SANTA CRUZ TURNS THE TABLES — If you’re even a quasi-boxing fan, you had interest in this past Saturday night’s WBA featherweight title rematch between title holder Carl Frampton 23-1 (14) and challenger Leo Santa Cruz 33-1-1 (18) contested at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. When they fought the first time back in July of last year, it was one of the more action-packed bouts of 2016. When it was over Frampton was the new champ via a 12-round majority decision, with one judge scoring it 114-114 and the other two seeing it 116-112 and 117-111 in favor of Frampton.
The fight saw sustained action between the two with both trying to impose their will on the other. However, in the main it was the shorter in stature Frampton who fought the smarter fight strategically. In Leo Santa Cruz, Frampton was facing a taller fighter with a greater reach who usually takes the fight to his opponents. Leo fought very aggressively against Frampton and it was the first time in his career that his aggression and tenacity actually worked against him. For the entire bout and most noticeably during the first seven or eight rounds, Santa Cruz was looking to take Frampton out with virtually every punch and combination he threw — so much so that he smothered his own offense and left himself open to Frampton’s counter left hooks and right hands. The shorter Frampton got very low and used terrific head and upper-body movement to force Santa Cruz to miss and punch down.
When taller fighters are forced to punch down, they lose power and leave themselves open to being countered because their hands are down and not in position to defend. Seizing on that, Frampton let Santa Cruz bring the fight to him. It took Santa Cruz nearly two thirds of their first bout to grasp that Frampton was using his aggression against him.
In my pre-fight article for the rematch I highlighted the only thing that Santa Cruz could do to nullify Frampton’s ability to make him miss and then counter. I wrote:
“Frampton is expecting more of the same this coming Saturday night. If that’s what Santa Cruz tries again, he’ll again be over-extending himself and leaving himself open to be countered. Instead of trying to bring more of what didn’t quite get the job done, Leo should lay back a little, try to line his shots to come from the center more……and not seek the knockout. His advantage in reach did him no good the last time because he basically smothered his own offense trying to beat Frampton down. This time Leo should concentrate on throwing more double and triple jabs mixed with right hands that he doesn’t load up on. If Santa Cruz can keep Frampton at the end of his shots more, it’ll be harder for Carl to create offense. And if Santa Cruz is disciplined and fights a little more measured, Frampton, out of frustration, will be the one that has to take chances and bring the fight to Santa Cruz – which will put him more in range for Leo to hit him flush on the way in.
Fighting at a more measured pace will take a lot of restraint on Santa Cruz’s part. But stylistically, it’s the only adjustment he can make without changing his stripes. If he can touch Frampton without over-extending himself seeking the knockout, Carl might get impatient and reckless, and start hunting him down, thus he’ll be more open to be led into big shots. And for that reason, along with the belief that the judges, two of whom are Nevadans, will be inclined to score close rounds for the Californian, Santa Cruz, is why I think he wins this time.”
Well, if you saw the rematch, Santa Cruz fought an extremely intelligent fight. This time instead of trying to kill Frampton with every punch and combination he sent his way….Leo got off and punched a little higher this time, thus making his longer reach work for him instead of against him. When he made contact, instead of inching in for the big finish – he inched back. Frampton, feeling that he needed to fight with more urgency, responded the way most fighters would who felt they lost the exchange; he immediately brought the fight to Santa Cruz, who was waiting for him and able to get off a few more clean shots. If you noticed, Santa Cruz fought with his back to the ropes more this time than he did the first time they fought…but that was by his own volition. He purposely inched his way there because he wanted Frampton to come after him so he could nail him with the cleaner shot. With Carl pressing him, it was easier for him not to reach or punch down at him.
Granted, the rematch wasn’t quite the war the first fight was. And the reason for that was that Leo figured out that if he tried exclusively for the knockout, he’d be fighting himself on many different levels. This time Santa Cruz fought the smarter fight strategically and he was rewarded by winning back the title he lost via a majority decision by the scores of 114-114, and 115-113 twice.
Most likely we’ll see Santa Cruz and Frampton oppose each other for at least 12 more rounds. And like Arturo Gatti’s trilogy with Micky Ward, and Marco Antonio Barrera’s trilogy with Erik Morales, their fights are always going to be close. Minor stylistic adjustments will play a big role in regards to who has the better of it. Now that Frampton knows what Santa Cruz did in order to turn the tables on him, it’s up to Carl to make the adjustment if they meet in a rubber match — with the difference being that Frampton, because of his shorter reach and stature, has fewer options. He either has to figure out a way to get Santa Cruz to over-pursue again or figure out a way that he can be effective pushing the fight and getting inside where Leo’s reach is nullified.
If Santa Cruz-Frampton III happens, it will go the distance again and it will be another close fight. The deciding factor will probably rest on who can adjust better and do what the other isn’t ready for, or can’t physically adjust to. In boxing, little things are most often the difference between winning and losing between two equally skilled and tough fighters.
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Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com