The momentum that boxing has kicked off the year with gathered pace at the MGM Grand on Saturday night. The two headlining fights gave fans plenty to enjoy and discuss.
The main event between Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz was another absorbing contest which produced the exact opposite outcome from their New York clash; Santa Cruz winning the WBA “Super” Featherweight belt back from Frampton via majority decision after twelve slightly different rounds to those that we witnessed when the two classy rivals met in New York.
The chief support bout saw Mikey Garcia give a boxing lesson to previously unbeaten Dejan Zlaticanin. Mikey looked several levels above his opponent and ended the fight with an early candidate for knock-out of the year in the 3rd round. Garcia, now the WBC Lightweight title holder, was so impressive the other belt holders in the division may be reluctant to get in the ring with him.
Going into the bout with Zlaticanin Garcia was having only his second fight in three years. Some pundits wondered if this would pose the Californian boxer any problems against the rugged, aggressive champion from Montenegro. Within one minute of the fight starting it was clear that these fears were unfounded. Boxing cleverly behind his jab Garcia quickly established himself as the dominant boxer, any attempts Dejan made to launch attacks of his own were met with sharp, hard counters from the challenger.
This pattern continued in the second round. Garcia's footwork was perfect, he was always in position to land his shots, finding any and all angles required to befuddle the soon to be former champion. It was beginning to look like a long night for Zlaticanin when in the third Garcia caught him coming in low with a perfectly timed uppercut. Zlat was heavily rocked by this punch and he reached out to hold, only Garcia had pivoted while also landing a left on his now exposed head before closing the show with a huge right which landed a split second before Zlaticanin could get his hands back up. The man from Montenegro went down hard and was knocked out cold. There was concern while he was attended to by the medical professionals on hand at ringside but thankfully he was back on his feet after a few minutes.
Garcia, now a three weight world champion, spoke of his desire to unify the 135lb division before moving up to 140lbs to do the same in that division. Based on this performance it is easy to make the case that Mikey is now the man at 135 and he is probably going to be favoured against any of the other belt holders. Still just 29, Saturday's victory nudged Garcia's record to 36-0, 30KOs, it is not ridiculous to suggest that the best performances of his career are still to come.
Boxing is better off for having an active Mikey Garcia operating in high profile fights, something that hopefully he will do two or three more times this year.
Frampton and Santa Cruz, as they had in New York, then entered the ring immediately following a Mikey Garcia knockout performance but this is where the similarities between their two encounters ended. Expecting more of the same it caught many off guard, Frampton included it seems based on the early going, when Santa Cruz came out using his height and reach advantage and got behind his jab. Leo looked content to operate as the patient counter puncher and Frampton struggled to adjust to the role of front foot offensive fighter early.
As a result of this it was Santa Cruz who banked the early rounds as the theme of events doing a complete 180 from the first fight continued. Frampton showed some signs of life from the third round on and from this point the rounds did become closer and a little more difficult to score.
The midpoint of the fight was Frampton's best period of the contest. It looked like the Irishman had adjusted to this unrecognisable version of Santa Cruz and he had his best spell of the night from rounds five to eight. During this phase of the fight Santa Cruz had drifted just slightly from his original game plan and there were some flashes of the toe to toe exchanges which lit up the two warriors' first encounter.
From the 9th round though Santa Cruz was back doing what had worked for him during the early proceedings and once again he was the dominant boxer up until the final stanza which was one of those harder to score rounds that a case for either man winning could be made.
The more things change the more they stay the same and just as after the first scrap between these two great champions we went to the scorecards. Scores of 114-114 and 115-113 twice were announced; taking the majority decision this time was Santa Cruz. Although plenty fans and writers will disagree I think the judges were accurate here as it was a close fight and I have no issues with any of the scorecards handed in.
Now that the ledger has been levelled up between Frampton and Santa Cruz talk of a trilogy fight has inevitably started already. The two boxers seem to be friends outside the ring and there is genuine sportsmanship between them. While disappointed at having lost his unbeaten record and title Frampton conceded that Santa Cruz winning was the correct outcome before putting the idea of the third fight taking place in his home town of Belfast. A Belfast clash would be a magnificent occasion, and for more fans on this side of the Atlantic a great opportunity to see the fight in person. It is not outrageous to suggest a summer showdown in a football or rugby stadium would easily sell upwards of 25 thousand tickets.
It remains to be seen what direction Frampton and Santa Cruz go in next but if and when a third fight between them gets made the guarantee is that wherever it takes place another very interesting and watchable fight would unfold before our eyes.
Saturday night in Vegas demonstrated that boxing has many ways to thrill and excite those of us who love boxing and the energetic way our sport has started 2017 must be used as a springboard to ensure this year is a blockbuster one for pugilism. It is up to the powers that be to maintain this momentum by keeping fighters busy and in the public eye. Having Mikey Garcia, Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz in significant fights going forward would be a good way to help this goal become a reality.