FROM STEVE BRENNER , LAS VEGAS
Carl Frampton stands close to greatness. The glitz of Las Vegas can easily blur minds yet Frampton’s razor sharp focus has shone like the lights on the strip.
This is his first defence of the WBA featherweight crown he took so gloriously in New York last July from Leo Santa Cruz ,the Mexican three-weight world champion who will stand in the opposing corner on Saturday night aiming to avenge the first defeat of his 34-fight career. With an estimated 5,000 fans from Frampton’s native Northern Ireland here to roar him home, the stakes have rarely been higher.
The face of the diminutive powerhouse from Belfast has loomed large here this week. Butlers have waited on him in a luxurious apartment in the MGM Grand, a world away from his humble beginnings. His arrival on the world stage, however, is for real. Indeed, such has been his impact even Irish nuns are aware of his world-class pedigree.
“I go and see the nuns of Poor Clare all the time,” said Barry McGuigan, his manager. “I’ve done it for 40 years. They don’t read papers or do that sort of thing but I think, with so many people talking about him now, that they’re aware of Carl.”
A higher force may be looking out for the 28-year-old yet everything he possesses to see off the dangerous, rangy Santa Cruz – he is two and a half inches taller and boasts an extra seven inches in reach – is already nestled in his locker. The move from super-bantam to featherweight before that first meeting ratcheted up the risk factor. The results culminated in arguably the fight of 2016 and Frampton being named the best boxer over the past 12 months.
Frampton, backed by the burgeoning talent of trainer Shane McGuigan, felt more powerful and less drained, such was the pain of dropping down to the previous weight of 122lb. “I’ve never seen him hit this hard,” said McGuigan Jr.
“I’ve already beaten this guy, I’ve hurt him as well. So psychologically I think I have the upper hand,” Frampton said. “The last week before a fight, I used to hate it because I wasn’t eating much, I was training a lot. Now I have been doing just one session towards the end. I’m just ready to go.”
The card here has been creating serious traction, although the fight between the Welsh IBF champion, Lee Selby, and Jonathan Barros was called off this weekend because the Argentinian failed to comply with licensing regulations. Selby, though, will surely serve as Frampton’s next opponent in an all-British encounter this year.
“We are expecting the biggest British crowd since the Ricky Hatton days,” said the promoter Richard Schaefer. “Carl can become a huge pay-per-view star in the US. This fight is massive for him.”
There truly is a buzz here though Frampton, who became Northern Ireland’s first two-weight world champion following the points win over Santa Cruz, has remained the epitome of calm. When the first bell rings, however, a dramatic change will occur.
“The character in the ring is different to the man outside it,” he said. “When you smell blood or see blood, you go after it. That’s not any different to any other guys doing this sport or any other man. It’s just human nature.”
For Santa Cruz, whose impish smile masks his power punching ring persona, this chance of redemption has arrived at exactly the right time. With his father and trainer, Jose, undergoing treatment for cancer in the buildup last year, he felt on edge and out of sorts. Now, with the illness in remission, the 29-year-old has promised a different, more composed performance.
He threw more than 1,000 punches on that raucous evening in Brooklyn though that in turn created an openness that was ruthlessly exposed by Frampton.
“I know everything that he’s going to do,” said Frampton. “If he does throw more, it just gives me the chance to nail him, again. If he wants a war, I am ready.”