He is coming off the best year of his 7½-year professional career, a year so memorable that he was named 2016’s best fighter by The Sweet Science, The Ring, ESPN, USA Today and, as of Friday, the Boxing Writers Association of America. The BWAA will present the 29-year-old native of Belfast with its Sugar Ray Robinson Award as Fighter of the Year at its 92nd annual Awards Dinner on March 16 at the Capitale in New York City. He is the first Irish recipient of the BWAA Fighter of the Year Award since it was first bestowed in 1938.
No doubt, Northern Ireland’s Carl “The Jackal” Frampton (23-0, 14 KOs) is hot – so hot that he could thaw glaciers, so hot that blisters could form on your fingertips upon touching him, so hot that the mercury would burst from a thermometer if you took his temperature. The calendar might indicate that it’s late January, the dead of winter, but this guy is such a one-man heat wave he probably could ditch his overcoat and strip down to his skivvies in Siberia without shivering or getting goose-pimply.
But there is a real and present danger to fireballs of the moment, and not just those who are coming off a career year in the ring. Do-overs are often dicey affairs for winning teams and athletes attempting to repeat a previous success against a tough opponent , such as Frampton will when he again takes on Leo Santa Cruz (32-1-1, 18 KOs) on Saturday night in the Showtime-televised main event at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It was considered a minor upset when Frampton dethroned Santa Cruz, the WBA “super” featherweight champion, on a rousing majority decision on June 30 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. That victory – coupled with his only other bout in 2016, a split decision over Scott Quigg in a super bantamweight unification showdown on Feb. 27 in Manchester, England – earned Frampton all those FOY honors because he had beaten two previously undefeated, elite guys with a combined record of 63-0-3 and 41 knockouts at the time he faced them. That was more than good enough, to those who determine such matters, for the aforementioned media outlets to anoint “The Jackal” as Fighter of the Year over such highly acclaimed rivals as Terence Crawford, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, Vasyl Lomachenko, Manny Pacquiao and Joe Smith Jr.
Frampton’s year of years also served as a rising tide that lifted many boats, at least those tied at his dock. His chief second, Shane McGuigan, was selected as Trainer of the Year by the BWAA and The Sweet Science; his close-but-not-really-that-close nod over Santa Cruz (he led by six and four points on two of the official cards) was a contender for Fight of the Year, and his manager, Barry McGuigan, was a nominee for Manager of the Year. For all intents and purposes, Team McGuigan was the pugilistic equivalent of the Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series, the Cleveland Cavaliers coming back from a 3-1 deficit to stun the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, Peyton Manning heading into retirement with his second Super Bowl victory and Villanova’s Kris Jenkins draining that three-pointer at the buzzer to knock off North Carolina in the NCAA championship game.
But that was then, and this is now. Frampton must demonstrate, by winning again, that he truly is superior to Santa Cruz, who again has a pair of significant physical advantages (he is 5-foot-7½ with a 69-inch reach to the champion’s 5-5 and 62-inch reach). Santa Cruz, a resident of Rosemead, Calif., by way of his native Mexico, also will be fighting for the eighth time in Las Vegas, and seventh time at the MGM Grand, and he figures to have home-crowd support against Frampton, who will be making his first ring appearance on The Strip. Santa Cruz also has said that his first go at Frampton was hampered by the absence from training camp of his father, Jose, who was battling Stage 3 myeloma (bone cancer of the spine).
“I wasn’t 100 percent focused on my training,” Leo said after the rematch was announced, a possibility that seemed realistic from the time Jose’s condition was made known in April. “He’s my world. He’s always been by my side since I’ve been small.
“I learned from the first fight that every little mistake really matters. I trained hard, but without my dad, he wasn’t pressuring me like I’m used to. Those things come back to haunt you.”
Jose has responded well enough to treatment to again be at Leo’s side and in his ear, which, the son insists, is giving him additional incentive to dramatically improve on his first performance against Frampton.
“He’s telling me specifically what punches I have to throw (at) Frampton, how to fight him and stuff like that,” Santa Cruz noted. “We’re going to go out there with a great game plan.”
Frampton thus will be fighting two opponents Saturday night, an inspired Santa Cruz and the daunting knowledge that a loss – and the Irishman is a slim 3-2 wagering favorite – will have the effect of a fly doing laps in the punch bowl when he comes to New York to collect his BWAA Fighter of the Year hardware.
“I’m not thinking about that, to be honest,” Frampton said of the sort of New Year’s letdown that would put a major damper on his Big Apple party. “I think it might affect other fighters, being given all the awards, and put pressure on them. Certainly, it puts a little bit more pressure on me, especially going straight into the New Year with such a difficult fight.
“But I have said since I turned professional that I perform best under pressure. What these awards are doing is simply filling my head full of confidence. I want to go out there and prove that those awards are justified, and that I deserved to be Fighter of the Year last year. I’m going straight into the deep end with a rematch with a three-division champion in Leo Santa Cruz. I think 2017 potentially can be better than last year.”
Confidence is good, too much of it can become a trap into which even Fighters of the Year occasionally plunge. Nonito Donaire was the BWAA FOY in 2012; in his first bout of 2013, he was flummoxed in losing a one-sided unanimous decision to Guillermo Rigondeaux. Glen Johnson was the BWAA FOY in 2004; he lost on points to Antonio Tarver in his first fight of 2005. Vernon Forrest was the BWAA FOY in 2002; he was stopped in three rounds by Ricardo Mayorga in his first fight of 2003. Felix Trinidad was the BWAA FOY in 2000; in his second fight of 2001 he was dominated throughout and TKO’ed in the 12th round by Bernard Hopkins.
The college football equivalent of all those high-flying Fighters of the Year who were brought down to earth with a thud is my college, LSU. The Tigers were defending national champions in 1959 and had beaten arch-rival Ole Miss, 7-3, on Halloween night on the most famous play in school history, an 89-yard touchdown punt return late in the fourth quarter by Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon. Rematched in the Sugar Bowl, LSU lost, 21-0. It must have seemed like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said, for LSU fans during the 2011 season. The Tigers were 13-0 prior to the BCS National Championship Game, including a 9-6 overtime victory at Alabama, and were widely hailed as possibly the best college football team ever until they fell to the hated Crimson Tide, 21-0, in the do-over.
Carl Frampton is deservedly the Fighter of the Year for 2016 and no one can ever take that distinction away from him. But it’s 2017, and the road to FOY is wide open. The race to that far-off finish line is just beginning.
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