When Carl Frampton outslugged Leo Santa Cruz to win a hotly contested majority decision and a featherweight world title on July 30 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, it instantly became a top contender for fight of the year honors.
And now that they are set to do it again in a much-anticipated rematch on Jan. 28 (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET) at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the expectations are sky high for another brutal collision.
"This rematch with Leo Santa Cruz is going to be an amazing one. The first one was considered a fight of the year and I don't think this can be any different. We're going to kick off 2017 with a bang,” Frampton said at a news conference in Los Angeles on Thursday, two days after they kicked off the promotion with a media event in Frampton’s hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland. “Leo is an amazing fighter, and I want to thank him for giving me the chance to fight for his title in July. I was more than happy to give him the rematch straight away. These are the types of fights I want to be involved in.”
"This rematch with Leo Santa Cruz is going to be an amazing one. The first one was considered a fight of the year and I don't think this can be any different. We're going to kick off 2017 with a bang." Carl Frampton
Santa Cruz, who lost the belt in his second defense, may not have agreed on who won the July fight, but he and Frampton certainly agree on the kind of bout they think the rematch will be.
"Carl Frampton is a great fighter. He has the respect of the fans because he has proven that he's a great champion. I know it's going to be another very close and exciting fight,” Santa Cruz said at the news conference. “We both train really hard for our families and for the fans. We want to give you all a great show. I know that this rematch is going to be very tough.”
The first fight was a fast-paced, all-action brawl from the outset. Ultimately, Frampton (23-0, 14 KOs), who had vacated the junior featherweight belts he unified with his big win over Scott Quigg in February, prevailed on scores of 117-111, 116-112 and 114-114. He felt the scores were proper, though many disagreed.
"I thought I won the first fight. I don't think it was controversial at all,” Frampton said. “I think I won the fight by three or four rounds. They were definitely close, competitive rounds, but I think I was doing more to win rounds and get the nod. This one is going to be more of the same.”
For that first fight, Frampton was the huge crowd favorite. Even though he had come from Northern Ireland, New York’s Irish fans turned out in force to support him.
The rematch is in Las Vegas, which is much closer to Santa Cruz’s home base of Southern California and the heavy Mexican fan base he brings to his fights.
"Las Vegas is obviously a bit closer to home for Leo and I'm sure he'll bring a lot of fans, but I'm bringing at least 4,000 from the U.K.,” Frampton said. “Right now I'm the most well-supported fighter in the U.K. It's a great privilege for me.”
Wherever the fight is, Santa Cruz (32-1-1, 18 KOs), 28, said he will have made the adjustments necessary to avenge his first defeat.
"I learned from the first fight that every little mistake really matters,” said Santa Cruz, who has won world titles in three weight divisions. “One or two could really cost you. I trained hard but without my dad (who has been battling cancer) -- he wasn't pressuring me like I'm used to. Those things come back to haunt you. It hurt, but it taught me that I have to leave it all in the ring and work every day for what I want.
"I learned from the first fight that every little mistake really matters. One or two could really cost you ... Those things come back to haunt you." Leo Santa Cruz
"We're going to be mentally and physically ready. I'm getting more motivation from having him there [in camp]. We'll be making some little changes and we're going to do a lot better. I'm motivated to get my belt back. I was a champion and now I'm a former champion. That makes me unhappy. We're going to train hard and do our best to become a champion again. We're going to go to the gym and train hard to make this fight even better than the first one."
In the co-feature, lightweight world titleholder Dejan Zlaticanin (22-0, 15 KOs), 32, the first world titlist from Montenegro, will make his first defense against former featherweight and junior lightweight titlist Mikey Garcia (35-0, 29 KOs), of Oxnard, California.
"Everyone thinks that Garcia is a pound-for-pound star, but I want to tell everyone that I'm going to win this fight,” Zlaticanin told the assembled media. “This is the fight of my life. I have to be ready, and we're right on track.”
Garcia, who turns 29 on Dec. 15, will be fighting for the second time since ending a 2½-year layoff caused by a battle over his promotional contract with former promoter Top Rank. He returned July 30 and looked like he hadn’t missed a beat in a fifth-round knockout of former featherweight titlist Elio Rojas.
“I was down for over two years, but it seems like no one has forgotten about me,” Garcia said. “We're looking for big things. I want to pick up right where I left off. I'm really happy to have been given this opportunity to claim a world title in a third division. This is going to be an amazing fight. He's a hungry world champion. He's very dangerous. These are the kind of fights that I want. This is what I need to prove myself.”