By Nick Halling
Carl Frampton might enjoy the fact that he is listed as the number one contender to Guillermo Rigondeaux in the current ratings published by The Ring magazine. But he doesn’t have what three of the contenders listed below him currently possess – a world championship belt.
The Belfast super bantam is a class act, unbeaten, and seemingly getting better and stronger with every fight. But winning battles in the ring is often of secondary importance in this business. It’s how your support staff handle the politics of the sport that often determines when – or whether – you have a belt strapped around your waist.
And until now, Frampton’s connections haven’t exactly played the best hand at their disposal.
Frampton, for all his talent, is on the outside with his nose pressed up against the glass. But according to some sources, it didn’t need to have been this way. The Irishman was reportedly on deck to face Colombia’s Jhonatan Romero for the IBF strap last summer, only for negotiations to go awry.
That allowed Spain’s Kiko Martinez to jump in against Romero and grab his unexpected opportunity with a sixth round stoppage. Martinez, who has since successfully defended twice, had earlier been stopped by Frampton in Belfast. But it’s Martinez, not Frampton, with the belt.
As an aside, Martinez apparently did not enjoy his time in Belfast either inside or outside the ring. Not many took the Spaniard’s unhappiness too seriously at the time, but now that he owns a meaningful title, it becomes more relevant to the current bigger picture. The Alicante man has precious little interest in a return to Northern Ireland.
At around the same time as the Romero negotiations were said to be breaking down, Frampton parted company with Matchroom Boxing, and by extension, switched his television platform. That relationship reportedly foundered on the aspirations of Frampton’s manager, Barry McGuigan, to become more active on the promotional side of affairs. This was not a vision shared or embraced by Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn, so the two parted company.
McGuigan sought pastures new, and that effectively let his domestic rival Scott Quigg back into the picture. At the time, Quigg’s career was virtually in limbo, but Frampton’s exit saw the Bury boxer snapped up to fill the void at Matchroom, and he now owns the WBA regular belt (Rigondeaux holds their “super” title as well as the WBO crown).
The other current champion is the WBC’s Mexican belt holder Leo Santa Cruz, who pitched a near shutout against his mandatory, Christian Mijares, last month. Frampton has now moved into the mandatory position, but boxing politics being what they are, Santa Cruz is not obligated to meet him next – he can have a voluntary, and possibly even another voluntary after that. Frampton is not thought to be high on his immediate agenda.
So where does the 27-year-old Irishman go next? Frankly, it is hard to know, unless a serious amount of money is on offer. Rigondeaux could be tempted, but everyone acknowledges that the Cuban maestro is simply in a class of his own, and probably beats Frampton, Quigg, Martinez and Santa Cruz, all on the same night and possibly with one arm tied behind his back.
It would be a path to instant glory and credibility should Frampton upset Rigondeaux, but the prospects aren’t promising, the financial gamble significant, and the odds on a successful return far from enticing.
Martinez? Quigg? Logical and more makeable. The Spaniard has a history of being prepared to travel, and a domestic clash with Quigg would be a guaranteed earner all round. However, it is more likely that Martinez and Quigg meet in a unification fight in the summer.
Following Quigg’s victory over late sub Tshifhiwa Munyai on Saturday, Hearn let it be known that he would like to explore the possibility of an open air bill in August at the home of Bury Football Club. Martinez is a tempting candidate, especially since he came through his latest defence against Hozumi Hasegawa in Japan earlier this week.
Relations between the Quigg camp and Martinez are cordial. Quigg was a respectful ringside observer when Martinez stopped Jeffrey Mathebula in Spain last December – as was Frampton. However, Quigg’s introduction into the ring was greeted with polite applause, while Frampton’s arrival at the arena drew catcalls and jeers.
But the links between Matchroom and the Martinez camp are also healthy. Currently three boxers contracted to Hearn’s company – Kevin Mitchell, Ricky Burns and Jon Ryder – are enjoying the benefits of warm weather workouts under the eye of trainer Tony Sims at the Martinez gym in Alicante.
Given the current situation, a unification fight between Quigg and Martinez at Bury FC in the summer looks a strong possibility. Quigg certainly seems to have caught the mood – he is back in the gym already and engaging in serious sparring sessions. Quigg always lives the life.
That leaves Santa Cruz. Can he be tempted with a sufficiently enticing financial pot to bring his WBC belt to Belfast? That may struggle to happen simply because of logistics. Belfast’s premier venue, the Odyssey Arena, is an impressive state-of-the-art structure, yet its capacity is officially listed at 8,700. Perhaps McGuigan could also come up with an open air arena to make the numbers add up. The only thing known for certain is that the Mexican would want serious money in return for travelling to Belfast.
The other alternative is for Santa Cruz to face Quigg next. The Mexican is believed to be the favoured opponent of Quigg’s trainer, Joe Gallagher. Should the Bury boxer win such a unification fight, it would also bring the possibility of Quigg-Frampton even closer, with the Irishman holding the WBC’s mandatory position. But Quigg, as champion, would get the big payday.
So what is Frampton’s – or rather McGuigan’s – next move? Extend an olive branch to Martinez? Mend relations with Hearn? Come up with the cash to entice Santa Cruz or, improbably, Rigondeaux?
Ever the fighter, McGuigan will doubtless be working hard on his options. Frampton’s talent deserves better than being a top-ranked contender. He could possibly have been a champion already, had his team not let Romero slip through their hands (assuming that story to be true). But that’s history. The future – and ensuring that an outstanding talent is not squandered - remains up in the air. And in the short term at least, it will be about marking time.
Anthony Crolla looks likely to be the next British lightweight guided into world class. Following his impressive 10th round stoppage of fellow Manchester fighter John Murray on Saturday, Crolla has clearly finished his domestic apprenticeship, having paid his dues with hard fights against the likes of Derry Mathews and Gavin Rees prior to the Murray bout.
But options are limited. Dagenham’s Kevin Mitchell is being steered towards IBF champion Miguel Vazquez, should he come through a final eliminator next month. Former WBO boss Ricky Burns, rebuilding under Mitchell trainer Tony Sims, is being aimed at WBC champion Omar Figueroa. Burns conqueror Terence Crawford is not on the radar.
That essentially leaves the WBA title currently in the possession of gifted Cuban Richar Abril. Channels of communication are being opened, but it’s possible that Crolla will have to work his way through an eliminator before facing Abril in Manchester in the latter half of 2014 – at the earliest.
Nick Halling is a commentator for Sky Sports. Tags: Carl Frampton