Carl Frampton loses title in Las Vegas to Leo Santa Cruz but trilogy fight beckons
Carl Frampton surrendered his WBA World featherweight belt in Las Vegas after suffering a majority loss to Leo Santa Cruz who avenged the defeat he suffered to the Irish fighter in New York last July.
The Jackal Army was silenced inside the 17,000 seater Grand Garden Arena in the MGM as the Mexican-American, whose career was on the line,stepped up to the plate to inflict a first ever defeat on Frampton since he turned professional in 2009.
As he had promised in the build-up, Santa Cruz had learned valuable lessons from his loss against Frampton in New York and he gave a much more controlled performance. Still, it was desperately close. One judge scored it a draw while the other two officials gave Santa Cruz the verdict 115-113.
But already there is talk of a third fight between the pair though it remains to be seen whether Santa Cruz would be prepared to defend his belt in Ireland. The more likely scenario is a third fight will be back in Las Vegas.
“It was a very tough fight. I thought Leo deserved it. I want to apologise to my fans and I feel sorry for them. He told me what he was going to do. But it's 1-1 but let's do it again. No excuses though I think I can do better. I hope Leo is a man of his word and comes to Belfast now,” said Frampton.
In a city where fortunes can be won and lost in seconds, two of the best nine stone fighters in the world put their careers on the line.
After a cagey opening thirty seconds the fighters finally engaged but it was obvious that contrary to expectations in the Frampton camp, Santa Cruz kept his distance, making it more difficult for Frampton to hurt him. The defending title holder did catch him briefly in the corner near the end of the round but Santa Cruz probably nicked it.
Again it was Santa Cruz who appeared the more accurate puncher in the second half – he was throwing less punches than normal but with more accuracy while Frampton had still to hit his stride. Frampton finally looked more comfortable in the third, avoiding most of Santa Cruz's jabs and finally getting his left hook into action but it was desperately close.
There were more cagey exchanges in the fourth as Frampton got to grips with Santa Cruz's range and he caught his opponent on the ropes as they exchanged a serious of vicious hooks midway through the round. Frampton was on the canvas near the end of the round but the referee ruled it as a slip.
As the contest settled down it was evident that Santa Cruz's disciplined approach was troubling the Irishman and he looked in trouble just before the end of the round, shipping flurry of punches which probably gave the challenger the round.
Frampton punched better in the sixth round but there was little sign of Santa Cruz wilting – even his fans found their voice again and the champion skipped away delightfully from the challenger at the end of the round and overall probably did enough to nick it.
The seventh round produced more of the same though Santa Cruz was having less success than in the first half of the fight whereas Frampton appeared to be growing in confidence and for the second round in a row he showed terrific defensive skills to avoid a late onslaught at the end of the round. But one wondered whether this impressed the judges.
Even though it was an entirely different kind of contest that their first showdown in July it was another classic. And as Frampton's trainer Shane McGuigan had predicted his fighter looked to be on target to finish the contest in better shape. Frampton was getting few opportunities to attack Santa Cruz's body ,though it wasn't clear whether he did enough to win the round.
But everybody agreed that the contest remained balanced on a knife-edge. Santa Cruz found a second wind in round 9 and he caught the champion flush on the face with a left jab. Near the end of the round the pair of them just stood up and exchanged a barrage of blows.
Santa Cruz's jab was busy in round ten again as Frampton struggled and the crowd chanted Leo, Leo. It looked like Frampton's unbeaten record and World title was hanging in the balance and he missed with two big shots at the end of the round.
Frampton needed a big finish to the fight and he started the penultimate round in solid fashion working the jab well but Santa Cruz weathered that early storm and the champion was forced to give way.
Sensing that they were on the verge of a historic victory the Santa Cruz fans were in full voice at the start of the 12th and final round but Frampton showed that he had no intension of surrendering his crown without a fight although he never looked like delivering the kind of blow which would have floored the challenger.
The mutual respect between the two fighters was obvious when the bell sounded to signal the end of the fight. The odds are that the pair will meet a third time. But from Frampton's reaction it was obvious that he had accepted that he had surrendered his crown and 23 fight unbeaten record in the professional ranks.
The closeness of the scores was reflected on the three judges' cards. One judge gave each fighter six rounds each while the other two scored it 7-5 for Santa Cruz, both awarding the winner the same seven winning rounds.
"I hope so, I hope he is a man of his word and we can do it in Belfast," Frampton said on Sky Sports 1. "I have come to the States twice. We could do it four, five, six times. I hope we do it again.
"I am deeply disappointed but let's have a trilogy and have our names linked together forever and hopefully I can win 2-1."
It was a smart performance by Santa Cruz, who improved immeasurably from the first bout in New York last summer, and his tactics shocked Frampton.
"I think it was the right decision, I thought it was close," the Northern Irishman added. "He frustrated me at times, I didn't expect that game plan, the boxer got out-boxed by the brawler. I thought it was the right decision, I hope we can do it again, it was a close fight.
"I have got no excuses, I feel I want to say sorry, I feel like I have let everyone down. The best man won on the night. I am gutted. It was my fault."
Santa Cruz admits he had to fight against his instinct as well as Frampton.
"I worked hard and did what I had t," he said. "I fought a great fighter and let's make a third fight. He is a great fighter and a great counter-puncher. It was tough to change my style, in my head I wanted to go for it, but I was told to box him and that's what I did.
"I am a man of my word. We are both great fighters, we deserve it and let's go again."