The Irish Eye: Frampton vs Santa Cruz special
In the latest edition of our regular column on the Irish boxing scene, Kane Clarke analyses the rematch between Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz, as well as bringing us all the latest news from the Emerald Isle …
When Leo Santa Cruz and Carl Frampton faced off last July, the Mexican-American gave the Northern Irishman the toughest and closest fight of The Jackal's professional career so far. Frampton came away with a majority decision, with one judge scoring the fight 114-114 each, while Santa Cruz tasted the first defeat of an outstanding career which had seen him become a world title holder in three different weight divisions.
With the fight a leading contender for 2016 'Fight of the Year', a rematch was inevitable. El Terremoto stated that he believed he won the first bout, and that the boisterous 1,500 members of 'The Jackal Army' that followed their man to the Big Apple, helped sway the judges in the Barclays Center, Brooklyn. If the bout had taken place closer to his home on the west-coast of America, Santa Cruz maintained that he would have been given the nod on the scorecards.
Rematches have always been a critical part of boxing. In the history of the sport, the best chapters tend to focus on multiple-fight rivalries between the greats.
Fast forward six months, and both fighters found themselves at the MGM Grand Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada for the second instalment of their good-natured rivalry - a venue which has hosted many historic fights.
Roughly 5,000 hard core supporters of Frampton made their way to Sin City this time around to support their hero, something the Las Vegas locals have surely become accustomed to in recent years having seen the support and atmosphere that the Irish create when journeying across the pond to watch Mixed Martial Arts World champion Conor McGregor take to the octagon in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
In boxing, though, nothing had been seen like this since the days when Ricky 'The Hitman' Hatton travelled to fight McGregor's next possible opponent and former pound-for-pound king, Floyd 'Money' Mayweather.
Back then Hatton's fans were left disappointed when the Hitman picked up the first defeat of his career and, unfortunately for the travelling Irish contingent, they would suffer the same heartache and despair, as The Jackal was this time on the wrong side of a majority decision.
The big question coming into this rematch was whether El Terremoto could adjust and change his game-plan from the first bout and use his superior natural advantages in height and reach to make Frampton think twice anytime he set about doing his work. Many thought not (including myself).
In New York in July, The Jackal started the better of the two men, and had Santa Cruz chasing the fight after rocking him in the second round. This time around though it was Santa Cruz who started the brighter, as he looked to avenge his lone defeat.
It was obvious from the opening bell that there was a clear switch in tactics from Santa Cruz, something he had promised in the lead-up to the fight which apparently fell on deaf ears from Team Cyclone and Frampton. Santa Cruz started behind the jab in the opening minute, catching Frampton as he came in, then landed a straight right hand on the Belfast man, which drew a huge roar from the Mexican-American contingent who were already in a jovial mood having watched Mikey Garcia brutally knock out Dejan Zlaticanin to himself become a three-weight world champion in the chief support bout on the undercard. Shane McGuigan let it be known to his fighter after the first that it was a Santa Cruz round and urged his charge to believe more in his feints before he threw the big right hands.
Frampton started well in the second and worked off the jab for the opening minute before missing with a big right hand which was countered beautifully by Santa Cruz by two right hands to the body before The Jackal could step back out of the pocket and reset himself. Frampton landed a big right hand over the top of Leo's high guard with thirty seconds to run on the clock of a tight round, but Santa Cruz reverted back to the stiff jab for the remainder of the round and sneaked it with a flourish in the last ten seconds.
Into the third and Santa Cruz opted to come forward a little bit more as opposed to boxing on the back-foot as he did in the previous rounds. This played into the hands of The Jackal who caught him with a couple of nice combinations on the inside, finishing with the left-hook both times and making his opponent re-think before he got on the back-foot again. Yet again a very close round like the previous two, but this one went to Frampton on my scorecard.
The fourth was another typically tight affair, with both boxers having a share of success. Santa Cruz was the first to land with a left hook early in the round, Frampton replied with a left hook of his own half-way through the round before, in the last minute, both fighters stood in the pocket and exchanged blows, much to the delight of the fans at the sold-out MGM Grand Arena. Frampton ended the round touching the canvas but this was correctly ruled a slip by legendary referee Kenny Bayless. Frampton returned to his corner and told trainer Shane McGuigan he was feeling "good" - it seemed the Tigers Bay man was finally working his way back into this tight affair.
