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Carl Frampton loses world title in narrow Santa Cruz defeat - but trilogy beckons

Both sides point towards another rematch after enthralling Vegas title fight.

– Joe Callaghan reports from the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas

ONE MORE TIME?

Leo Santa Cruz inflicted the first defeat of Carl Frampton’s professional life to reclaim the WBC lightweight title in Las Vegas on Saturday night as the sequel of the Fight of 2016 lived up to its predecessor, another blurringly brilliant battle between a pair of gifted, gritty fighters.

Frampton Santa Cruz Boxing Source: John Locher

The Jackal just couldn’t find the freedom and fluency that helped him strip the title from the Mexican last summer as Santa Cruz jabbed and thought rather than fought his way to revenge. While one judge couldn’t separate the pair, two others correctly saw it in Santa Cruz’s favour for a 115-113, 115-113, 114-114 triumph.

The Mexican contingent in a raucous crowd went wild. Their man savoured his sweet retribution and — in music to fight fans’ ears — said he was ready for a decider.

“Before the fight I said I wanted revenge and I wanted to work hard,” said the new champion.

“Carl Frampton is a good fighter. Let’s make it a third fight!”

Frampton Santa Cruz Boxing Source: John Locher

Frampton inexplicably felt the need to apologise to the masses before admitting he agreed with the judges’ verdict.

“It was a very tough fight. Some of the rounds were close. I really think Leo deserved it,” said the 29-year-old.

“He told me what he was going to do. The brawler was out-boxing the boxer. My fault.”

Las Vegas, a city of almost two million people but not a single clock, likes to make time stand still. But Frampton, after an ultra-patient, practiced career path, arrived here a fighter looking to pick up the pace.

His ascent to the pantheon of Irish fighting greats in 2016 made him ravenous to get things ticking along — more huge nights, huge fights.

Frampton Santa Cruz Boxing Source: John Locher

It was his army of supporters who had to while away the longest hours on Saturday as the 5,000 fans who crossed the Atlantic amassed early in the MGM Grand, bringing with them an electric air, excited as hell, nervous as hell and unable to decide which was the right emotion.

In truth, both were. The first meeting of these electrifying 126-pounders was a sure-fire fight of the year and a second helping so soon was was a mouth-watering prospect.

But Santa Cruz remained a lethally dangerous prospect, driven by the hurt of the first defeat of his career, and more then willing to derail Frampton’s rocketing rise.

While some of his better known supporters had taken their seats inside the arena — Paddy Barnes, Michael O’Neill and Stephen Ferris among them — it was the arrival of Floyd Mayweather to ringside that signalled this was go time on the biggest night of the Jackal’s fighting life.

It was Shane McGuigan who had predicted things would pick up right where they left off from the breathtaking first instalment. It took all of 58 seconds as the pair went toe-to-toe from the off. There were subtle signs that this could be a different Santa Cruz though as he used his reach advantage much better from the off and shaded an enthralling opener.

Frampton Santa Cruz Boxing Source: John Locher

He took the second too, the Mexican’s jab frustrating Frampton and reddening his left eyebrow. The fighter of the year needed a round badly and got it barely, the fight on an absolute knife edge.

That’s where it was to stay. Frampton was trying to draw Santa Cruz into the Las Vegas night with some success as they exchanged blurring flurries midway through the fourth. As the clock ticked down however, Frampton’s backward momentum took him to the canvas. In a fight that could be decided by a knockdown, it was thankfully a slip.

Time was racing by now as the duo kept up a breakneck pace. The champion got sloppy at the end of the fifth, however, and saw another tight round slip by. He got one back in the sixth with some magical movement but was still in a hole as Santa Cruz began to target the body now.

Frampton Santa Cruz Boxing Source: John Locher

Frampton had taken a break in the seventh and eight in Brooklyn but had no such luxury here. He just couldn’t find the efficiency of that night to claw it back his way. Santa Cruz, driven on by professional and personal factors, was never truly up against it and continued to finish close rounds the better.

By the final third Frampton was staring down the gun, unable to make a promised power surge find its mark and truly hurt Santa Cruz. He needed a big finish but couldn’t find it, Mexico chants the soundtrack to the closing rounds as Santa Cruz evaded a tide-turning blow.

In the only way they know how, they finished things toe-to-toe trading hot leather to the last and embracing at the bell, warriors to the very last.

We were left to read body language while the judges’ cards were calculated. Frampton looked a man who knew he hadn’t done enough, Santa Cruz a man who felt retribution had been exacted.

The judges got it pretty much spot on in an identical result to the first instalment, one unable to separate them, the other two favouring the deserved winner.

In the same city where his mentor saw his own career come to a shuddering halt at the hands of another man named Cruz, this was nothing of the sort for Frampton. He endured a frustrating night but can immediately focus on a decider.

“Let’s do it again,” he said. “I hope he’s a man of his word.”

We all do.

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Joe Callaghan

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