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July 31, 2016

Santa Cruz vs. Frampton: Are the Bookies Underestimating the Ulsterman?

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was published on website, on 29th July 2016. Thanks to Michael Carbert, Editor-in-Chief, for his help in producing and publishing the final version:

Following two less-than-scintillating performances in his most recent bouts, Carl Frampton goes into his featherweight title fight against defending champion Leo Santa Cruz on Saturday night as a clear underdog, according to most bookmakers. UK’s Sky Bet, for example, currently have Frampton as a 2/1 outsider, while a bet on a Santa Cruz victory will get you odds of 4/9. (That is, a winning £10 bet on Santa Cruz only pays out £4.44, while the same amount on Frampton would net you a £20 profit). These seem to be wide odds indeed, considering that the fight features two undefeated, finely matched world-class boxers, both in the prime of their careers.

Santa Cruz, of course, is a highly decorated champion and a difficult proposition for any featherweight. After winning the IBF bantamweight (118lb) championship in 2012 and making three successful defences, El Terremoto [“The Earthquake”] stepped up to claim the WBC super bantamweight (122lb) strap in August 2013, defending four times over the next year and a half. In his most important victory to date, he then won the WBA ‘Super’ and WBC ‘Diamond’ featherweight (126lb) belts, in August 2015. Having already claimed world honours in three divisions and amassing a record of 32 wins in 33 fights (18 by way of knockout, against a single draw in his second ever pro bout) there’s no doubt the Mexican, fighting out of Los Angeles, California, has established himself as one of the premier operators in the lower weight classes.

Judging by Santa Cruz’ recent form, there’s also a good argument that he has looked the stronger fighter, scoring two of his most notable victories within the last year, over Abner Mares and Kiko Martinez, respectively. The featherweight showdown with Mares, in particular, was a huge meeting between two former bantam and super bantamweight champs. Although Mares had lost his WBC featherweight title in a shocking first-round TKO defeat to Johnny Gonzalez two years earlier, the fight looked competitive on paper, but Santa Cruz boxed well to finish a convincing winner in an exciting twelve-round battle. Meanwhile Spaniard Martinez – himself a former IBF super bantamweight champion and Frampton foe – was dispatched in five bruising rounds last February.

With all that being said, it’s difficult to really pick out a performance where the defending champion has looked so outstanding in the ring that a talented boxer like Frampton ought to be given such a slim chance of victory. Santa Cruz’ three-weight world title reign is no small feat, though his résumé is hardly stacked with top-drawer names. Leo showed little desire to meet fellow super bantamweight champions Frampton and Quigg on his way through the 122lb ranks, and steered well clear of the division’s true numero uno, pound-for-pound talent Guillermo Rigondeaux. That is hardly a crime, given that it is true of almost every other top fighter in the weight class (Frampton and Quigg included), though it’s still fair to say that despite the Mexican’s career achievements so far, he is yet to rubber stamp his credentials with a win over a truly elite rival.

Meanwhile Frampton recently enjoyed his biggest ever win, although his form inside the ropes has been underwhelming. Travelling to El Paso in July 2015 to face Alejandro Gonzalez on his American debut, the Ulsterman was forced to make two trips to the canvas in the very first round. Though ultimately prevailing on the scorecards by a wide unanimous decision, it was hardly the perfect advert for his capabilities. Then came the blockbuster domestic showdown with Scott Quigg, to unify the IBF and WBA 122lb titles in February, on the same night Santa Cruz fought Martinez. In an anti-climactic affair, the Northern Irishman took both belts home via split decision, but again failed to set the world alight. After nicking most of the early rounds and edging an uneventful first half of the fight, he was forced to hold off a late surge from his British rival, as Quigg began opening up and the momentum swung firmly in his favour down the stretch. After taking some hellacious shots in the eleventh round, ‘The Jackal’ rebounded well in the final stanza, boxing beautifully to seal the points victory.

The question, for me, is whether or not these two sub-par performances are sufficient to undermine all of the good work Frampton had done over his previous 20 career fights. Is the shaky start to Gonzalez and the rocky moments in the Quigg fight indicative of an underlying vulnerability in Frampton’s game that LSC can exploit? Or was it simply a case of a world-class boxer enduring a few rough patches whilst finding his feet on the big stage?

For his part, Frampton believes the Gonzalez ordeal, in particular, has been a “blessing in disguise” and played an instrumental role in making the big fights that followed.

