Sunday, May 28, 2023  |



Carl Frampton shows off his versatility to beat Leo Santa Cruz

Fighters Network
Photo by Ed Diller/DiBella Entertainment

Photo by Ed Diller/DiBella Entertainment

In a career-defining performance, Northern Ireland’s Carl Frampton showed off his versatility, powering his way through the first half of the fight and boxing smartly to victory in the second.

Leo Santa Cruz tried his best to lure Frampton into a brawl but Frampton, a former unified champion at 122 pounds, boxed and blasted and presented a style that Santa Cruz, taller and longer, was never able to solve.

Frampton showed multiple dimensions to wrest away Santa Cruz’s WBA featherweight title by majority decision in a fast-moving, thrilling fight Saturday at Barclays Center before an announced crowd of 9,062 screaming fans, most of whom seemed to be for Frampton.

In winning his debut at 126 pounds, Frampton (23-0, 14 knockouts) became the first boxer from Northern Ireland to become a two-division champion. He also captured the belt that his manager and mentor, Barry McGuigan, once held from 1985-86 in the WBA featherweight strap, adding some poignancy to the proceedings. McGuigan was on his feet for most of the rounds, screaming encouragement at his pupil, who won by scores of 114-114 (Guido Cavalleri), 116-112 (Frank Lombardi) and 117-111 (Tom Schreck) over Santa Cruz (32-1-1, 18 KOs), a former three-division titleholder.

Frampton’s first trip to the U.S. last year nearly ended in disaster. He was floored twice in the first round and had to rise to win a decision against Alejandro Gonzalez. This time around, he never tasted the canvas, though he did have to walk through fire at times against an opponent who doubles as a punching machine.

“It’s a dream come true,” Frampton said in the ring afterward. “I had the dream of winning a world title and I won it, but I never thought I’d win in two divisions. It was a tough fight. I wanted it to be a tough fight because I wanted a fight the people could remember. I respect him a lot.  He was a true warrior.”

Both men had their moments but it was Frampton’s ability to switch up when the moment called for it that stood out. “I had a good game plan,” he said. “I won it with my heart, not with my head, and I got my hand raised. Distance control and hitting hard.  I won the fight because I didn’t lose control. I earned his respect early in the fight with my distance control and hard punching. I would love to take this man to Belfast for a rematch and show the people there what a great fighter he is.”

They didn’t waste any time feeling the other out. Frampton staggered Santa Cruz with a slicing left hook midway through the second that caused Santa Cruz to lurch into the ropes. Frampton landed another right moments later that also seemed to hurt Santa Cruz.

When he was buzzed, Santa Cruz would smile, and through three rounds he was smiling often. Frampton landed a big left in the fourth but Santa Cruz returned fire with a right hand. Santa Cruz began to find a home for his right in the fourth. (He smiles after he lands, too.) In the sixth, the two decided to stop moving and lean into each other and just windmill shots.

When there was separation between the two, Santa Cruz lowered a few right-lefts that briefly shook the 5-foot-5 boxer from Belfast. The sixth was Santa Cruz’s best round so far. Santa Cruz continued to impose his will on the smaller fighter in the seventh, landing a beautiful three-punch combination to punctuate the round that included a digging body shot. Frampton stood his ground, however, in the eighth, reversing the tide with a series of thudding lefts that halted Santa Cruz’s assault.

While Santa Cruz was the aggressor, Frampton found success with landing the cleaner shots in the eighth when he was boxing and not trading blows. It was a subtle adjustment but it was paying off — Frampton choosing to move and unload when Santa Cruz came forward.

But it wasn’t a cakewalk the rest of the way. Santa Cruz landed a pair of crushing overhand rights against Frampton in the 11th as Frampton was lured back into a brawl, where Santa Cruz was at home. He bloodied Frampton’s mouth in the 12th as the two traded punches at the final bell and then embraced. Santa Cruz thought the judges may have been persuaded by the crowd’s loud support of Frampton.

“It was a tough fight from the beginning,” Santa Cruz said. “We knew it was going to be a tough fight, but I thought it was close when I’m in there throwing. Maybe the judges were hearing the crowd and thought that every little punch was scoring. He has a difficult style, but we know his style and (will) get him in the rematch. The crowd was cheering, and I think the judges saw that. And maybe, without that, we would have had a draw or maybe a decision.”

Santa Cruz’s father, Jose, is battling bone cancer that he said is nearly in remission after he was first diagnosed with Stage 3 myeloma in April. He was in his son’s corner for the fight, as he has been throughout his career, and Frampton referenced him in his post-fight comments in the ring.