By Tom Terzulli
We’re a little over a month into 2017 and, if you dig underneath all the McGregor v. Mayweather madness, it’s been a solid first 31 days for the sport. Badou Jack and James Degale put on a great show in the first major fight of the year and with that, a great tone was set for an already hugely hyped showdown that was coming up next: the rematch between Featherweights Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz.
The pair lit up the Barlcays Center on a hot July night last summer en route to the Irishman Frampton capturing the WBA Featherweight Title by majority decision. In a bout that generally did not receive much fanfare in the buildup, they delivered one of those action fights that so often eludes boxing fans, especially in 2016. They were “fighting in a phone booth,” trading big shots in close round after round. Santa Cruz failed to use his significant reach advantage and counter-punching ability, which allowed the smaller and grittier Frampton to fight toe to toe. It may not have been the type of fight Santa Cruz wanted, but it made for an amazing battle that garnered several “Fight of the Year” honors. The hype that eluded the pre-fight ceremonies was now there, and boxing fanatics yearned for a rematch.
In a relief from the often-times arduous boxing negotiations, there they were back in the ring on Saturday night, just six months removed from their war in Brooklyn. This time the MGM Grand in the fight city of Las Vegas played host in what was another electric bout. From the outset, Santa Cruz looked to rectify his mistakes from the first meeting. He kept his distance with the jab, and sat back and allowed himself to counter-punch the charging Frampton. That’s not to say that Belfast’s own wasn’t able to fight in his wheelhouse for at least some portions of the 12-round battle. When Frampton was able to keep in close, he overwhelmed the Mexican star with big power shots. However, unfortunately for Frampton, those opportunities did not come enough. Santa Cruz won by the same majority decision that Frampton did six months ago, and also won back the very same WBA Featherweight gold that left him on that July night. Now here we are, all even at one apiece, and the calls for a third matchup are already ringing though the boxing world.
Trilogies have always been a fascination to boxing fans. Perhaps the greatest trilogy of all time began on March 8, 1971, inside Madison Square Garden. It was the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. After battling once more in the Garden, the two warriors culminated in one of, if not the greatest, fights of all time: the “Thrilla in the Manila.” Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe followed in three bouts that would define the last great period of Heavyweight boxing. “The Fighter” Micky Ward and Arturo “Thunder” Gatti mesmerized us in the early and mid 2000s with a mix of amazing speed and grueling brutality.
Each of these, and the many other trilogies that have defined the sport, held several elements that make a great trio of fights. Each fight has its own story, its own way that it is looked at when it’s marked down in the annals of boxing history. The first meeting between Ali and Frazier was all about the glitz and the glamour of New York City, juxtaposed with the brutality in the ring. While in Manilla, the two grizzled veterans wanted to prove one more time who was the best. In their first matchup, Ward and Gatti were both clinging to career relevance and found each other ready to launch back into the spotlight. By their third meeting their money was made; it was two fighters on their way out, battling over mutual respect.
Santa Cruz and Frampton, in their two meetings, have written their own script. In their first bout, in spite of already enjoying long prosperous careers in the sport, the two had not yet established themselves as household names. In front of a raucous crowd filled with many Irish fans supporting Frampton, the two went to war in a fight that was very much void of traditional boxing technique. The playbook went out the window, it was about finding out who was the tougher man.
Saturday’s meeting was different. It was still thoroughly entertaining but for different reasons. It was a boxing purist’s paradise. Both men made their adjustments and they were on display. A beautiful showing of technical skill, mixed in with sprinkles of flurries that we remember from their first meeting.
They’ve made us gasp with their willingness to go toe-to-toe and dazzled us with their boxing ability. The script is there, what story will these two tell in their final chapter?