Surely Carl Frampton knew what he was getting into when he surrendered his super-bantamweight titles and immediately targeted the biggest, baddest opponent at 126lb: the undefeated three-division champion Léo Santa Cruz.
However, the gravity of the task before the Irishman was never more stark than when the fighters came together for the traditional stare-down at the Dream Downtown hotel in Manhattan’s posh Chelsea neighbourhood. As Frampton’s eyes slowly craned upwards the scale of Santa Cruz’s physical advantages – three inches in height, seven inches in reach – was laid bare. Yet vital statistics are only part of the reason why the unbeaten Frampton, fresh off a points win over Scott Quigg to unify the 122lb titles in February, is a 2-1 underdog entering Saturday’s delicious featherweight title fight at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
The wiry Santa Cruz (32-0-1, 18 KOs), a 27-year-old Mexican turned southern Californian who held belts at bantamweight and super-bantamweight before outpointing Abner Mares in a thrilling scrap for the vacant featherweight strap last August, has relied on extraordinary punch volume, a granite chin and seemingly limitless reserves of stamina to overwhelm allcomers and emerge as one of boxing’s most exciting small men over the past few years.
Yet Frampton (22-0, 14 KOs), who can become the first Northern Irishman to win world titles in two weight classes, is confident he is endowed with the power and tactical aptitude that will force the thresher before him to reconsider his standard operating procedure. “I’m preparing for Santa Cruz to come all night and throw a hundred punches a round,” he said this week. “But I promise you when I start hitting him hard, he’ll think twice about coming in.
“I’m faster, and I think that I can definitely punch faster. I have better feet than him. I think the main difference here will be how hard I punch. It’s all well and good coming forward and throwing a lot of punches when you are getting hit by guys who aren’t big punchers. But when you’ve got a big puncher standing in front of you, you won’t be as keen to come forward, and I think that that might be the case.”
Frampton, who can capture the WBA featherweight championship that his manager, Barry McGuigan, held three decades ago, believes control of distance and punching power will be the keys to the upset. “It’s about getting his respect early in the fight,” he said. “I have to hit him hard and hurt him in the first or second round to make him respect me. Look, Santa Cruz is a type of fighter I’ve been craving for my whole career, someone who comes forward and throws punches. That’s what I feel that my style works best against.”
The 29-year-old from Belfast has spent the past several weeks living and training in New Rochelle, a leafy suburb 16 miles north of Manhattan. Since touching down on 4 July, he has finished off his preparations at Champs Boxing Club while spending off-hours mingling with the Irish communities in and about New York City. That, he believes, will translate to a partisan crowd in Brooklyn.
“We’ll do about 1,200 here from back home, the UK and Ireland. Obviously, it’ll feel like a lot more than that. But we’ve picked up a lot of fans here in New York pretty early,” he said. “There’s a place called Woodlawn in the Bronx: you’d swear you’re walking down a street in Belfast or Dublin. It’s crazy. I didn’t hear an American accent and I was there for about two hours.”
Santa Cruz has long been one of most valued assets in Al Haymon’s portfolio: an iron-willed Mexican crowd-pleaser whose 5ft 7in frame could accommodate climbs to super-lightweight, lightweight and even, he revealed this week, the lucrative junior-welterweight division. Yet Frampton would be happy to play spoiler. “The last time I was an underdog was against David Oliver Joyce in 2009 [at the Irish senior championships]. You could have got me at 11-2. I dropped him early and I gave him a standing count in the last round and won the fight quite comfortably. The last time, a lot of people who knew me made a lot of money.”
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