By Mark Whalley
Derry Mathews and Anthony “Million Dollar” Crolla fought to a thrilling draw in their rematch of last year’s titanic matchup – widely viewed as the 2012 British fight of the year – which had been won by Mathews via sixth round TKO.
As a result, neither fighter won the vacant Commonwealth lightweight championship which had been on the line.
The bout was the main part of the undercard to Tony Bellew’s WBC light-heavyweight title eliminator against Isaac Chilemba at Liverpool’s Echo Arena, which also finished in a stalemate.
There is a healthy dose of respect between Liverpudlian Mathews and Mancunian Crolla, though the same cannot perhaps be said of their respective supporters, who provided a raucous backdrop to this second fight and occasionally had those in the ringside seats watching the action in the audience rather than that in the ring.
Mathews predicted in the build-up that Crolla would be somewhat gun-shy having been put down on the canvas for the first time in his career in the first match.
There was also the added intrigue of a rumour that Crolla had been knocked out during sparring in the build-up to the fight.
The Mancunian started the better of the two in a somewhat tentative first round, and started peppering Mathews with a jab that had been identified as pivotal to his chances of victory.
Mathews, however, looked noticeably bigger than his opponent and began to enjoy more success with long rights as the early rounds rumbled on.
Crolla, for the most part, seemed content to box on the back foot and not become embroiled in the kind of power-punch trading wars that were a trademark of the first fight.
He also sustained a cut over his right eye which would go on to cause him problems throughout, following a clash of heads in the second round.
At the end of the fourth, the action started to liven up, but this only drew criticism from Crolla’s trainer Joe Gallagher, who chastised his charge and told him that it was “not yet” time to start his offensive.
It seemed clear that the plan was to take Mathews the distance, frustrate him with a tight defence, and score with heavier shots in the late rounds.
All the time though, the hometown fighter appeared to be racking up rounds, and he enjoyed his biggest success in the middle stanzas.
First he landed a big left hook that opened up Crolla’s cut and followed it up with sustained pressure at the end of the sixth.
In the seventh he walked Crolla into another left hand, this time a sweet counter.
He also began establishing his own jab, spelling big trouble for Crolla, whose increasingly-dispirited body language and despondent facial expression appeared to suggest that the rumours of his troubles in sparring were true.
In the ninth, Mathews landed a pearler of a right hand that knocked Crolla right backwards.
Such was its impact, it caused Crolla to grin and nod his head in appreciation.
Whilst many expected such a punch to bring about Crolla’s demise, it actually had the opposite effect.
His workrate upped noticeably and he started winning more exchanges.
Mathews seemed unable to keep up with the pace, just as Crolla and Gallagher had banked on.
In the eleventh round he shipped a lot of punishment to the body, and ate a lovely Crolla right.
The see-saw nature of the contest had been engrossing, and whilst it looked to have tipped irreversibly towards Crolla, both trainers suggested to their charges that the result would hinge on the final round.
Mathews and Crolla embraced before the start of the twelfth, and then put on one of the best rounds of the whole contest.
Crolla had a spring in his step and hurt Mathews with a left followed by a right.
Mathews, to his credit, came straight back with a hurtful right of his own.
By the end of the battle, the cut over Crolla’s eye had opened dramatically, and both pugilists looked spent.
Both raised their arms in triumph at the final bell, believing they had done enough to win.
There was a sense of genuine anticipation as the judges tallied up their scorecards.
Crolla had clearly won the final few rounds following dominance from Mathews in the middle of the fight.
Therefore, the result seemed to hang on their interpretation of the first few rounds, which were close-run contests but in which Mathews was largely the aggressor.
Ian John-Lewis scored it 115-113 for Crolla, whilst Marcus McDonnell gave it to Mathews by the same scoreline.
Dramatically, Steve Gray could not split the two, revealing a 115-115 card, resulting in a draw.
Both fighters were evidently disappointed not to win, but the draw was understandable, and perhaps the fairest result.
In the interview afterwards, Crolla revealed “the plan was to box” and that he thought his boxing in the final round had won it for him.
The result looks to have guaranteed a trilogy fight in what has become one of the best domestic rivalries in years.
This fight was certainly not the hell-and-fury tear-up of last year, but it was no less engrossing.
A third contest would surely be a headline attraction in itself.
Reed had already been down twice before a truly sickening body shot that drained all remaining fight out of him.
Most intriguing of those undercard fights was a second professional contest of 2012 GB Olympic boxing captain Thomas Stalker’s career, but he failed to sparkle in a four round points win over Andy Harris, who had already lost three times in just five weeks as a pro himself.