Leo Santa Cruz’s aggressive, high-volume punching style helped him win his first three world championships. He won a fourth Saturday night by turning from brawler to boxer.
Sticking to his promise to change his game plan in his rematch with 126-pound world champion Carl Frampton (23-1, 14 KOs), Leo Santa Cruz (33-1-1, 18 KOs) used his length and counterpunching to claim a narrow majority decision before 10,085 full-throated fans at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
In eking out the victory in another thrilling—and close—encounter, Santa Cruz reclaimed the same crown he lost to Frampton six months earlier.
Judges Dave Moretti and Glenn Feldman reached the same conclusion on all 12 rounds for identical scores of 115-113, while judge Burt Clements saw it 114-114.
“I’m very happy that I got this win,” said Santa Cruz, who improved to 12-1 in world title fights. “Carl Frampton is a great fighter, a great man [and] I respect him. He gave me a helluva fight. I’ve always said he has everything: great skills, great power, great footwork. But this time, I came with a great game plan.
“There were a lot of experts who said I was going to lose. So I told myself, ‘I’ve got to go out there and work hard to prove them wrong,’ and thank God I did.”
A 29-year-old native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Frampton admitted he was disappointed to have suffered his first professional defeat—especially in front of thousands of Irish fans who made the nearly 4,900-mile trek across the pond to support him. However, the two-time former champion didn’t dispute the decision.
“It was a close fight, but hand on heart, I feel the decision was fair and that Leo won it,” Frampton said. “He deserved to have his hand raised. So congratulations to the new champion.”
Santa Cruz and Frampton engaged in an all-out slugfest in their first meeting on July 30 in Brooklyn, New York. But that night, the Northern Irishman made Santa Cruz pay for his come-forward style, counterpunching his way to a majority decision victory in a Fight of the Year candidate.
This time around, the 28-year-old Santa Cruz insisted he would abandon his trademark aggressive approach to make the most of his 2½-inch height and seven-inch reach advantages by being more of a boxer.
“ Leo told me what he was going to do—he told me he was going to use his distance—and I thought he was bluffing. ” Carl Frampton
Few believed Santa Cruz would actually follow through on his promise—including Frampton.
“He told me what he was going to do—he told me he was going to use his distance—and I thought he was bluffing,” Frampton said. “I thought he was going to come out and just go head first straight at me. So he surprised me. He’s a better boxer on the back foot than I gave him credit for. Leo can do it all.”
Right from the opening bell, Santa Cruz used his jab effectively to establish distance and set up counterpunching opportunities that led to him sweeping the first round.
As the fight progressed, Santa Cruz continued to box from range while picking his spots to engage from in close. And when he did choose to bang with Frampton, the Mexican-American from Los Angeles often won the exchanges, particularly to the body.
All the while, Santa Cruz lured Frampton into his own role reversal: He went from boxer-puncher to more of a come-forward mauler.
“My dad told me if I listened [to him] that I would win the fight,” Santa Cruz said, referring to his father/trainer Jose Santa Cruz. “He told me, ‘It’s going to be a hard fight, Carl Frampton is a great fighter, but just go show that you’re better than him.’ That’s what I did. I went out there and did what I had to do.”
Even as Santa Cruz was having success with his new style, though, Frampton kept the fight close with his own strong body work and slick defense. But Santa Cruz—ever the crafty veteran—managed to flip several even rounds in his favor by getting the better of late-round flourishes.
In so doing, Santa Cruz sent the champion back to his corner a frustrated man.
“I think a lot of the rounds were close, but he used his experience and he stole the rounds with bursts in the last 10-15 seconds,” said Frampton, who became just the second Irish fighter in history to be a two-time world champion when he beat Santa Cruz in the first meeting.
“I was going back to the corner with my head down, thinking, ‘Ten seconds before it was a half-decent round, and Leo stole it.’ But that’s experience for you.”
With thousands of Mexican fans drowning out Frampton’s throngs of Irish supporters, Santa Cruz closed the show strong, sweeping Rounds 9, 10 and 11 on the scorecards.
That proved to be the difference in Santa Cruz—a former 118- and 122-pound titleholder—becoming a champion for a fourth time.
Of course, as was the case following the first Santa Cruz-Frampton clash, both fighters were still dripping sweat in the ring when talk turned to a rubber match.
Just as Frampton said he would offer Santa Cruz an immediate shot at redemption last summer, the newly crowned champion said he was all for taking this rivalry to the trilogy stage.
“If they want to make it a trilogy, then I’m up for it,” said Santa Cruz, who landed 26 percent of his total punches (230 of 884) in the rematch. “He’s a great fighter, a great man, I respect him. So if the managers come to an agreement and they make the third fight, that’s the first fight I would like, because he deserves it.”
That was music to Frampton’s ears—although after being on the road for the first two fights, he’s hopeful that a third matchup would be on his turf.
“I’ve come to the States twice now, and Leo has said he would do it in Belfast a third time. I hope he’s a man of his word,” said Frampton, who connected at a 23 percent clip (133 of 592). “He can come and stay at my house if he wants and we can get it on a third time.
“After that, I would be happy to go to L.A. Who knows? We could do this three, four or five times. The first two were great fights, so let’s give the fans what they want.”
Santa Cruz’s thoughts on having his first overseas fight in Frampton’s backyard?
“I’m a man of my word,” he said. “And a true champion goes anywhere. Because once we get in the ring, it’s just me and Carl Frampton.”
For complete pre- and post-fight coverage of Frampton vs Santa Cruz, visit our fight page.