“This fight with Santa Cruz I don’t think would happen unless that happened, the Gonzalez fight”, stated Frampton, on a recent media conference call. “I’ve been chasing these guys for a long time. I’ve wanted to fight them. I’ve made myself available to Santa Cruz in 2013, I think, and the fight never happened, when he was at 122. But suddenly now all the guys that I’ve been chasing they want to come and fight me. So that was a blessing in disguise and I’m glad it happened”.

Aside from helping to lure bigger name opponents into the ring, there’s a good argument that too much is being made of the poor start to the Gonzalez fight. Eager to impress the American audience and fighting far away from his home supporters for the first time, Frampton was on the receiving end of two legitimate knockdowns – though on both occasions it was a case of briefly touching down, rather than being seriously hurt, and he was never in danger of losing the fight from that point onwards. They were not, in other words, the kind of knockdowns that suggest a more fundamental problem either with his ability to take a shot or his defensive skills in general.

In fact, if we are to believe Frampton, the struggle to make 122lbs has significantly hindered his recent form. Asked whether or not “weight loss” had contributed to the Gonzalez knockdowns, Carl’s response was unequivocal: “Yes. Of course it did. I’ve mentioned that I struggled to make the weight and I’m much stronger at this [126lb] weight division.” 

“I just feel much stronger, fitter, sharper, everything really, at this [126lb] weight class. If I’m being honest, I probably outgrew 122 a year and a half ago but I was the champion, I was defending my title, I was making it because I had to. But I’m going to be much better at featherweight.”

Regarding the relatively dull showing against Quigg, we would also be wise not to confuse the lack of drama in the fight with a lack of skill from the participants. Boxing under the huge pressure that comes with such a massive PPV fight, ‘The Jackal’ nevertheless showed the kind of intelligence and calm under fire necessary to out-think and out-box a dangerous, world-class opponent. He also displayed some serious heart and grit to come back after Quigg’s late surge, as well as the stamina, athleticism and resolve to outfight a desperate foe when the chips were down in the last round. All in all, though the bout lacked the excitement promised, it was still a fantastic win for Frampton on the biggest stage either of this weekend’s combatants has ever fought on.

The bookies may also be giving Santa Cruz’ recent stoppage of Martinez slightly more credit than it deserves. Looking at the head-to-head results both fighters have had with Kiko, it’s tempting to conclude that the Mexican has demonstrated a clear superiority (whereas Santa Cruz stopped the Spaniard in five, it took Frampton nine far-more-taxing rounds in their first meeting to get the victory, followed by a twelve-round points decision in their rematch). Comparing these results on paper, I think, does something of a disservice to Frampton.

We ought to remember, firstly, that Quigg also disposed of Martinez in much more impressive fashion than Frampton, stopping him in just two rounds – but that meant little when the two Brits themselves got together in the ring. Styles, as the saying goes, make fights. Secondly, and more importantly, the devil in the detail of Santa Cruz’ win reveals much that the Frampton supporters can take heart from.

A game Martinez – bulling forward in straight lines, as he always does – made an easy target for the longer-armed Santa Cruz, and was sent to the floor twice during the opening session. Nevertheless, even in such a dominant round, the champion was worryingly easy to hit and found himself on the receiving end of several of Martinez’ wide swings. Then, early in the second, Kiko connected with a solid right hand that shook “The Earthquake” off balance and followed with a cuffing left hook, sending the champion down. The referee ruled “push, no knockdown” – though it looked like Santa Cruz had been lucky to escape a mandatory eight count. The fighters continued to exchange punches in the third, with both having success and Santa Cruz ending the round with a bloodied nose. Brave as ever, the Spaniard was eventually bludgeoned to defeat in the fifth round, but the fight was far from all one-way traffic. 

And whereas Showtime commentator Al Bernstein correctly observed that Martinez’ physical limitations meant that he had no choice but to stand and trade blows – indeed, he was eventually rescued with his feet seemingly planted in cement by the ropes – for Frampton precisely the opposite will be true. His nimble footwork, speed, educated counter-punching and overall boxing brain will present an entirely different puzzle to solve than the solid but predictable Spaniard. Paul Malignaggi, also commentating on Showtime, noted that, “Leo has never had those fast feet… he doesn’t have the quick feet of an athletic-type of boxer”. In other words, he lacks the one specific attribute that Frampton possesses in abundance. 

Considering all that Santa Cruz has accomplished, it would be foolish to write him off in this fight. His long arms, high work rate and vast championship experience will no doubt make this a very competitive contest. However, I can’t help reaching the conclusion that Frampton is the one being badly underestimated here. I believe he has the athletic tools and ring smarts needed to see him through, so I’m picking the Ulsterman to win a close but memorable victory, probably by split or majority decision.

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