For such a relatively small patch of land in the north east of Ireland, Belfast has a habit of producing very special sportsmen. That rarest of rare breeds who, through the grace of God, are blessed with a particular, often intangible, gift that elevates them beyond the mere good and great and into the pantheon of sporting deity. Think Best. Think Higgins. In a few years, think McIlroy. As of last night, start thinking Carl Frampton.
The historic expanse of the Titanic slipways hosted his coronation. The logic was build it and they will come. The logic was sound and 16,000 braved the frigid air that drifts or gusts off the dark waters of Belfast Lough. Among the masses were hard-core Frampton fans, pure boxing aficionados, and those simply wanting to witness, and be part of, history being made.
There were doubts over whether the flat-pack arena would be capable of generating an atmosphere to match previous nights of the Jackal in the Odyssey Arena or Ulster Hall. And indeed, lying empty yesterday afternoon, the venue had a form more akin to a shallow soup bowl than a deep cauldron to be filled with thousands of rabid fans. But the doubts were misplaced.
The din may not have been as constant, with single cries rising unhindered towards the night sky rather than reverberating back down to join the revelry, but instead arrived in great waves of emotion cascading ring-wards from a starting point high in the upper echelons of the stands. We were engulfed at ringside so I can only imagine what Frampton and Martínez felt as giant swells of noise arrived simultaneously from the four points of the compass and crashed together in the centre of the square circle.
Away fighters will tell you the impact of fans and the atmosphere they create is negligible: home fighters that it provides an extra few kilojoules of energy. I was just scribbling notes in the third row, but the adrenaline-fired roars that gained most momentum had me writing faster and pushing down heavier on the page. So I have to side with the latter point of view. Regardless, the truer cliché states that it is always one-on-one in the ring. In this case, the champion, Kiko “La Sensación” Martínez, and the challenger, Carl “The Jackal” Frampton.
Ten Spaniards boarded the Titanic in 1912 and seven survived to tell the tale. Despite the confidence emanating from Kiko’s camp in the build-up, they would have loved those odds last night. There was much talk of témpanos, small icebergs, and tímpanos, eardrums (of the burst variety) in Spain beforehand but neither sentiment proved relevant as Frampton put on a display that his trainer, Shane McGuigan, later described as “the best performance he has ever seen.”
His charge seized the initiative from the first bell. That this is the point in the fight when Kiko is traditionally at his most dangerous meant it was a psychological as well as physical blow that Frampton struck. There has never been the merest shadow of a doubt that Frampton is the better boxer, but in the early rounds he made sure Kiko knew he was also the better fighter, the better brawler, the better everything between the ropes.
The first truly damaging punch landed in the third, a big right that sent the Spaniard hopping to his right. In the fifth, after having been pushed to the ground and given a clip on the back of the head whilst there, an even bigger right put Kiko down onto the seat of his shorts. The sixth was then almost exhibition-like as Frampton circled his foe and countered at will.
The challenger relaxed slightly and got caught enough to possibly lose the seventh but, in truth, he was always in complete control of the contest. The only doubt at this point was how Frampton would decide to win the fight: counterpunch from the back-foot to win at an untroubled canter, or mix it up and go inside to trade with Martínez and guarantee crowd-pleasing flurries of action. I believe the 16,000 would have gone home happy either way, but the Jackal decided to make absolutely sure.
The fighters, the fight, the people and the occasion deserved three championship rounds and that is what was received. A barrage from Frampton in the eleventh had us all rising to our feet in expectation of a death knell, but Martínez stayed on his. Had Kiko built the Titanic, I don’t think it would have sunk.
At the beginning of the twelfth there was a hug between the two men, a genuinely touching moment that dispelled any lingering animosity that had festered in the aftermath of their first fight and the preliminaries to this one. It had a touch of the Gatti-Wards about it, although a trilogy is unlikely between these two. Carl visited Kiko’s dressing room after for another embrace and to compare battered faces before telling Martínez with a grin, “I hope I never see you again.”
When the final bell rang, there was almost as much awe at the fact that Martínez was still standing and trading as there was at the mastery of Frampton’s complete boxing performance. Two scores of 119-108 and another of 118-111 were accurate but don’t tell the full story. Every round against a fighter like Kiko is competitive regardless of outcome. But this is how first time world titles should be won.
In the press conference later, the entire Team Frampton could not speak highly enough of the defeated champion. Carl said there is not another fighter he has more respect for and confirmed without hesitation that, by a distance, he is the toughest opponent he has faced. Shane stated that Kiko would easily knock out Scott Quigg, whilst manager, Barry McGuigan described the Spaniard as, “phenomenally brave and every bit as tough a fighter, if not tougher, than Leo Santa Cruz.” Martínez was compensated richly for making another trip to Belfast but no one would deny he earned every penny.
But the final words must be on the new IBF super bantamweight champion of the world. It was a time to savour the moment rather than discuss the future in any great detail, but there is a very real sense that the sky is the limit now. “I think this kid could end up being the best Irish fighter there has ever been, that’s how good he is,” was Barry’s view on his potential and added that the great Sergio Martínez described Frampton as “one of the most exciting fighters in the world.”
For Carl himself, with the pain of a damaged left hand and swollen face dominating his senses, the achievement clearly hadn’t fully sank in. In typical understatement he told us, “it has been a long time coming but I’m world champion now and very proud and very happy.” Two feelings shared by everyone in Northern Ireland this morning.