Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Opinions and Observations: The Frampton and Vargas Cards

Leo Santa Cruz earned a majority decision victory over Carl Frampton on Saturday, a rematch of a thrilling battle that Frampton had won in 2016. But in the interest of depicting last weekend's result with maximum accuracy, perhaps the fight was really won in training camp rather than between the ropes of the MGM Grand Arena.   

Flashing back to after their loss in the first bout, Team Santa Cruz faced several options for the rematch: 

1. The Status Quo 
2. Tweaking 
3. Full-Scale Revamp  

Each strategy had its relative merits. The first fight was certainly close enough that a new set of judges and a venue closer to Santa Cruz's home base might be enough to shade the rematch in his favor. Maybe some small adjustments would help. Perhaps working on punch placement during exchanges and not lunging in with shots out of range would neutralize Frampton's countering. Those adjustments could lead to victory. But a full-scale revamping would be an admission that Santa Cruz couldn't win the rematch with his present form or strategy, which would be quite a statement. 

Instead of choosing options one or two, Jose Santa Cruz opted to blow the whole thing up for the rematch. His son wouldn't be fighting in his preferred style, which centered on aggression and high volume. No, Santa Cruz believed that his fighter could win in a far more radical manner: by outboxing the boxer. On the surface, this approach sounded crazy. Frampton had straighter and sharper punches, better footwork and perhaps even superior power. Santa Cruz winning by boxing would cast aside all notions of conventional wisdom; however, Jose Santa Cruz experienced the first fight and believed that standard thinking wouldn't be enough to beat Frampton.

On Saturday, Leo Santa Cruz performed a variety of techniques that had rarely been associated with him. He landed sharp counters. He controlled distance and range. His jab was a weapon. He fought through large stretches of the fight off his back foot. He disengaged from the pocket after landing brief flurries. He spun and turned his opponent. 

It's not that Santa Cruz had never exhibited any of these qualities before; he certainly boxed well in retreat against Mares, a fight that also showed his improved footwork. He also had very strong moments fighting off the ropes against Kiko Martinez. It wasn't just that Santa Cruz sprung a strategic surprise on Frampton; it was more than that. At points he performed a boxing master class. 

Team Frampton seemed woefully unprepared for Santa Cruz's style change. The Mares fight wasn't so long ago – it was in 2015 – but it seemed as if Frampton's lead trainer, Shane McGuigan, had never seen that performance. Frampton didn't win a round on my card until the fifth. Although he essentially split the final eight rounds with Santa Cruz, Frampton didn't make the necessary adjustment fast enough. Too many rounds had already slipped away. 

Ultimately, the fight had been won in the first four rounds, but to be more precise, the fundamental changes that Team Santa Cruz installed during training camp were the deciding factors. Jose's game plan and Leo's precision and discipline were enough to carry the day. The final scores were 115-113, 115-113 and 114-114. (I had Santa Cruz winning 116-112.)

During the post-fight interview, Santa Cruz apologized to his fans for not providing more action during the fight (it was still an excellent 12 rounds). However, he understood what was necessary for victory. With his dad nodding in the background, Santa Cruz admitted that his jab and discipline were key factors in winning the fight. No, he didn’t prevail via a firefight or a war of attrition. There was no blaze of glory or epic stand. He was just a little smarter and sharper. Although he didn't particularly admire the sexiness of his new style, he certainly admitted its efficacy. 

As for Frampton, he won enough rounds in the back half of the fight to demonstrate that he can remain competitive if there is a rubber match. McGuigan, who had won many awards for Trainer of the Year in 2016 (including the one given by this outlet), certainly had a bad day at the office. His counterpart had more answers. 

After 24 rounds, I'd venture to say that Frampton and Santa Cruz have each won 12 of them. Team Santa Cruz pulled the impressive rabbit out of the hat for the rematch but it remains to be seen if they can transform themselves as radically as they did on Saturday for a third fight. My guess is that by now Frampton has seen what Santa Cruz has to offer. Frampton was the sharper fighter in July while Santa Cruz took that mantle from him on Saturday. My gut tells me that a third fight would come down to punch accuracy more than any other single factor. As to who would win, a coin toss should suffice. 


On the Showtime undercard, Mikey Garcia announced his return to top-flight boxing on Saturday with a third-round destruction of lightweight titleholder Dejan Zlaticanin. The thrilling conclusion of the fight illustrated Garcia's manifold talents. With three punches, Garcia transformed a proud champion into roadkill. A right uppercut/left hook combo hurt Zlaticanin, who stumbled toward the ropes with his back turned to Garcia. Quickly, Garcia pivoted his body and followed Zlaticanin toward the ropes. As soon as Zlaticanin spun around to face the center of the ring, Garcia unleashed a pulverizing sidearm right hand. And that was that.

Looking at the final sequence in more detail, Garcia exhibited a number of traits that led to his rousing victory. First, his initial two-punch combination featured pinpoint accuracy and devastating power. Few fighters start combinations with a right uppercut; often they will counter with that punch as just a single shot. But Garcia visualized a series of blows. Immediately after the uppercut, Garcia shot a left hook high on the head. It was perfectly placed and landed in an unprotected area. Zlaticanin was hurt and had lost his equilibrium.

