STEVE BRENNER AT THE MGM GRAND
Barry McGuigan was not in the mood for false promises. Carl Frampton, the Northern Irishman he reveres like a son, had just fallen to the first defeat of his 24-fight career and had the WBA featherweight title won so brilliantly six months ago in New York wrestled from his grasp by Leo Santa Cruz, the man who was felled on that raucous Barclays Center evening.
No one was begrudging the Mexican his moment of triumph. Santa Cruz was excellent, unleashing to perfection a game plan which forced Frampton to abandon his preferred counter-punching role and instead act as the aggressor.
That allowed the Los Angeles-based fighter to use his seven-inch reach advantage to devastating effect and regain his title through a majority decision. The judges Dave Moretti and Glenn Feldman scored it 115-113; Burt Clements had it 114‑114. As talk turned instantly to making a third fight this year, McGuigan hoped the 29-year-old would receive an instant redemption shot in his native Belfast.
After two years away Frampton wants to go home and, because both fighters are advised by the mogul Al Haymon, talks will be forthcoming, especially as Santa Cruz put his hand up when asked about completing what would be an enthralling trilogy. Nothing, however, is guaranteed.
“I don’t want to hear any excuses,” McGuigan said. “He [Leo] said he would do it so I want him to be decent. We were decent with him, honest. We said we lost marginally. We’ve done it twice over here and it makes sense for Santa Cruz as well.
“I had a discussion with Al, he’s the big player and said there will be a third fight. They have given us their word. He’s told us he will come to Belfast. He’s told us he will fight him and we’ve got to trust him.”
Santa Cruz declared “a true champion goes anywhere”, though whether his team would look to leave California for a night of rough and tumble in Belfast is another matter. “He mentioned other options which does concern me slightly,” McGuigan said.
Lee Selby, the Welshman whose defence of his IBF title was cancelled on Friday after Jonathan Barros, the Argentinian, was said to have tested positive for hepatitis, could be a possibility. A subsequent retest was clean leaving Selby’s devastated camp looking for answers. They would love to talk with McGuigan.
An all-British encounter would be a fallback option for Frampton though his insistence on meeting Santa Cruz for a third time confirmed where his desires lie. “It has to happen again,” Frampton said. “Leo said he would come to Belfast. He can stay at my house.”
This encounter failed to ignite like the one in July last year yet it was enthralling all the same. Drawing Frampton away from his preferred plan, the 29-year-old used his jab to force his opponent into reversing roles.
Santa Cruz landed 81 of 417 jabs while Frampton connected with only 28 of 187. The total punch count read 884 for the Mexican and 592 for the Ulsterman.
“The better man won,” said Frampton, his face bruised and swollen. “I was just too sluggish. He said he’d change his style but I didn’t believe him. I didn’t think he could fight like that. He told me he would use his distance but I thought he was bluffing. I didn’t think he could fight like that. Leo has all the tools.”
Santa Cruz said: “I put it in my mind that, if I lost twice, I would have retired. You’re here to be the best. If he had beat me, what else was I gonna do? I’m going to talk to my manager, my promoter and if they want to make a trilogy, let’s make it.”
Frampton rallied midway through the fight, much to the delight of the travelling support who numbered more than 4,000. But Santa Cruz was not being hurt. Hopes of a knockout receded with every round.
“I came back a couple of rounds that were close, I thought I was doing well and Leo used his experience and came back and stole rounds with bursts of 15 seconds,” Frampton said. “I feel like I had a bad start. My feet weren’t what they should have been.”
McGuigan, who lost his featherweight title in this city to Steve Cruz in 1986, was sanguine in defeat. There was some joy, though, as Josh Taylor, the much-vaunted Edinburgh light-welterweight, made it eight wins from eight after seeing off Alfonso Olvera on points.
Frampton, however, was at the forefront of McGuigan’s mind. “Carl can bounce back,” he said. “But it’s terrible. What do you say? It’ll be all right? Of course it won’t be fucking all right. He lost it. It feels bad.”