Santa Cruz, Frampton ready to risk unbeaten records in 126-pound title clash

Carl Frampton’s career was cruising right along until the very first round of his very first fight on U.S. soil.

Leo Santa Cruz and Carl Frampton

Leo Santa Cruz (left) and Carl Frampton will bring a combined 54-0-1 record into Saturday's battle for Santa Cruz's 126-pound title in Brooklyn, New York. (Andy Samuelson/Premier Boxing Champions)

Soon after his fight with Alejandro Gonzalez Jr. began a year ago in El Paso, Texas, Frampton stunningly was dropped to the canvas—not once, but twice. The Northern Irishman picked himself up both times, regrouped and rallied for a convincing unanimous decision victory to retain his 122-pound title.

Looking back on his first-round performance against Gonzalez, Frampton uses adjectives such as “terrible” and “disastrous.” But those aren’t the only words he chooses.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” he says.

The way Frampton sees it, showing vulnerability against Gonzalez—a fight for which the champion struggled to make weight—opened up opportunities to face fighters who previously weren’t all too eager to get in the ring with him.

Fighters like fellow U.K. native Scott Quigg, whom Frampton defeated on February 27 in a 122-pound title unification bout in London. And Leo Santa Cruz (32-0-1, 18 KOs), who will defend his 126-pound title for a second time when he battles Carl Frampton (22-0, 14 KOs) on Saturday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).

The fight will represent Frampton’s first at 126 pounds and both boxers’ Big Apple debut.

“Quigg and Santa Cruz wouldn’t have happened if not for Gonzalez,” says the 29-year-old Frampton, who weighed in Friday at 125¼ pounds, while Santa Cruz tipped the scales at 125½. “I’ve been chasing these guys for a long time, and wanted to fight Santa Cruz. After I get put on my backside, the guys I’ve chased [suddenly] want to fight me. I’m glad [the knockdowns] happened.”

Santa Cruz, a 27-year-old three-division champ from Los Angeles, has acknowledged he’s looking to exploit perceived flaws in Frampton, saying “I think he sometimes drops his hands too much.”

At the same time, Santa Cruz is quick to praise his opponent’s skills.

“I have a lot of respect for Frampton,” says the Mexican-American champion. “He has everything you need to be a great fighter—excellent footwork, great power and good punches.”

I see Frampton as someone trying to come and take away everything I worked hard for. I can’t let that happen. Leo Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a seemingly tireless high-volume puncher who never stops coming forward, and he says his game plan will be to put pressure on Frampton—who possesses impeccable defense—and attempt to lure him into exchanges.

“I think he’s going to move, and I’m going to have to be smart and not get caught,” Santa Cruz said. “If I’m not feeling his punches, then we’re going to stand in front of him and exchange. I can also box with him if I need to.

“We have a game plan and backup plans. We’ll be ready for anything.”

At 5-foot-7½ with a 69-inch reach, Santa Cruz will have decided advantages over the 5-foot-5 Frampton, who has a 62-inch reach. But neither fighter expects those facts to play a part in the bout’s outcome. Same goes for Frampton’s rise in weight.

“I don’t think moving up in weight will affect Carl at all,” Santa Cruz said. “He’s got a big frame, and he’s a big guy. He is probably a little bit bigger than me. I know he had problems making 122 pounds, but this should be easier for him.”

Frampton says he outgrew 122 pounds some 18 months ago, but remained in the division because he was the champion and felt an obligation to defend his crown. But doing so came at a cost.

“It was hurting me making 122, and doing so took away from my power,” said Frampton, who had stopped five of six opponents before facing Gonzalez and Quigg. “I was hurting sparring partners in the gym sitting around at 130 or 132, but with smaller gloves on fight night, I wasn’t having the same effect.

“Leo’s a come-forward fighter who hasn’t fought anyone who punches as hard as me. When he gets hit with my power, he may have to think twice about [being aggressive].”

Frampton is expecting a large contingent of fans—both from his homeland and the New York Irish community—to be in his corner at Barclays Center. And he has no intention of disappointing them.

“Leo is a great fighter. He’s world class—easily the toughest opponent I’ve faced so far,” Frampton said. “But I think I’m Leo’s best opponent as well. This has all the ingredients to be a top quality fight, and I’m ready to leave everything in the ring.

“There’s been one other Irishman who’s won two world titles in two weight divisions, and that was Steve Collins, so I would be making a bit of history for myself.”

Santa Cruz is all for Frampton making that history—just not against him Saturday night.

“I see Frampton as someone trying to come and take away everything I worked hard for. I can’t let that happen,” said Santa Cruz, who defeated Abner Mares last summer to win his 126-pound crown, then defended it with a fifth-round TKO of Kiko Martinez on February 27.

“Frampton will be strong for the first couple of rounds and then gas out. My pressure and volume of punches will break him down, get him tired and, by the later rounds, probably stop him.”

Santa Cruz has been preparing for this fight as though his brother, Antonio, would serve as his lead cornerman in place of their father, Jose, who has been undergoing treatment for bone cancer. However, the elder Santa Cruz made the trip to New York and said Thursday that he intends to resume his role as lead trainer, much to the delight of his son.

"My dad is going to be doing all of the talking and everything, and my brother will be the assistant, just like always," Leo Santa Cruz said. "It's going to be like nothing's changed."

Said Jose Santa Cruz: "I feel as if I'm going to be 100 percent [on Saturday], and I thank God for that feeling. God willing, I will maintain my strength and I'll do what I've always done for my son in his corner."

For complete pre- and post-fight coverage of Santa Cruz vs Frampton, bounce over to our fight page.

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