At the start of the fifth Frampton walked into a right hand over the top from Santa Cruz. Frampton replied when he slipped under the jab and landed a beautiful uppercut followed by two left hooks which forced Santa Cruz to start coming forward looking for the equaliser, which again worked into Frampton's hands as he could effectively counter the Mexican-American. As the clapper sounded for the last ten seconds, The Jackal landed a well timed right-hook, but then bizarrely decided to see out the final few seconds of the round with his hands down by his side, which El Terremoto took full advantage of, catching the Ulsterman three times in the final few seconds, to perhaps steal another close round.
Into the sixth and the pace stepped up a little. Both fighters seemed happy to stay in the pocket and both shifted some huge shots, much to the delight of the crowd, but neither landed clean or clear enough to make a case for winning the round. Again as the clapper went for the final ten seconds, Santa Cruz burst into action, and ate a right hand for his troubles as Frampton became wise to the tactic. Another flurry of punches from the challenger just missed their intended target as both men made their way back to their corners to the applause of spectators in the arena. Who would want be a judge, eh?
Into the second half of the fight, and the tempo slowed a little, Santa Cruz was on the back foot again, pawing the jab at Frampton, who tried to counter with powerful hooks. Neither fighter made much of an imprint on the seventh round, and Santa Cruz again tried to steal the round in the final ten seconds, but was once again outsmarted by the Belfast man who slipped and ducked out of everything that came his way.
As the eighth round started the Mexican-American crowd had somewhat quietened down, perhaps a signal that Frampton was back in this fight and things on the scorecards were maybe getting a little bit too close for comfort after a great opening couple of rounds from the challenger.
With both fighters being a bit more subdued in the seventh, it seems they were merely just recharging their batteries, as the eighth started at a frantic pace with both men staying in the pocket, head-to-head unloading single power shots to each other's bodies and head. It was another very difficult round to score, although when Frampton returned to his corner he was told by McGuigan that he had lost the round while many at ringside thought it had possibly gone his way.
In the ninth, Frampton looked the more tired in the opening exchanges, sometimes being caught with punches you wouldn't usually see him being hit with, as his hands just weren't getting back to his chin to defend as quickly as he would have liked. With thirty seconds remaining of the round Santa Cruz landed flush on the chin of Frampton with a big right hand, The Jackal instantly came at Santa Cruz, looking to land a big one of his own, and snuck in a powerful left hook, but Santa Cruz took it well as he had done all night, and finished the stronger of the two, countering the Irishman who just couldn't seem to find his range. A dejected Frampton made his way back to his corner and the Mexican-American supporters once more found their voice after a clear round for their hero.
Chants of 'Leo Leo Leo' echoed around the Arena as we started the tenth and, perhaps buoyed from the cheers, Santa Cruz picked up where he left off in the ninth, landing a powerful right hook over the guard of Frampton as he made his way forward. After the first minute Frampton had some success with a crisp left-hook / right-hand combination, only for Santa Cruz to reply with a well timed straight right hand over the The Jackal's jab. Frampton again landed a nice left hook, but before he could return the left hand to his guard, Santa Cruz countered with a well-timed right of his own. In the final few seconds the champion had the challenger pinned to the ropes and landed a left-hook to the body, but the general consensus was that it was a Santa Cruz round as the south Californian made his way back to his corner with a smile.
Into the championship rounds and the tide was definitely starting to sway in favour of El Terremoto . Both men again started the round in the pocket, taking turns at hunting for each other's abdomens in the hope of landing the big shot that would save any need for the scorecards. Anytime the competitors would take a step back, Santa Cruz would pepper Frampton with the double and triple jab, not powerfully, but just enough to keep Frampton guessing as to what was coming next, and thwart his own attack.
Many would have predicted that it would be the shorter arms of The Jackal that would land the telling punches in the clinches and, although he did have some success, it was the left hook to the body and head from Santa Cruz that more often than not found their way to the torso and head of the champion. In another strange twist, it seemed like challenger Santa Cruz was judging his distances better and had more precision on his blows, something Frampton has long been hailed for during his career.
