to plot a return to the ring.
“I knew what Martin had done with other fighters, they had nothing but good things to say, and from the first week I felt the benefits,” said the lightweight, who has won 29 of his 35 fights.
“When I first came back, Martin thought, ‘I’ve taken something on here’. I’d been on crutches and a lot of my strength needed building up.
“But he’s shocked how I’ve come on. Session by session, we’re seeing improvement.
“I’m hoping to be back fighting in May time, and I’ve surprised a lot of people with how early that is, but I think I’ll be ready for then.
“I’m a positive person, I always believed I’d get back fighting.
“And when I get back, I’ll be better than ever.”
Crolla’s nightmare began on December 16 – a few weeks before he was due to fight Ricar Abril for the WBA world lightweight belt – when he arrived home and interrupted a burglary at a neighbour’s house.
He chased and caught the two intruders, but – in the struggle – was hit over the head by a concrete slab, leaving him with a fractured skull and broken ankle.
“When it first happened, I still thought I’d be fighting a few weeks later! I thought, ‘It may put sparring back a week or two, and with a broken ankle I won’t be able to run for a week or two’. Obviously it was more serious than that.”
When he left hospital, frustration ate away at the usually energetic Manchester fighter.
“For the first few weeks, I was climbing the walls – I couldn’t get about much and I’m used to training two, three times a day,” he said.
I’m hoping to be back fighting in May time, and I’ve surprised a lot of people with how early that is, but I think I’ll be ready for thenAnthony Crolla
“Sitting at home on the couch, eating Miniature Heroes, watching TV... there are only so many box sets you can watch! I just wanted to get back into the gym.
“But in a funny way, the rest may have done me good, because I’ve not had one since I was 11, and I’ve come back feeling fresher.”
Cullen has worked with many elite athletes during his three decades in the business, including Andy and Owen Farrell, Sean O’Loughlin and boxer Martin Murray.
He also works with boxer Jazza Dickens, who claimed a British title earlier this month.
But Crolla’s comeback from such serious injuries provided a fresh challenge.
“It was a struggle at first because his body had just shut down,” said Cullen, who trains clients throughout the Wigan area.
“But he’s really come on and hopefully we can get him back to a world title shot, which would be great after what happened.”
Crolla gave an insight into life as a professional boxer.
“It’s a full-time job,” he said. “There are a lot of sacrifices in terms of diet, training two or three times a day, spending a lot of time away from your family.
“Nothing beats getting a takeaway with the family on a Saturday night, but that’s something we can’t do in camp.
“Some people think, ‘you get paid to train’, and that’s true – but you miss out on a lot, and trust me, there are easier ways to make money!”
Crolla – a huge Manchester United fan – has also taken a keener interest in the Warriors since he started training in Wigan.
“I’ve always watched bits, but now I’m getting into it more,” he said. “I’ve met a few of the players and they seem like good lads.”