'As If We Never Said Goodbye': Frampton vs Santa Cruz 2 preview
Chris Williamson in Las Vegas
Chris Williamson previews Saturday night's big fight in Las Vegas as Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz once again lock horns with featherweight supremacy at stake...
"Man, I really hate not being the champion."
- George Foreman, former world heavyweight champion, 1975.
The MGM Grand Garden Arena, venue for Saturday's triple title-fight card in Las Vegas, officially opened on New Year's Eve 1993 with Barbra Streisand's first live concert in more than twenty years. The man who booked Streisand, Vice-President of Special Events Dennis Finfrock quickly established the venue as the premier boxing destination in 'Sin City'.
When George Foreman had ruminated in 1975 about his status as ex-champ, he was, of course, seeking to rematch the man who ripped it from him, Muhammad Ali. George didn't get a chance for redemption against Ali, regaining the crown during the apex of his own Streisand-like comeback at the MGM Grand on an unforgettable November 1994 night when the ageing icon flattened Michael Moorer.
Despite Foreman's historic achievement, perhaps Finfrock's finest hour during that first year at the venue came six months before the 'Punching Preacher's' crunching right hand left Moorer spreadeagled. With Mike Tyson incarcerated, promoter Don King focused his efforts on some of the finest lighter-weight fighters of the era. So it was that on Saturday May 7 1994, King promoted an incredible card of title rematches featuring Frankie Randall vs Julio Cesar Chavez, Gerald McClellan vs Julian Jackson, Azumah Nelson vs Jesse James Leija vs and Simon Brown vs Terry Norris. (Ricardo Lopez defended against Kermin Guardia in a fifth title bout which was not a rematch.)
With Foreman enjoying a healthy retirement, Finfrock sadly passed away and 85-year-old Don King now on the fringes of the sport, the MGM Grand hosts the rematch of one of 2016's best fights on Saturday when WBA (super) featherweight champion Carl Frampton (23-0) defends against former champ Leo Santa Cruz (32-1-1). Frampton won the title in July last year with a majority decision in Brooklyn, New York (two judges scored widely for the Belfast man while a third scored it a draw).
For what it's worth - ironically not a lot, given its obnoxiously extravagant description - the WBC Diamond belt is also on the line. Boxing Monthly rates Frampton as the number one featherweight in the world, with Santa Cruz number two.
The existence of rematch clauses can serve as a blunt device for revealing the mental state of beaten men. When Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera ripped the featherweight crown from 'Prince' Naseem Hamed at this arena in 2001, the British team had negotiated a rematch clause in the event they lost the title. However, Barrera so damaged Hamed's previously-impregnable psyche that night, the Prince chose to ignore the contract provision, fighting only once more before retiring.
In terms of his thirst for revenge, Leo Santa Cruz exhibits more in common with Big George than the Little Prince, for he clearly relishes this brisk chance to meet his conqueror
"After the first fight, when I heard the decision and I got my first defeat, there was nothing in my head other than the rematch," the ex-champ says, bristling at the memory of his sole reverse. "I knew I made some mistakes. I knew I wasn't the best I could perform so I said 'I could really improve on things and I think I could get the victory next time.' So, in that time, nothing has been in my head other than the rematch and I was very anxious and motivated to give another great show."
The most important consideration when assessing the likely result of a rematch is what has changed - or what can change - since the first meeting. Most obviously, the fighters are much more familiar with each other. Prior to the 1994 'Revenge' card, Terry Norris learned the painful way that aggressively pursuing the hard-headed Simon Brown was a very bad idea indeed, and boxed to a less thrilling albeit successful decision win in the return. Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez was finally proved human having been surgically outboxed - floored even - en route to a first defeat to Frankie Randall and reversed the result with a controversial rematch technical decision victory.
Julian Jackson was once such a stone-cold assassin he would swipe at his victim - like an irritated cat with a hapless mouse - and with his foe's brain malfunctioning and stiffened body beginning to topple - would calmly point to the spot of canvas on which they'd fall. Against McClellan, Jackson recognised he'd finally met his middleweight match, a younger man who could not only withstand crunching punishment, but deliver his own. The great sniper appeared intimidated, losing the rematch to their original shoot-out much more conclusively in the very first round.
The champion Frampton here believes the key difference will be that he has grown used to the nine stone weight at which he debuted at title level during last July. "Whatever happens it's going to be competitive up until it ends, but I think that what I've been doing this time in training camp, I feel like a fully-fledged featherweight," says Frampton, whose 30-day WBC check weight of 138.4 lbs was heavier than Santa Cruz's 137lbs.
