By Jason Pribila: On Saturday evening, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas hosted 10,085 fight fans, and the first great fight card of 2017. In the main event, Leo Santa Cruz flipped the script on Carl Frampton, as his decision loss on July 30, 2016 was reversed by the same scores:114-114, 115-113, 115-113. After two exceptional bouts only six months apart, the fighters are at a virtual stale-mate. Fortunately, we have the rest of 2017 to schedule the rubber match.
During Thursday’s final press conference, challenger Leo Santa Cruz announced that his father’s Cancer was in remission. With that huge burden being lifted from his shoulders, Santa Cruz literally seemed lighter on his feet. The closest thing resembling smack talk leading up to the fight was when Frampton said Santa Cruz had fast hands, but slow feet. Frampton found out early that this would not be the case on Saturday night.
For many years when Leo Santa Cruz was forced on the boxing public appearing as the “co-main” feature on seemingly every Floyd Mayweather Jr. PPV, he was sold as a volume puncher who would often exceed 1,000 punches. This was the fighter that Frampton was able to build an early lead by counter-punching in July.
They often say that the winner of the first fight will have an easier time having his hand raised in a rematch. When the opening bell rang, it appeared that Frampton had sub-consciously bought into that narrative. He moved forward aggressively looking to land something heavy early as he did in the first fight. On this occasion, he attempted to do so without using his jab or head movement.
The biggest difference was that Santa Cruz had found a way to remain disciplined by keeping his weight on his back foot and relying on his jab to catch Frampton on his way in, as well as, continually keeping the shorter man off balance.
Before his thousands of fans had a chance to revisit “Frampton Wonderland” he was behind on the scorecards.
Frampton momentarily broke through in the third round. He was able to get inside of the Santa Cruz reach and land hooks to the body and head. When Santa Cruz returned fire, he did so with his feet in the perfect position that he could escape the danger of Frampton landing anything that would tip the match in his favor.
During their first fight it was Frampton who was able to step inside, land punches, and retreat before Santa Cruz could counter. I could almost hear the advice that veteran trainer, Naazim Richardson, gave Shane Mosley when he faced the taller, volume-punching Antonio Margarito.
“Shane, you have to swim without getting wet,” Richardson instructed.
Frampton did this beautifully in July. On Saturday Night, it was Santa Cruz who ventured into the pool just long enough that he did not need a towel when he returned to his corner.
In what would end up being a razor thin decision, it would seem that round five would be the one that Frampton would love to have back. He had been finding more and more success by varying his attach, and while he was still eating jabs, he was getting closer to landing something big on the inside. With the round yet to be decided, Frampton seemed to momentarily lose concentration when he was hit backing up with his hands at his sides. By the time he tried to react, he again found himself at the end of a Santa Cruz right. His fans roared as the round ended, punctuating a strong argument as the round closed.
Santa Cruz seemed to pull ahead on the cards during rounds eight thru ten. With Frampton fighting with a sense of urgency, Santa Cruz remained calm as he countered to Frampton’s head, while stinging him to his body.
Frampton never stopped trying to entice Santa Cruz from joining a fire fight. When the challenger abided, he did so knowing exactly where the nearest fire escape was located.
The fighters embraced before and after the final round. And while they tried to break each other during the three minutes in between, it was clear that the action would be a three minute preview to the inevitable Round 25.
The scorecards revealed that Santa Cruz won the last four rounds on two of the judges’ cards, and three of four on the third card. I had Frampton winning the final two frames. In all, the judges only agreed on seven of the twelve rounds; which will add to the demand for a rubber match.
In boxing, it is rare that “can’t miss” fights live up to the expectations. Santa Cruz and Frampton are that rare pairing that will need at least three bouts to decide a victor. Even more refreshing was the fact that the post-fight comments only enhanced the action that we just witnessed.
After apologizing to his fans for throwing only 884 punches, Santa Cruz admitted he needed to change his style to regain his title.
“My head was telling me to go forward and pressure him, but my dad and corner were telling me to box him. That’s what I had to do.”
Frampton was gracious in defeat.
“It was a very tough fight. Some of the rounds were close. I really think Leo deserved it," said Frampton. "He was very clever and he used his reach. I think he deserved it. I’m being honest. I think he deserved it. But it was a very good fight. I think I can perform slightly better. No excuses."
And while other fighters will defer to promoters or managers before negotiating a fight in the ring, Santa Cruz made his intentions clear about who he would like to fight next.
“Of course I want the rematch,” Santa Cruz said. “I’m a man of my word, and I said if I won I would give him the trilogy.
Jason Pribila is a full voting member of the BWAA and could be reached for questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter.com @PribsBoxing.