There’s little doubt that Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz are going to try to beat the hell out of one another when they square off next week in Las Vegas. There’s also little doubt that when it’s all over, the two champions will share a warm, genuine embrace.
At a time when you’re almost as likely to witness a brontosaurus strolling down the street as you are a civil conversation among two adults—see U.S. presidential election, 2016—Frampton and Santa Cruz are living proof that two adversaries can indeed get along and be respectful of one another.
Fight fans saw as much during the lead-up to the first Santa Cruz-Frampton clash last summer, when nary a negative word was slung in either fighter’s direction. Sure, they fought like bitter enemies in that memorable Fight of the Year-caliber war on July 30 in Brooklyn, New York, where Frampton handed Santa Cruz his first professional defeat and took his 126-pound world title in the process.
But as soon as the final bell sounded, the native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the Mexican-American from Los Angeles—two men whose backgrounds are as different as their fighting styles—acted like lifelong best friends.
As they gear up for their highly anticipated rematch on January 28 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT), the admiration between Carl Frampton (23-0, 14 KOs) and Leo Santa Cruz (32-1-1, 18 KOs) seems to only have strengthened.
“You know, I respect anyone I fight, and I’m always going to do that,” Frampton says. “But Leo and I, we’ve definitely shown a lot of respect for each other. He’s a nice guy, and I think I’m a pretty nice guy.
“When you look at what we do, there’s no bullshit, no machoism. When we get in the ring, we fight and give it everything we’ve got to do what it takes to win. But I’m sure we’ll shake hands at the end of the fight again.”
“ Leo and I, we’ve definitely shown a lot of respect for each other. ... But if I see that Leo is hurt, I’m going to try and finish him. And I would expect exactly the same back. ” Carl Frampton, 126-pound world champion
Says Santa Cruz: “Frampton is a great guy. He’s a family guy like me. He has two kids who are the same age as mine—a daughter who is 4 and a son who is 2. So I kind of see myself in him. He’s a great fighter with great skills. I just respect that.”
Frampton says he and Santa Cruz first met in July 2015 in El Paso, Texas, where “The Jackal” rose from a pair of first-round knockdowns and defeated the late Alejandro Gonzalez Jr. to successfully defend his 122-pound world title in his North American debut.
Santa Cruz—who was six weeks away from becoming a three-division world champion with a victory over Abner Mares in a bout for a vacant 126-pound title—attended the bout as a fan, and the two quickly bonded.
A little more than a year later, the new friends were wailing away at one another for 12 action-packed rounds, with Frampton coming away with a majority decision.
While the violent way in which the two friends went after one another last summer may seem a bit contradictory, Frampton is quick to remind that business is business. The 29-year-old Northern Irishman says whether he’s fighting an opponent he likes or loathes, his approach and mindset never change.
“If I fought my best friend, I’d try to knock him out, and that’s the truth. That’s the name of the game,” he says. “For instance, if I see that Leo is hurt [in the rematch], I’m going to try and finish him. And I would expect exactly the same back.”
Both fighters stressed that whenever they set foot in the ring, they’re fighting more for their families than themselves. Because of that, Santa Cruz acknowledges it can be difficult to face an opponent he admires, knowing that while a victory can go a long way toward solidfying his family's future, it could have the opposite effect on his foe.
“It’s really hard,” says Santa Cruz, 28. “You know he’s doing the same thing you are: fighting for his family. And knowing if you beat him, you’re going to kind of be taking something away from them. But then I sit back and say, ‘If it’s not him, it’s me.’”
So come January 28, expect Frampton and Santa Cruz to attack each other with the same ferocity as the first time around. Just don’t be surprised later that night if you happen to run into them sharing a post-fight beverage at the hotel bar.
“There’s no hard feelings,” Santa Cruz says. “If he’s the better fighter, if he wins, I’ll respect that, and I’ll be glad to drink a beer or do a shot of tequila with him. And if I beat him, the same thing.”
Says Frampton: “If Leo wants to have a drink and sit there and shake hands after the fight, I’m more than happy to do it.”
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