"I was going into the unknown the last time I fought Leo; [it was] my first title fight at featherweight. I feel like I've developed [into] featherweight now, [I'm] much stronger, bigger and punching harder. And I feel like at the end I'm going to get the win."
Santa Cruz points to the fact that his father is now free of the cancer which disrupted training for the first fight. "In the first camp, I didn't have my dad with me. My dad is the one who's always watching boxing," he says emotionally. "He's always watching different styles of different boxers and he knows how to fight like different styles and this time having him there in the gym with me, he's telling me specifically like what punches I have to throw with Frampton, how to fight him and stuff like that. We're going to go with a great game plan to go out there and try to beat Frampton."
Whatever each man has genuinely learned, built upon or changed since the memorable New York clash, this is the kind of pairing which reminds us why we fell in love with boxing. The first bout was full of back-and-forth educated fighting with a high level of skill on display from both men.
If pugilism embraced such a concept as 'play of the day' then Frampton earned it last time with a fast left hook which stunned and retreated Santa Cruz during the second round. Frampton went on to demonstrate superb footwork and the Irishman's neater, well-timed work edged most of the early rounds.
We knew the boundless energy of Santa Cruz would inevitably make its mark and he rallied back it in the third quarter, composed and focused on imposing his famous pressure on Frampton.
"Keep changing the rhythm," trainer Shane McGuigan had urged his charge and the Ulsterman responded in the championship rounds to underline what is generally accepted as a deserved win. Coupled with unifying at super bantamweight earlier in the year vs Scott Quigg, the victory earned Frampton a raft of awards, including Boxing Monthly's 'British fighter of the year' in a feature which can be found in the brand new February issue of the magazine.
Despite the narrow loss, there is something pure about Santa Cruz's thirst for battle which nods to and respects his proud Mexican heritage. When Erik Morales was asked why - with the fight won - he chose to turn southpaw and fight toe-to-toe with Manny Pacquiao during the final round of their first match in 2005, the great man responded rhetorically: "Did you enjoy it? That's why," and one hears an echo of 'El Terrible' in Santa Cruz when he says: "I could adopt any way; I could box, I could move, but the truth is I don't really like moving because I like entertaining the fans, because they go out there to see the great fights, wars, toe to toe."
With this fistic treat moving from the east to west coast, one wonders if the Nevada surroundings - without New York's sizeable Irish population - will make a difference given the margins between the two fighters output have proved so precariously slim.
Frampton is refreshing in his honesty while thankful for his tremendously loyal and vociferous support: "It's very expensive to get to Las Vegas from Belfast and I'm expecting Leo to have more support this time [than] in New York," states the fighter who bought a huge celebration round of drinks for his fans in a New York Irish bar following the first fight.
"Mostly, you can drive from L. A. to Vegas so he'll bring a lot more support. The atmosphere in New York was incredible. I think again it's going to be even better. I think here's potentially about 4,000 coming from back home: Northern Ireland, the south of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales coming out to support me. And I think 4,000 will sound like 8,000 so it's going to be a raucous atmosphere, that's for sure."
The challenger relishes fighting in a venue which has become something of a home. "I feel more comfortable in Vegas; I think six times I fought there. I love to hear the people cheer on for me and scream and motivate me. They give me that extra push," says Santa Cruz.
"When you don't have folks cheering for you, like it happened there over in New York, it puts pressure on you. But I am very comfortable and happy for the fight to be here in Vegas because it's close to L.A. and I know a lot of people are going to come to support me and everything."
British fans whisper it quietly, but there are fistic omens in the thin Nevada air. Thirty one years ago, Frampton's manager and mentor Barry McGuigan defended this very title (I'm going to fondly remember a time when the term 'super' only applied when Clark Kent changed into his underpants) here on a card billed as 'The Triple Hitter', sharing the Caesars Palace stage with Thomas Hearns vs Mark Medal and Roberto Duran vs Robbie Sims. The challenger then was an American of Mexican heritage and Steve Cruz floored and outpointed the Irish icon in the cruel summer afternoon heat during one of the fights - and upsets - of 1986.
Whether you're superstitious or not, what seems certain is another terrific fight. "I think that if we fight ten times, they're always going to be good fights," Frampton states. "Last time it was talked about as one of the fights of the year and I think our styles just gelled really well together; I don't think it's going to be any different this time."
I too expect a similarly brilliant, breathless fight, with the Belfast fighter winning more clearly to take the decision, show that omens are for the hills further west in Hollywood and for the fighter of the year to make a statement of intent towards retaining that crown too.