IF this is what the American Dream really is like, you’d hate to get a glimpse of the nightmare.
After 36 minutes of the most intense, violent and punishing minutes you are likely to see in a sporting arena in this calendar year, Carl Frampton made history by becoming the first Ulsterman to win world titles at two different weights.
And yet it came at a price. His perfectly conditioned body – which proved more than capable of withstanding the searingly accurate and painful force of Leo Santa Cruz’s punches – was bruised, bloodied and battered by the end of 12 compelling yet brutal rounds of boxing.
In the aftermath, the rhetoric was about building a legacy as well as an even larger fanbase.
“Barry McGuigan (Frampton’s manager and friend) is still remembered in Belfast, 30 years after he was champion,” Frampton said. “My dream is that I can be remembered too three decades from now.”
He will be. After Saturday, especially, that wish is guaranteed – because if it is one thing to win a world title on your home patch, and another thing to defend it in a domestic squabble, as Frampton did when he disposed of Scott Quigg in a dull encounter in February, it is quite another to go to America as a challenger and return with the belt.
It rarely happens. In the twentieth century, Ted Kid Lewis, Alan Minter, Lloyd Honeyghan, Nigel Benn and Lennox Lewis were the only British fighters to achieve that feat – and while Frampton – like McGuigan before him – doesn’t make a big deal about which flag he fights under, it’s worth bearing that history in mind when it comes to placing this victory in its proper context.
For the record, he was a huge underdog coming into the fight. Plus he was the challenger – having moved up from super bantamweight where he had partially unified the division.
His Mexican, by way of California, opponent was regarded as one of Showtime’s poster boys. Blessed with wicked speed, boundless energy and a nasty warrior’s streak which had seen him return almost perfect credentials (32 wins and a draw with 18 knock outs) prior to Saturday’s thriller, Santa Cruz seemingly had everything going for him.
And while there is no doubt he respected Frampton in advance of the fight, there is also a firm reason to believe he had revised his opinion of the Belfast man by the end of a second round when he had been rocked backwards by a chopping left hook.Fighting behind a low stance, which gave him the freedom to attack with surging verve and from a variety of angles, Frampton took the first three rounds easily. Yet from there, mystery set in. The fourth, fifth, ninth, tenth and final rounds were so even, they could easily have been awarded to either man.
That two of the judges opted to favour Frampton by wide margins – one of them scoring the fight 117-111, was baffling. Even his fiercest supporters would struggle to argue there was more than a point or two in the difference. Yet it hardly seems to matter now. Frampton is the champion.
“I’m just so proud of him,” McGuigan said afterwards. “He is a destined to become one of the greatest Irish fighters of all time. And he is much better than I was. He digs deep. He is incredibly skilful but he is also incredibly brave.”
We saw as much in the early hours of Sunday morning. After making that blistering start, when he clearly won the opening three rounds and arguably was the better man in the fourth and fifth, Santa Cruz responded with some of the best boxing of the night in the sixth and seventh, hurting Frampton with some thunderous head shots. Yet the Ulsterman coped.
In reality, Frampton had to mix it to prove to Santa Cruz he was no pushover and that in this brutal, violent but skilful game, the delivery of pain is the greatest way of making a man do what you want him to.
And in those moments, which ringside spectator Rory McIlroy later described as the ‘most absorbing’ he has ever encountered in his lifetime playing or watching sport, we saw two men reach into the depths of their souls to reach levels of excellence they never had before.
“I wanted to be in a fight with a true champion,” Frampton said. “It was one I had to win because if I am to leave a legacy, if I am – as I joked in the immediate aftermath of the fight – to be able to walk into a pub in Belfast and not have to buy a pint, then I needed to come through tests like this.”
— SHOWTIME Boxing (@ShowtimeBoxing) July 31, 2016
That he did stems from two things – the resilience of his belief and the technical quality of his fighting game. He can box and scrap, do the job from distance or in close. He can take a punch and give one. He can go 12 rounds or finish the job early. He is possibly on his way to becoming the greatest Irish boxer we have ever seen.
Yet if this to happen then he has to go again. Lee Selby, the hard Welshman who holds the IBF featherweight crown, is an option. So is a rematch with Santa Cruz. Oscar Valdez brings danger and quality in equal measure. Gary Russell Jnr is a fine champion, too. Victory over any of those men would cement Frampton’s reputation.
But one thing is clear. Victories in America earn you kudos and dollars but victories on home soil earns you love and the legacy he craves. His next fight should be in Belfast. Win there and he’ll never have to stick his hand in his pocket again.