Before the start of the final round, McGuigan told his fighter to "keep your feet bouncing, ok? And win this round with your feet, ok? Don't let him touch you at all". As the two warriors met in the ring for their twenty-fourth round of combat, they hugged before then commencing the final round of part two of their action-packed rivalry.
Regardless of what he had been told in the corner, Frampton felt more was needed and came straight for Santa Cruz from the off, hunting the body with combinations. Both men were clearly tired, but Frampton was stalking the challenger, throwing everything he had in a desperate bid to hold on to his featherweight championship and undefeated record.
Santa Cruz occasionally found the gaps in Frampton's onslaught and landed the uppercut, but there could be no doubt about the two contrasting styles in the final round and what they must have felt in the ring. The Mexican-American was happy to defend and see out the round, working in small bursts, while the defending champion was putting everything into his shots, and was clearly tiring after such a gruelling twelve rounds - at one stage halfway through the round Carl was happy to hold on to Leo for a moment's respite.
In the final ten seconds of this epic encounter, both fighters did what anybody would expect two great champions to do and stood toe-to-toe throwing hell for leather, much to the excitement of the 10,000 fans in attendance. As expected, the two familiar foes embraced in a show of respect to bring the curtain down on the second episode of this phenomenal saga.
The two corners painted different pictures immediately after the bout with celebrations in the corner of Santa Cruz, while Frampton's corner looked downcast.
Legendary ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr read out the scorecards with Burt Clements scoring the bout 114-114. However, he was overruled by Dave Moretti and Glenn Feldman who had identical scorecards of 115-113 in favour of the deserving and new WBA featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz, which parked celebrations in El Terremoto's corner, and brought a smile and applause from The Jackal as he made his way across the ring to congratulate the new champion.
Frampton could be heard thanking the new champion for the great bout after the scorecards were read, Santa Cruz instantly offered a rubber match to which Frampton replied "of course, of course" and joked that they could fight "five, six, seven?" more times with a smile on his face. He even joked in the post-fight press conference that Santa Cruz and his family could come and stay in his house in Belfast, should the champion keep to his word of having the trilogy fight in Frampton's hometown.
A rivalry in boxing without the theatrics and insults at press conferences and weigh-ins is hard to come by these days, and especially hard to sell.
But when you get two great champions, great family men, with the utmost respect for each other outside of the ring, who can switch into complete animals inside the ring when fighting each other, it really is a joy to watch.
Although the Frampton vs Santa Cruz fights haven't provided quite the level of excitement and entertainment that, say, the great Gatti vs Ward trilogy supplied, the mutual respect shown in the lead-up to both fights and the humility shown to each other post-fight is really something to behold, and something that a lot of fighters should look at and learn from.
Massive respect to these gentlemen, and I for one, can't wait to see them go at it again!
Elsewhere in Irish boxing in what was an unusually quiet month there was a big win for Cork's welterweight Noel Murphy on the DeGale vs Jack undercard in Brooklyn as he went 8-0 with a points decision victory over undefeated Maxito Sainvil (now 4-1-1) over six rounds. The 22-year-old now looks forward with confidence to his Irish debut on the Red Corner Promotions bill on 25 February in the national stadium, Dublin.
Meanwhile, the 'Buncrana Banger' John Hutchinson upped his record to 8-2-2 with a first-round knockout victory in a live televised bout in Thailand. After the bout he told irish-boxing.com: “I’m being kept busy now, was just shaking some rust off in this fight. Some big things lined up that will be announced soon. It’s one fight at time but that’s what I want this year, keep busy and keep building.”
Keep your 'Irish Eye' out for next month's column when Irish boxing returns with a bang as MHD Promotions return to the Europa Hotel, Belfast with the 'Inquisition' bill topped by Paul Hyland Jr, as the 26-year-old looks to continue staking his claim for a British title shot. The Boxnation cameras will also roll back into Belfast on 18 February with Jamie Conlan topping a bill which includes Olympian Paddy Barnes, plus two mouth-watering all-Ireland clashes between Declan Geraghty and James Tennyson for the Irish title, while Tyrone McKenna defends his BUI Celtic Warrior title against undefeated Dubliner Jake Hanney.