The end of a champion’s career is naturally a time for reflection, and it so happens that the boxing journeys of two linked fighters appear to be winding down together. Carl Frampton recently announced his retirement after being stopped by Jamel Herring, and Leo Santa Cruz has let it be known he is contemplating doing the same following his brutal knockout loss to Gervonta Davis. Given the bond between these two fighters, it would be nothing short of poetic if Santa Cruz decides to pull up his own proverbial rocking chair next to Frampton’s.
What binds Frampton and Santa Cruz is a pair of great fights, the first of which went down almost exactly five years ago. And, like a Nabokov novel or a Tarantino flick, these battles reward a second look. As well as re-watching the fights, I’ve spoken to some prominent members of the boxing community about the legacy of the Frampton vs Santa Cruz rivalry. Some were in attendance and some were involved in making these memorable bouts happen. All agree, it was extraordinary to see two top pugilists peak at the same time, and against one another.
“It was a ‘can’t miss’ fight,” recalls Adam Abramowitz, writer for Saturday Night Boxing and Ring City, of the first Frampton vs Santa Cruz meeting at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in July of 2016. Hall of Fame promoter Lou DiBella, who co-promoted that first clash, agrees. “Everyone knew,” says DiBella, “it would be a Fight of the Year contender.”
In fact, it was exactly the kind of showdown boxing fans are always asking for, but which just doesn’t happen frequently enough: two champions in their primes battling for a major title, and with a clash of styles certain to entertain fanatics and casuals alike. And fittingly, on fight night, the energy and anticipation was electric.
“It felt like a home fight for Carl Frampton,” recalls Abramowitz, who was in attendance that night. “A few thousand Irish fans had made the trip to New York and it was a festive, raucous atmosphere.” This was only Frampton’s second match in America, but if an Irishman is going to fight stateside, there are few better places to do it than Barclays.
Donald McRae, boxing writer for The Guardian and author of several boxing books, including the acclaimed Dark Trade, was in Frampton’s dressing room that night and remembers an atmosphere of intensity and focus. “As the clock ticked slowly towards his ring walk in front of a sold-out crowd … soul music, sung fifty years earlier by Sam Cooke, slipped from a corner of the room. Shane McGuigan began to wrap Carl’s hands. The sacred old rituals of boxing felt powerful.” As news of the undercard fights trickled in, “Carl made eerie cries as his blurring gloves smacked hard into the pads held by Shane. Otis Redding came and went, having sat on the dock of the bay, and [Elio] Rojas went down again in the fourth. The crowd’s demented clamour told us the end was near.”
When the combatants got to the ring and the bell finally rang, the Irishman and the Mexican did not disappoint. The fight offered violent exchanges that would have made Ward and Gatti proud, but with some technical nuance and heady tactics mixed in. DiBella describes it as “a boxing fan’s fight, the kind of fight you remember.”
Santa Cruz was the aggressor from the start, but Frampton utilized a hard jab and smart footwork to avoid getting trapped on the ropes. The Irishman timed Leo’s attacks, countering effectively, and the result was Leo had to think twice before letting his hands go. On the inside, Santa Cruz’s long limbs meant his punches often missed their mark while Frampton connected with the shorter, more accurate shots.
From his vantage point, McRae recalls “The Jackal” battling with fury and winning many of the furious exchanges. “In the ring Frampton displayed his instinctive fighter’s heart as, occasionally ignoring the advice of Shane, he engaged in trench warfare with the taller champion… At the end of the eleventh round, in which Frampton was tagged often while firing back, he raised his right arm to the screaming crowd. He knew how close he was to victory.”
The fighters answered the bell for the final round with a sense of urgency, aware the match was still up for grabs, and both connected in brutal exchanges to close out a truly excellent fight. In the end, Frampton won a majority decision on his way to being proclaimed by many as 2016’s Fighter Of The Year. Santa Cruz suffered his first defeat, but he didn’t have to wait long for a chance to even the score as the two agreed to meet again the following January.
The rematch took place at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where this time Santa Cruz had the larger traveling crowd behind him. He would also have a healthier trainer. Leo and Jose Santa Cruz are one of the more successful father-son teams in boxing history, but Jose was diagnosed with cancer only a few months before the Barclays fight. He recovered enough to man Leo’s corner that July, but if there was a lack of sharpness in the brave battler they call “El Terremoto,” the health scare was likely a culprit.
Abramowitz notes that Santa Cruz was “a tad passive in the first fight and it cost him. His aggression the second time around was the big difference.” Eric Raskin of the Showtime Boxing podcast echoes those sentiments. “He didn’t quite seem at his best the first time.” This, for Raskin, contributed to the build-up for the rematch. “There was the sense it was make or break for Leo now, and given how closely matched these two were, and how well their styles meshed, the anticipation for the return was even higher.”
Once more, both champions came through with a competitive and highly entertaining scrap, even if it didn’t quite match Frampton vs Santa Cruz I for sheer action. The difference appeared to be a shift in strategy for Santa Cruz. Before the fight he let it be known he intended to change up his tactics and he proved a man of his word as this time he used his reach and counterpunching skills to his advantage, effectively shifting from brawler to boxer. It was another intense battle, but Leo’s more restrained approach allowed him to out-duel Frampton down the stretch, sweeping rounds nine, ten and eleven on all three judges’ cards to pull out a majority decision victory.
“I think when both were at their best,” observes Abramowitz, “Frampton couldn’t quite match Santa Cruz’s volume, work rate and intensity.”
What these fights represent, then, is the apex for two potential Hall of Famers. Each got the best win of their careers against the other, which is not a frequent occurrence in modern boxing.
“Both bouts were excellent,” says Abramowitz. “And I thought the first was a solid Fight of the Year candidate.”
“Undoubtedly, the win over Santa Cruz is the greatest accomplishment of Frampton’s career,” opines Raskin. “Even though he has a win over Nonito Donaire on his record, in terms of perception in the moment, beating Santa Cruz was his peak. And for Santa Cruz, these fights present a statement about his ability to overcome adversity.”
DiBella holds the same high opinion of the Frampton vs Santa Cruz diptych. “For each of those guys, their win against the other was one of their best wins… They could have fought ten times and all of them would have been great fights.”
The obvious thing missing from the tale of Frampton vs Santa Cruz is a rubber match. But perhaps that isn’t a strike against them.
“I don’t think it matters that much,” says DiBella. “I think it was fine to leave it where it was. There was no controversy in either match. It was a great fight followed by a very good rematch. Perfectly appropriate. From an entertainment standpoint, those guys entertained, they did it twice and they delivered to expectation which is all you can ask a fight to do. Beautifully matched, beautifully fought, and very entertaining.”
One of my personal takeaways is that Frampton and Santa Cruz delivered excellent build-up and anticipation without any of the kabuki often seen in boxing promotion. They treated each other with respect, even between the ropes, with both contests vicious and hard-fought, but clean.
To illustrate, McRae recalls that in the days before their first showdown, “the fighters kept crossing paths, in the elevator and the lobby, and exchanged nods and looks of respect. Twenty-four hours before they tried to knock each other unconscious, Carl and Leo stood together for a photo with their children in their arms. They were smiling.”
Five years ago we witnessed the best performances of two of the best fighters of their generation. And while we knew how special those battles were when they happened, time and reflection have only revealed how truly superlative they were. In an era where fans spend as much time lamenting fights that never occur as they do enjoying the ones that happen, it’s satisfying to look back at the success of the Frampton vs Santa Cruz rivalry. And if 2021 proves to be the year that both men ride off into the sunset, there will be something very fitting about that. — Joshua Isard