Carl Frampton didn’t exactly take America by storm in his U.S. debut, but a shaky showing in that fight actually helped launch him to the top of the boxing world.
Frampton carried a 122-pound world championship into his July 2015 showdown with Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Jr. in El Paso, Texas, but the Northern Irishman's reign was immediately put at risk when he was knocked down twice in Round 1 of his second title defense.
Frampton quickly regrouped and dominated Gonzalez over the rest of the fight as he earned a wide unanimous decision to retain his title. However, the early knockdowns provided a wake-up call for “The Jackal,” who acknowledges that he underestimated his relatively unknown challenger and didn’t properly prepare for the bout.
“I learned a lot from that fight. Obviously, it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to,” Frampton said. “It was my second-to-last fight at 122, and I struggled to make the weight.
“The morning of the weigh-in, I had to lose almost six pounds, and then I didn’t have the normal time to recover [for the fight], because it was a 3 o’clock show, and normally I’m fighting around 10 [p.m.], so I had seven hours less to hydrate, which wasn’t ideal.”
After struggling to get past Gonzalez, however, the 29-year-old native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, soared in 2016 as he earned Fighter of the Year honors from most boxing media outlets, including PremierBoxingChampions.com.
Frampton opened last year by unifying 122-pound world titles in February with a split decision over undefeated British rival Scott Quigg in Manchester, England. He then capped his breakout year in July by moving up to 126 pounds and defeating three-division champion Leo Santa Cruz by majority decision in a thrilling Fight of the Year candidate in Brooklyn, New York.
Carl Frampton (23-0, 14 KOs) now will attempt to put his early stamp on the new year Saturday when he defends his 126-pound title in a rematch with Leo Santa Cruz (32-1-1, 18 KOs) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).
“I didn’t show everything I could do in the Gonzalez fight, and people still had their doubts,” Frampton said. “But after the [first] Leo Santa Cruz fight, I seemed to get more respect from other fighters, from the press, from everyone.
“That’s the big test for British fighters: They need to come over here and beat a good fighter. If someone, even a world champion, is just fighting their whole career in the U.K., there are still a lot of question marks from the Americans.
"This is the market you want to break, so it was important for me to fight a guy like Leo and beat him to make people understand that I’m a good fighter.”
“ If I had put Alejandro Gonzalez away in one or two rounds, these guys wouldn’t want to be fighting me. They saw a vulnerability and then that’s when they wanted to fight, and obviously it’s worked in my favor. ” Carl Frampton
Although it was his win over Santa Cruz that propelled him to boxing superstardom, Frampton called the Gonzalez fight “the most important of my career,” because it created opportunities for him that might not have surfaced with a dominant performance in El Paso.
“It made me kind of readjust and look at things differently. It also made the Quigg and Santa Cruz fights [happen],” Frampton said. “If I had put Alejandro Gonzalez away in one or two rounds, these guys wouldn’t want to be fighting me. They saw a vulnerability and then that’s when they wanted to fight, and obviously it’s worked in my favor.”
Irish legend and former 126-pound world champion Barry McGuigan, who now works as Frampton’s manager, agreed that his fighter’s lackluster performance against the late Gonzalez ultimately proved to be a blessing.
“It’s ironic how a bad performance opens up the door for these two major fights, but it’s kind of indicative of how fighters are these days,” McGuigan said. “They don’t want to fight guys that they consider dangerous unless they see a chink in their armor, and then suddenly they want to do business.”
With Frampton now about to fight in the U.S. for the third time in his last four bouts, he's no longer flying under the radar in America.
But while Frampton desires to return to the U.K. for his next bout—preferably a 126-pound unification battle against Welshman Lee Selby, who has a title defense of his own on Saturday’s card—McGuigan said it is imperative that his fighter maintains a high profile on this side of the pond.
“To get the gravitas in this business—and I don’t care what anybody tells you—you have to be recognized and appreciated in North America,” McGuigan said. “This is the place where you have to establish your name and your respect.
“I appeared on terrestrial TV four times before I fought for the world title, and I got a tremendous following in America. And although my reign was short, people remember me and the impact I had because I came here. And as much as Carl wants to fight at home, the reality is, you get your respect here.”
For a complete look at Frampton vs Santa Cruz, visit our fight page.