It looked like Leo Santa Cruz had acres of canvas to dance and glide his way to victory against Carl Frampton on Saturday night at the MGM in Las Vegas.
At the end of twelve rounds there was despair in Frampton's voice as he apologised to the thousands that travelled and bravely admitted Santa Cruz deserved the verdict. The winner left with an assortment of increasingly meaningless jewels, bearing the burden of his success by wearing the Super WBA and Diamond WBC featherweight belts.
During the twelve rounds Santa Cruz did the exact opposite of what Frampton and his team, including the father and son duo, Barry and Shane McGuigan, expected him to do; he moved, he kept his hands high and he never repeated a single macho mistake from their first fight last July.
"He double bluffed me," said Frampton. "He told me he would jab, move and not get involved. He told me that all week and I never believed him." It is also true that nobody in the Frampton business thought that Santa Cruz, a veteran of five years of world title fights at three weights, could alter his tactics so drastically. There will have to be an honest inquest once the euphoria, swellings and disappointment have faded.
"It wasn't easy for me," admitted Santa Cruz, who is popular because he throws hundreds of punches and wears his opponents down. "It's not the way I like to fight, but this was all about winning. Next time, maybe I will fight the other way." Santa Cruz had his father back in the corner after a struggle with cancer, and the return of Jose, splendid in a black Stetson, provided the calm and the tactics for the win. Jose had been absent from the corner in the first fight but present during most of the preparation; it was a crucial difference and nobody in Frampton's team recognised its importance.
There will be a third fight and it will, if it happens, be closer to Frampton's home in Belfast. "I hope that Leo is a man of his word; he told me he would fight me one more time in Belfast and I owe that to the fans," said Frampton. "They have spent money again that they don't have to follow me." In the ring after the fight Santa Cruz agreed to a third fight, but things said in the ring often remain in the ring once the offers, logistics and cash starts to be a critical factor away from the emotions.
Frampton nodded his head at the end, both subdued and sad looking, when first Shane McGuigan, his coach, said he had been sluggish and then Barry, his manager and promoter, repeated the observation. "There are no excuses," insisted Frampton. "The training camp went well and on the night the better man won. Leo deserved it." It was a grim admission, but I suspect there will be be one or two attachments to the honest tale.
Frampton struggled with Santa Cruz's movement, it took him a few rounds to use his feet and not just his fists. They both seemed over cautious at times; Santa Cruz should have applied more pressure in rounds where Frampton struggled and Frampton needed to get closer quicker and then let his hands go. Frampton neglected his jab, seemingly conceding the central tool to the superior version Santa Cruz used to dominate rounds; it was a quality fight, not a repeat of the slugfest from New York last summer. At the end one judge had it even and the other two went for Santa Cruz by just two rounds; the margins make it appear closer than it was and thankfully nobody made a case for a Frampton victory.
"My feet were a bit slow, I needed to let my hands go," Frampton admitted, adding Santa Cruz's experience had been the difference. However, the real difference was Santa Cruz's ability to change style. "I had to do this to win the fight, I apologise for that," said Santa Cruz. "I had to be clever, he is a dangerous fighter."
Santa Cruz has not become a better fighter since their first fight, he simply knew he had to change and he did. Frampton should have become a better fight since the first fight, instead the same Frampton arrived in Las Vegas and that boxer was never going to be good enough this time. "I want to make it a trilogy and then our names can be linked forever," said Frampton. That, by the way, is old-fashioned fighting talk.
Now the fight-brokers, fixers and gutless decision makers in the business will look at the sums and risks in a third fight; a decision will be made and hopefully Frampton's faithful in Belfast, the world' greatest fight city, will be able to walk to the third sitting. I have a feeling they will not be disappointed.