Frontline diary: Genuine honour and the Heart Attack Grill
Chris Williamson was in Las Vegas for the much anticipated rematch between Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz. In the second of his diaries from Sin City, he presents his vivid account of a memorable weekend on which Santa Cruz gained revenge, Mikey Garcia announced his return to the highest class and one of Dejan Zlaticanin's entourage headed for the Heart Attack Grill...
Big-fight week at the MGM Grand usually sees the lobby area of the hotel hosting a boxing ring. This time, Chinese New Year celebrations took precedence, with a dramatic floral display to celebrate the year of the rooster. I too intended to take a short break on fight morning at the National Museum of Organised Crime - better known as the Mob Museum - a terrific place built on three stories around the corner from the old Fremont Street downtown area.
The museum chronicles how Las Vegas foundations were built by gangsters and the rackets, prostitution and gambling they brought. Boxing isn't ever far away, with a photograph and short biography of promoter Don King featuring on a wall of 'famous gangsters and their associates', while Shaun Assael's new book 'The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin and Heavyweights' is for sale in the museum shop.
Richard T. Slone paints much of the poster and programme art for big Las Vegas fights now, and he did a superb job for Frampton vs Santa Cruz II. Slone's style is reminiscent (although much less expressionist) of the great LeRoy Neiman and he hosted an event with broadcaster Al Bernstein and sponsors Corona at the wonderfully named 'Losers Most Wanted' bar on the eve of the fight. Talking of boxing art, our own Patrick J. Killian had his terrific take on Frampton vs Santa Cruz II displayed as pride of place at the entrance of Jeff Mitchum's gallery, close to the Grand Garden arena.
The cancellation of the Lee Selby vs Jonathan Barros IBF Featherweight title fight due to the Argentinian failing Nevada State Athletic Commission's (NSAC) medical tests left the Welsh champion devastated. As the challenger had been conspicuously invisible all week, particularly at the final press conference, perhaps the media could have asked more questions and broken the story earlier. One national newspaper journalist was particularly frustrated with himself for swallowing the official line without making follow-up enquiries at the NSAC.
Selby still looked utterly sick watching the bouts ringside with Chris and Jamie Sanigar. The champ has a natty line of 'Selby' caps, which he sported all week, including on Sunday while shopping.
Another cap wearer, this one reading 'MONEY', Floyd Mayweather Sr told reporters it would be too much of a risk for his son to come back at his age, albeit his son contradicted this when making an appearance in the arena to tell Showtime and Sky a boxing match with double UFC champ Conor McGregor is "likely".
As the preliminarly bouts started, the promotional Corona girls threw shirts to a crowd which remained relatively thin until the world title fights were under way. Scot Josh Taylor's bout was switched to 5pm local time, giving him a slot on the 'SHO Extreme' and Sky Sports broadcast. The sound and screen visuals at the MGM Grand are state of the art.
As Taylor (now 8-0) made his eight-round Las Vegas debut against Mexican Alfonso Olvera (8-3-1) there was a small pocket of Scottish support making themselves heard. Taylor enjoyed some good moments in his first distance fight - notably wobbling Olvera with a left hook in the second, before hurting him again with a huge left in the fourth and demonstrating a smart double jab. Overall, though, he seemed to perform a level below his previous outings.
Jordan Hardy presents a show for Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) and filmed an entertaining segment earlier in the week asking Frampton a series of regular life questions while hitting a heavy bag, revealing that Carl cooks and sings equally well and rates Snow Patrol above all other bands. Hardy told BM she hadn't wanted to grill Carl much as it was filmed directly after a real workout. In common with virtually everyone else, Hardy was struck by how genuine and likeable both main event fighters are.
Super middleweight prospect David Benavidez (now 17-0) was given quite the build-up by promoter Richard Schaefer and boasts a top 15 ranking with the WBC, but opponent Sherali Mamajonov was downright poor and looked a couple of weight divisions below the Arizona KO artist. It was only the second time Mamajonov (14-2) had ventured outside his native Uzbekistan and he soon went down to a predictable two-round stoppage.
During a break in the action I bumped into colourfully-shirted super middleweight contender Anthony Dirrell at a hot dog stand. Dirrell is number two in the WBC rankings and confirmed to BM that his next fight will "probably" be against Callum Smith for the title vacated by Badou Jack.
In the build-up to the Zlaticanin vs Garcia WBC lightweight title fight, I'd been so impressed by Team Garcia I made a mental note to bet on Mikey to win the title at the sports book. In particular, one close friend and team member, Rafael Lopez had predicted an early KO but hoped for some rounds so as not to scare his rival champions. Team Garcia appear serious about unifying the division and, with Mikey's brother/ trainer Robert a former IBF super featherweight champ, this would prove to be the first WBC title in the family.
