Carl Frampton insisted that a rise in weight would greatly increase his punching power and stability against 126-pound champion Leo Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz figured his aggression and volume punching would overcome whatever the ex-122-pound champ offered.
As was the case with his punches in the ring, Frampton’s pre-fight assertion proved a little more accurate than his opponent’s.
Displaying superior boxing skills, precision punching prowess and a granite chin, Carl Frampton (23-0, 14 KOs) on Saturday scored a dramatic majority decision victory over Leo Santa Cruz (32-1-1, 18 KOs) in an action-packed brawl at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Two judges scored the Fight of the Year-caliber contest 117-111 and 116-112 for Frampton, while the third had it 114-114.
Those scores gave Santa Cruz his first professional defeat, while making Frampton the second Irishman to win two world titles—joining former 160- and 168-pound champion Steve Collins—and the first Northern Irishman to accomplish the feat.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Frampton, a 29-year-old native of Belfast. “I had the dream of winning a world title and I won it, but I never thought I’d win [a title] in two divisions.
“It was a tough fight, [but] I wanted it to be a tough fight, because I wanted a fight the people could remember. I respect [Santa Cruz] a lot. He was a true warrior.”
Frampton had blamed extreme weight loss for a poor early showing in his U.S. debut last July, when he rose from a pair of first-round knockdowns against Alejandro Gonzalez Jr., but rallied to defend his 122-pound title with a unanimous decision.
“The Jackal” was certain he would be stronger in his first fight at 126 pounds, and he sure looked the part, standing tall against the more than 1,000 punches Santa Cruz threw while firing back big shots of his own.
While Santa Cruz had a slight edge in overall punches landed (255-242), Frampton scored more power shots (211-191). Most telling, Frampton’s connect percentage of 36.2 dwarfed that of Santa Cruz, whose rate of 25.4 percent was more than 20 points off his average over his previous eight bouts.
“I had a good game plan. Shane [McGuigan] was an unbelievable coach,” said Frampton, referring to his trainer and the younger brother of promoter and former 126-pound Irish champion Barry McGuigan. “He told me every time I came back into the corner that we could win this a lot easier. But I won it with my heart, not with my head, and I got my hand raised.”
Despite it being just his second fight in the U.S., Frampton had the majority of the 9,062 fans in attendance on his side the entire night. He gave his supporters much to cheer about early on as he came out boxing and moving effectively behind his jab and right hand.
Frampton started pressing the action in the second, when with about 45 seconds remaining in the frame, he sent Santa Cruz staggering backward into the ropes courtesy of a short, powerful left to the temple.
Although he failed to become the second man to drop Santa Cruz, Frampton continued to beat his 27-year-old opponent to the punch in the third, highlighted by a pair of head-swiveling right uppercuts with about a minute to go.
In the fourth and fifth, the 5-foot-5 Frampton had the taller Santa Cruz running into counter shots, absorbing right hands in order to position himself for his own solid left hooks, many of which landed flush.
Santa Cruz was at his best in the sixth and seventh rounds—which he swept on the judges’ cards—landing the cleaner rights and lefts to the head during furious, crowd-pleasing exchanges. One of those hard right hands wobbled Frampton late in the sixth.
Frampton started to regain control beginning in Round 8 by showing his versatility, out-maneuvering Santa Cruz from distance, and firing powerful and effective left-right combinations.
Sensing the result was in doubt, both fighters went for broke in the final two rounds, throwing and landing a barrage of power shots from close range while displaying incredible resilience as they refused to give ground.
Clearly, with each big punch thrown—and absorbed—down the stretch, both men were determined to do whatever was necessary to leave the arena with their unbeaten record intact. In the end, only Frampton was able to do so.
“It was a tough fight from the beginning,” said Santa Cruz, who was making the second defense of the 126-pound title he won last summer from Abner Mares. “We knew it was going to be a tough fight, but I thought it was close when I was in there throwing.
“It’s hard to get your first loss, but now we’ll go back to the gym.”
Both fighters were extremely respectful of each other before and after the fight. However, Santa Cruz—a Los Angeles-based Mexican-American who was fighting for the first time on the East Coast—made it clear that he thought the judges were at times swayed by the boisterous pro-Frampton crowd.
“Maybe the judges were hearing the crowd and thought that every little punch was scoring,” he said. “Maybe without that we would have had a draw or maybe a decision.”
Although there was no rematch clause, both fighters said they’d be willing to rumble again. However, both prefer that Round 2 take place in their own backyard.
“A rematch would be a great fight,” Frampton said. “And I would love to take this man to Belfast and show the people there what a great fighter he is.”
Said Santa Cruz: “We’ll get the rematch and we’ll win, and [then this] loss will mean nothing. I want to have a rematch in Los Angeles, but I’ll go to Belfast, too.”
For full pre- and post-fight coverage of Santa Cruz vs Frampton, check out our fight page.