Garcia was now going for the kill but he had to get himself in perfect position to do so. In a split second, he turned his body around and waited to land his final blow. Instead of rushing his work, Garcia remained patient, needing Zlaticanin to turn back around so that he could land a legal final blow. When the opportunity came, Garcia detonated his right hand with an off-angled shot, one that Zlaticanin was unprepared for; the fighter was completely defenseless. Because of Garcia's footwork and poise during this sequence, he earned himself a free, unprotected shot, and Zlaticanin paid the ultimate price. Garcia's final salvo illustrated so many of his skills: power, fluid punching, creativity, accuracy, precise footwork, patience, balance, intelligence and improvisation. 

Prior to a 30-month hiatus that ended last summer, Garcia had been regarded as one of the best boxers in the sport. A well-rounded fighter with a bevy of offensive weapons, Garcia had won titles at 126 and 130 lbs. But after his long layoff, legitimate questions were asked about the potential degradation of his skills, his chin and power at lightweight, and his desire to fight – Garcia in the past had talked about losing his love for the sport.

Needless to say, Garcia provided some rather emphatic answers on Saturday. Even before the knockout, Garcia had dominated the fight with his jab, crisp combos and sharp counters. Through three rounds, he had completely neutralized an aggressive power puncher and at no point did he seem troubled by the champion. 

Although Saturday's performance heralded Garcia's return to the top-rungs of boxing, he'll have to beat some additional tough fighters before he can be regarded as one of the best in the sport. There are several opponents around his weight class that could test him, such as Vasyl Lomachenko, Jorge Linares, Rances Barthelemy or Terence Crawford. Let's hope that Garcia's claims of rededicating himself to boxing are true. If so, he's one of the more dynamic talents in the sport and one who can challenge several of the top talents of our time. 


Francisco Vargas' skin betrayed him on Saturday. When his fight against hard-punching Miguel Berchelt was finally stopped in the 11th round, Vargas was a battered man. With cuts over both eyes, a hematoma on his forehead and blood steaking down his face, he was the picture of a defeated fighter. 

However, the final images of the fight don't do justice to Vargas, who had several successful moments in the fight. He hurt Berchelt with body shots and connected with a number of pulsating right hands to the head. Overall, he landed more than 40% of his power punches, a very high percentage. Vargas had spells where he was the better fighter but there just weren’t enough of them. And his defense was as leaky as the gash over his left eye.

Berchelt put forth a power-punching clinic. Throwing five- and six-punch combinations that featured jabs, devastating left and right hooks, uppercuts, straight right hands and a potent mixture of head and body shots, Berchelt was the sharper and more fluid puncher. He unfurled combinations seamlessly, featuring pinpoint accuracy and ferocious intent. His jab was a real weapon and it enabled him to control range for the majority of the fight. Berchelt even bettered Vargas's power punch connect percentage, landing more than 50% in that category.

Toward the conclusion of the fight, when it became apparent that Vargas wouldn't make it to the final bell, Jim Lampley asked if Berchelt himself was more responsible for the victory or were Vargas's past wars against Orlando Salido and Takashi Miura the key factors for his degradation in the ring. Ultimately, that's a false dichotomy. Clearly, Vargas' scar tissue and the ease at which his skin was damaged throughout the fight illustrated how he hadn't fully healed from his previous battles. However, Berchelt kept throwing missiles the whole night. Rudy Hernandez couldn't get Vargas' cuts under control because Berchelt's punching would allow for that. So, it's a little from Column A and a little from Column B. 

Berchelt becomes another key player in one of boxing's best divisions. Fights against Takashi Miura, Orlando Salido or Jason Sosa would be wars. But don't discount Vargas' ability to re-emerge as a top player in the division. Like Salido, Vargas has the types of strengths and vulnerabilities to win or lose to any of the best talents in his division. I'd like to see him take at least nine months off to heal and recharge his batteries. With the proper rest, I'd bet that he has another run in him. And, as for the Miguel Berchelt era, it looks like it's going to be a fantastic ride. 


In the opening HBO fight, Takashi Miura detonated one of the most apocalyptic body shots that you'll ever see. In the 10th round of a grueling fight against Miguel Roman, Miura lifted his eyes like he was going to throw a straight left hand. Roman, Respecting Miura's considerable power, raised his hands to protect his head. Without shifting his gaze, Miura instead threw a pulverizing left uppercut to Roman's breadbasket. Roman hit the canvas and everyone thought that the fight was over; and, in a sense it was. 

That Roman somehow got up from the punch speaks to his will and conditioning. However, that one action was essentially all that he had left. He went down again in the 11th from an accumulation of punishment and was dropped in the 12th by a straight left hand, one not nearly as good as the dozens of warheads that Miura had landed earlier in the fight; Roman didn't beat the count. 

Miura-Roman will be remembered as one of 2017's great fights. It was a classic battle between the slugger and the brawler. Miura had moments where he landed punishing left hands and right hooks while Roman battered Miura during the middle rounds on the inside. Thudding shots landed throughout the fight and both absorbed serious punishment. 

On my card, Miura had fallen behind after the seventh round. In the eighth, he started to reassert himself more consistently. Standing his ground, he continued to unleash vicious power shots. Although he was visibly spent from Roman's body assault, Miura doubled down on his power punches. In a determined battle of trench warfare, eventually Roman started to yield. Miura's left uppercut in the 10th will be one of the year's best punches, but he had already softened up his foe. 

Miura remains one of the most exciting fighters in the junior lightweight division. He could stop any fighter in the division with his left hand. However, with the way that he loads up on power shots and his refusal to jab, almost any fighter can get inside on him. He's taken some serious beatings over the last few years and who knows what he'll have left after Saturday's fight. But he's a threat against anyone at 130; the type of threat that I’ll always welcome on my TV screen.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
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