Saturday 24 February 2018

Carl Frampton on cusp of becoming Ireland's first two-weight world champion since Steve Collins

Frampton: “This fight was so hard to turn down.” Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Frampton: “This fight was so hard to turn down.” Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile

Joe Callaghan

Millstreet it most certainly is not. On a triangle carved out of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn, the Barclays Center rises up from the concrete in a swirl of weathered steel and walls of glass.

It is here, in this hulking $1 billion hall, that Carl Frampton will bid to create history tonight and in the process relight a link that stretches 21 years back across the Atlantic to the Green Glens Arena.

Not since Steve Collins inflicted the first defeat of Chris Eubank's life and claimed the WBO super middleweight strap has Ireland had a two-weight champion of the world.

The Jackal and his network of McGuigans have bided their time, waited for their moment to come. It comes tonight in the shape of WBA super featherweight king Leo Santa Cruz, a devastating three-weight world champion who ranks as one of the most daunting prospects in the sport. For Frampton, it was a no-brainier.

"This fight was so hard to turn down," admitted the Belfast fighter, making his prime-time headline debut stateside at 29.

"Madison Square Garden was always the Mecca but now the Barclays Center has started to take over. You get offered to become a two-weight world champion against a great fighter like Santa Cruz, and to be honest, there's a lot of money involved. It's a business."

Frampton has made winning his primary business for seven years now. But for the first time in his professional life tonight, he will enter the arena as an underdog. That, more than anything, tells you everything you need to know about the pedigree of El Terremoto, the earthquake waiting on the other side of the ring.

These are two fighters in the very fillet of their late-20s prime. Champions both, men for whom defeat is an alien feeling, Frampton and Santa Cruz bring a near-perfect contrast of styles into the Brooklyn ring. It's why so many see a bout brimming with fight of the year potential.

"It might start off tepid but it will build up and become exciting quickly," predicted mentor and manager Barry McGuigan.

"He'll be down the barrel with Santa Cruz all the time, he throws on average 150 punches a round. No matter what way you throw it around, the mesh of styles makes for a fantastic fight.

"Because they're both committed, Carl more in a counter-punching position but Santa Cruz likes to come at you. He can box at a distance but he likes to come forward.

"He's talking about fighting Carl at a distance but that's just a red herring. He'll come at us."

When Santa Cruz comes looking, he usually ends up finding. His slight height advantage will help tonight but not nearly as much as his eight-inch reach superiority.

Those Duracell deliveries, the endless streams of shots have proved devastating to the likes of Abner Mares and Kiko Martinez in the past 12 months.

The flurries can leave him open however. Frampton, crushing on the counter, will need to be just as light on his feet at featherweight as he was a super bantamweight. If he can glide and hang tough, things will get interesting fast.

"All the pressure is on Santa Cruz, people are expecting him to win," said Frampton.

"I'm going to come out here to upset things. I'm not here to take part, I'm here to come home with the WBA world featherweight title and bring it back to Belfast."

His trainer, Shane McGuigan, struggled to keep a grin from creeping from the side of his mouth as he thought of his charge landing Santa Cruz with his first power punch at this higher class.

McGuigan had been adamant in El Paso last summer - when Frampton had flirted with disaster on his US debut against Alejandro Gonzalez Jr - that it was high time for his charge to move up in weight.

One fight later, he's got his wish and he's eager to see the results.

"It feels like they think this is going to be a bit of an easy fight and I can't wait to see Leo Santa Cruz's face and his dad's face and his brother's face when Carl starts hitting him around the side of the head," McGuigan said.

"This is no easy fight. I've seen him in the gym, his style is perfect for Carl. We want that guy, hands up, hands forward, throwing lots of leather because it leaves him open and when Carl spots an opening..."

From Millstreet to Brooklyn. More than anything else, history is opening before Carl Frampton tonight.

Over to the Jackal.

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