In the event, Mikey's title win may have been even more devastating than Lopez suggested it might be. Garcia (now 36-0) walked to the ring with unnerving, Golovkin-like relaxation and focus as the pro-Mexican crowd chanted "Mikey, Mikey". Immediately, Garcia's left jab and footwork looked outstanding and he seemed untouchable. My first round notes likened those early stages to a matador playing with a bull.
In the second round, Mikey was 'super sharp' with his straight right-hand, according to my notes, and Garcia shook his fist with a 'yes' gesture walking back to his corner, knowing it was a matter of time and patience.
Garcia only had to wait two minutes and 21 seconds of round three to be crowned champ, courtesy of a fast right uppercut, a balletic adjustment of his feet and a brutal follow-up right hand as Zlaticanin (now 22-1) floundered. The first ever Montenegrin champion - a man honoured with his own postage stamp - was licked, out cold and flat on his back.
As fight enthusiasts we kid ourselves if we claim not to enjoy the drama of a knockout, but this was the kind of KO where you wait until the stricken fighter has recovered before savouring the moment of triumph. The replay showed several times on the big screen, with gasps emanating intermittently from the charged crowd.
When I saw Lopez at the press conference afterwards he laughed when I told him I didn't put the bet on after all. "Well, now you know where to come for the inside story on Mikey Garcia," he told me while shaking hands. That may be true but expect the odds on Mikey to be significantly less appealing next time. A superstar was born here and, chillingly enough, Garcia convincingly described his third title in as many weights as "only the beginning".
I noticed Team Zlaticanin strolling past Caesars Palace on Sunday in their fight gear and Dejan seemed in decent spirits.
As the main event approached, the atmosphere really erupted and the announced attendance of 10,055 sounded like many more. Red headbands sported by Team Santa Cruz evoked memories of the great Julio Cesar Chavez, while Frampton emerged to the inevitable 'Freed from Desire' by Gala.
Round one saw hostilities suddenly re-engaged where they left off in New York last year, albeit Frampton looked a little wilder and was visibly hurt by a Santa Cruz hook. The second saw both feinting - respecting the skill and power of the other - before Santa Cruz started pulling away thanks to a better jab and terrific work rate, to make this a mirror image of Frampton's early advantage in the first bout.
Frampton's work was too often scrappy and the Irishman seemed reliant on a huge punch, as though remembering the sweet left hook which stunned the American in the second round of part one.
The sixth seemed to me a significant period when the home fighter thumped in two, three, then four sickening left hand body-punches to Frampton's liver. When Frampton responded with his own right hands to the body, they were effective, but seemed like inadequate consolation for those received. Santa Cruz seemed to be the fighter setting the tone and controlling more of the fight.
At times the champion showed excellent defensive skills, notably when slipping and bobbing away from a fierce onslaught at the end of the sixth, but overall he took too long to get his own attacks going. Frampton racked up some points on volume punching, but it was too little, too late. Still, we were treated to a terrific fight, with well-deserved standing ovations as the warriors walked to their stools at the end of each round.
The bout enjoyed the twelfth round it deserved and as the bell rang the Irishman notably failed to celebrate. One of the attractive qualities in Frampton is his authenticity and he wasn't going to act like the victor he wasn't. The Mexican joy was euphoric.
I asked around a few colleagues: Boxing News scored it 115-113 to Santa Cruz, as did Michelle Joy Phelps, both in common with the two official judges who overruled a third scoring the bout 114-114. I had it slightly wider to the challenger at 116-112.
The convivial atmosphere largely continued after the decision - certainly between the fighters - although one small pocket of Irish fans did mischievously, and with tongues in cheek, refer to the benefits of the new President's suggested US/ Mexico wall.
Among many fight figures in attendance were new IBF super featherweight champ Gervonta Davis, Shane Mosley Sr and Jr and Jorge Linares with his wife. All seemed happy to mix and take photographs with fans.
There's a chain of restaurants in Las Vegas named the Heart Attack Grill. Part of their marketing says the Grill has been 'fighting anorexia since 2005', and invites those who weigh 'over 350 [pounds to] eat free'. I wondered who could possibly grow large enough to claim this prize, until Zlaticanin's entourage emerged, included a hugely built long-haired man who looks for all the world like a WWE wrestling 'heel'. I'm willing to bet he can dine for free at the Heart Attack Grill.
Talking of man-mountains, Brazilian journeyman heavyweight Raphael Zumbano Love lives in Las Vegas and was in attendance. I found myself on an escalator with Love on the way to the post-fight press conference and made a joke about the discreet 'Zumbano Love' cap he proudly sported. Thankfully, Love either liked the joke, didn't understand it or grunted a laugh anyway.
All the signs are that the main event fighters want to wage a trilogy, with Frampton even offering Santa Cruz the hospitality of his house should he come to Belfast. Santa Cruz seems to take the 'world' in champion literally and is refreshingly happy to travel. If it comes off, Irish fight fans are in for some treat, for these two are as intensely ferocious inside the ring as they are genuinely honourable outside it.