Tuesday 24 October 2017

Comment - No real loser as friendly foes head for lucrative decider in the city of sin

Carl Frampton is forced on to the canvas by Leo Santa Cruz during their world title fight in Las Vegas last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Carl Frampton is forced on to the canvas by Leo Santa Cruz during their world title fight in Las Vegas last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

When Barry McGuigan lost his title in Las Vegas all those years ago, it felt like the end of the world for him and his legions of fans on this side of the Atlantic.

His performance over 15 rounds against Stevie Cruz under a broiling sun ranks among the most courageous ever delivered by an Irish sportsman anywhere. It was one of the most traumatic ever witnessed by the Irish sporting public, too.

That was in June 1986. Last weekend his client and protégé Carl Frampton also lost a world featherweight title to a fighter named Cruz in Las Vegas. But the consequences will not be nearly as devastating.

Being a world champion meant a lot more then than it does now. Boxing's fragmentation into multiple organisations with multiple weights and multiple belts had not yet spiralled. McGuigan had held the WBA version; the alternative was the WBC. The IBF was in its infancy, the WBO wouldn't materialise until the end of the '80s. The television industry was still similarly consolidated among powerhouse broadcasters before technology and market forces began to splinter it into hundreds of channels.

McGuigan didn't have the array of choices, for championship belts and TV money, that is available now. Your world title in that era was hard-earned, tough to defend and costly to lose.

Frampton, if anything, has guaranteed himself more money by losing to Leo Santa Cruz last Saturday night. A victory would have left him 2-0 up in their head-to-head sequence with a third fight therefore superfluous, and hard to sell, despite their chemistry in the ring.

They had showcased that chemistry in their first contest, last July, when Frampton relieved the Mexican of his title. The fight was deemed an instant classic. The protagonists knocked sparks off each other that night in New York. It was an ideal compound of high-calibre talent, elite fitness levels and opposite fighting styles. It is an irony of the game that the best battles are often produced from such a smoothly interlocking pair. It doesn't happen frequently and, when it does, fight fans want to see more of it. The potential for a sustained rivalry between Frampton and Santa Cruz was immediately apparent. A re-match was inevitable.

And somehow the prospect of a Santa Cruz victory looked inevitable too. It seemed to be hanging in the air, long before they touched gloves in the ring at the MGM Grand. The rivalry just looked and felt like a trilogy in the making since that night in Brooklyn last summer. Santa Cruz would have the more urgent motivation. A second defeat in a row would see him tumbling down the ranks. It would cement Frampton's superiority. And he would be fighting in effectively a home venue, galvanised by thousands of Hispanic supporters. Basically the challenger had a bigger reason to win. And in another terrific contest, he duly prevailed.

One wonders if the Frampton team, his manager McGuigan included, had subconsciously permitted some complacency, just the tiniest hint of slippage, knowing that defeat would lead merely to a third showdown somewhere further down the line.

Every fighter who knows his boxing history knows that a trilogy is special, it becomes part of the folklore of the game. Frampton for example has surely heard of, and probably watched, the sensational triptych between Arturo Gatti and 'Irish' Micky Ward in 2002/03.

Last weekend, as soon as the final bell sounded, the putative third fight became the theme of the night. "I'm deeply disappointed," said the Belfast man, "I thought I could make it two-nil. But if you want to look at the benefits, the plus sides - let's make it a trilogy and let's have our names linked forever together."

One of the judges scored it a draw, the other two favoured Santa Cruz. In keeping with his reputation as a civil human being, Frampton immediately endorsed the verdict. His opponent had deserved the win on the night. McGuigan did likewise. Their magnanimity was widely commended, especially for its rarity in such tight circumstances.

Just about everyone else agreed with the decision too. Santa Cruz had been smarter and sharper. He had learned more from the first fight and, to repeat the point, fought like the man who needed it more. He too was immediately amenable afterwards to the prospect of a third instalment. Both parties were said to have discussed it during negotiations before the second fight.

"Of course," he replied when asked about it in the ring. "I'm a man of my word, I said I'd be happy to give him a third fight. We're both great fighters, we deserve it and we're gonna do it again."

By "deserve", he probably meant the money on offer. According to Dan Rafael, the boxing correspondent with ESPN.com, Frampton's purse was $1m, Santa Cruz's $900,000. This is not outlandish money but both men have young families and another bout would go a long way towards achieving financial security. McGuigan and Frampton naturally declared a preference for Belfast as the third venue. Santa Cruz and the television paymasters will probably insist on Vegas again.

The great gambling town in the Nevada desert has left its scars on McGuigan. But the pain accrued last weekend is probably already fading, mellowed by the prospect of regaining the belt, soothed by the healing thoughts of another lucrative night in the city of sin and sporting chances.

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