I catch Carl Frampton just after 9pm on a Wednesday evening as he crosses the River Thames heading towards his temporary home in that most affluent of London boroughs, Kensington and Chelsea. He is acclimatised now to the rarefied air breathed in by the Dukes, Earls and Knights listed as notable residents of the area, but still laughs at the contrast of a five foot five north Belfast boy rubbing shoulders with a well-to-do population that, in his eyes anyway, “are all at least six foot two.” Not that Frampton would have much to fear were it to kick off after too many Dom Perignons in the local wine bar however.
The Tiger’s Bay boxer is on his way back from a late evening session in the Battersea gym where he’s preparing for next week’s Super Bantamweight title fight with Kiko Martínez. Battersea has long been synonymous with power stations, dog’s homes and, more recently, partial gentrification as a gaggle of actors, musicians and fashion designers have wandered south across the river to set up camp. But now, nestled snuggly amongst Vivienne Westwood’s studio and Simon Le Bon’s pad, McGuigan’s Gym is staking its own claim as a local landmark. Victory for Team Jackal in Belfast next weekend will certainly go some way to placing it firmly on the south west London map.
And victory is exactly what Frampton fans are expecting. After all, their man will enjoy home advantage, has never tasted defeat as a pro, and knocked the very same Spaniard out 18 months ago. Wee buns then, as they say in Belfast. A ceremonial coronation rather than a twelve round war. Thankfully, Frampton himself is under no such illusions regarding the task ahead.
Kiko told me this week that Carl is comfortably the best he has been in the ring with and the Northern Irishman is quick to repay the compliment. He describes their first fight as a “guts check” and Martínez as a “tough, tough man” for whom he has the utmost respect. “This could be over in the first round or it could be a twelve round ball buster,” he says, before adding that if it turns out to be the latter, he has the “engine, heart and chin” to go the distance.
What of Kiko’s belief that he has improved immeasurably, is in a much better place right now and, for the first time in his career, he is actually planning a fight and developing a strategy? “He has improved,” Frampton is happy to concede, “but it is still more of the same. Perhaps he’s added a bit more movement but he has fought the same way for 35 fights so I don’t think he can suddenly turn into Sugar Ray Leonard overnight. I’ve studied the last fight and seen I was far from perfect. I made mistakes that night which I won’t make again so I’ll be much improved as well”.
And the confidence boost that wearing a world championship belt can give a fighter? “He will be more confident now he is a world champion and has defended his title a couple of times, but when it is just the two of us in the ring he’ll look across and see a man who has knocked him out.” How the Spaniard’s self-belief reacts to the harsh reality of that inescapable truth remains to be seen.
Frampton also believes Kiko is clutching at straws a little when he talks of putting the Jackal out of action for eight months with a perforated eardrum following their first encounter. “Promotional issues kept me out of the ring after the last fight, not anything Kiko did,” he clarifies, and anyway, “a slap on the ear from your ma can cause that injury.”
Nevertheless, this fight is far from a gimme. Compared to the immensely talented Frampton, Martínez may be a relatively one dimensional fighter, but that one dimension is very effective. His new trainer, Gaby Sarmiento, may try to tweak a few things but, essentially, you know what you’ll get with Kiko: relentless, front foot aggression. You also get a Latin temperament which is something Carl is fully aware of. “He is an emotional man and he is coming here for revenge. That makes him a very dangerous opponent. But I believe I am a better fighter and I have the power to knock out anyone in the Super Bantamweight division.” There is no hint of arrogance in his voice as he speaks that last sentence: it is more matter of fact. And it is a fact that has the bookies making him a 9/2 on favourite.
Carl flies home to Belfast this week. Back home to daughter Carla, wife Christine and another bundle of joy scheduled to arrive in mid-November. He’ll also be arriving back into a city already buzzing with anticipation ahead of the big night in the Titanic Quarter. To a government eager to invest in the event to ensure both its success and their association with it. To a temporary stadium being built in his honour as the country has nowhere big enough to accommodate the quantity of people happy to pay for the pleasure of watching him in action. To a few hundred thousand people wanting to shake his hand, pat his back, and wish him good luck.
Part of the reason for the Battersea training camp has been to keep him away from the hype and distractions and insulate him a little from the sense of expectation and pressure that comes with it. But there’ll be no avoiding it once he’s checked into the Europa Hotel in the heart of the city and I wonder if there isn’t a risk of being overwhelmed by it all.
On the contrary, Carl tells me he can’t wait to go for a walk around town and start shaking the hands and feeling the buzz. “I suppose it could all become a negative thing, but it actually helps me,” he continues. “I perform best under pressure and, to be honest, I’ve always had it.”
It is true that, although the scale has increased with every victory, pressure is nothing new to Frampton. Following a stellar amateur career, Carl started in the professional ranks with a natural composure and ring intelligence that belied his tender years. It was as if he arrived on the scene with years of experience already programmed in and, as such, did not need to serve the traditional two or three year apprenticeship.
In his seventh fight, at a time when 99% of fighters are still being spoon fed tomato cans as the opening act on a card in front of a handful of friends and family, Frampton was topping the bill at a packed Ulster Hall against a guy who had fought 3 times for the European title. That is pressure.
And for anyone who couldn’t see the immense potential, manager slash promoter, Barry McGuigan, was never shy in telling all who would listen how special Carl was. Although boxing is an industry fluent in hyperbole, McGuigan is actually a relatively phlegmatic character. Nevertheless, in post-fight interviews he struggled to contain himself and was often at his loquacious best while speaking of a breathtakingly talented and assured fighter that can do it all and will go all the way. That is pressure heaped upon more pressure.
Carl tells me he wanted this quality not quantity approach to keep his career moving forward at pace, although it undoubtedly opened him up to humiliation should he slip up. And the praise from Barry just showed the faith the Clones Cyclone had in him. There were risks to the path they chose but they are now just a step away from being proved right in everything they have said and done. One step from all the way.
I’m not sure if Carl is a believer in destiny, but to listen to him speak is to hear a man who knows his time has come. There is sadness that his biggest fan, his Grandfather Hughie, passed away just a few weeks ago, but he knows his life is good right now. “This is my 20th year in boxing and everything is now falling into place,” he tells me. “I’ve another child on the way, I’ve just bought a new house, we’ve got the fight in Belfast, they’re building the stadium for me, Carla is coming to her first fight and I’ve told her I’ll lift her up in the ring when I win.” There is then a slight pause and a little laugh before he concludes, “2014 could be a very good year.”