If ever there was a fighter who deserved a better ending than they got, it was Carl Frampton.
Deserve is a tricky word within boxing, a sport which can present as a meritocracy but in actuality is controlled by the whimsies of a select few. Every inch in boxing is indeed earned, but sometimes a few more can be tacked on or taken away by the powers-that-be.
Throughout his career, Frampton seemed to rise above the madness by making the sport as simple and pleasurable as it could be. The Jackal was a fighter willing to consistently take the toughest fights, at his own risk, even in the autumn of his career. Rarely does a fighter come along who courts almost universal respect and admiration. There might have been better fighters than Frampton, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one—any one—with a higher approval rating.
As Donald McRae pointed out in The Guardian, Frampton’s magnetism worked in magical ways. “He is a Protestant from working class Tiger’s Bay while his wife, Christine, is a Catholic from west Belfast,” wrote McRae. “They have never cared about their different backgrounds but Frampton has always drawn his passionate fans from both sides of the old sectarian divide.”
Fighters rarely get to go out on top. Every boxer packs it in somewhere along their descent down the hill in terms of their abilities, and unless they specifically schedule an easy win to call it a career after, the realization that the freefall can’t be stopped comes after a loss. But the beloved Frampton at least deserved to go out in front of fans.
Instead, the last we’ll ever see of Frampton came in an eerily silent Dubai venue, stopped in the sixth round by Jamel Herring in a bid for the WBO super featherweight title. Only a handful of the most opulent were watching from the venue, and those viewing from home struggled to focus through an often rickety hard camera on television.
Frampton knew the end was near before he stepped in the ring. Both he and his trainer Jamie Moore said explicitly that this was going to be his last fight if he did not defeat Herring. Sometimes fighters will say things like that as a way of demeaning their opponent, as if to say, “if I’m not good enough to beat this guy, then I don’t deserve to be fighting.” There was none of that suggestion in Frampton’s promise. Frampton spoke of the rigors of a long and physically taxing career, and rather than wait for a gentle swan song, took an audacious challenge on the way out. A 5-foot-5 fighter who peaked at 122 moving up to face a 5-foot-10 fighter who maintains an absurdly low body fat to get down to remain at 130. His promise of a retirement in the event of a loss, then, was not an indictment on Herring, but rather an admission that if he could somehow pull this off, maybe it was worth sticking around for at least one more fight.
When the hell rang, it didn’t take Frampton long to realize that a victory tonight would have to come through sheer will, as any moment spent on the outside trying to box with a man of Herring’s size and technical prowess was one spent in futility. Rather, he was forced to lower his head, tuck his chin, bull forward and try to make use of his size disadvantage by getting even smaller.
Frampton’s only chance was to make it a fight, and for six rounds, he ensured that Herring was in one, even if Herring was also getting the best of it. Frampton’s physicality opened up a cut over Herring’s right eye in the same spot that had opened up in Herring’s most recent outing against Jonathan Oquendo.
Herring dropped Frampton for the first time in the fifth round, a short counter left hand that met Frampton at the perfect time during one of his rushes inwards. A look of frustration came over Frampton’s face as he looked over to his corner, but he wiped his face with his left glove, got up off of one knee and continued on.
In the sixth round, Herring uncorked a perfect left uppercut that caught Frampton flush on the chin. Frampton fell almost in slow motion, both of his knees trying to brace his impact and keep him upright but the rest of his body disagreeing, collapsing to the mat flat on his back.
His career in all likelihood could have ended right there. The knockdown was violent enough that no referee would have been credibly criticized for waving it off after seeing Frampton’s fall to the canvas. If there is one bright spot in the ending for Frampton, it is that he got to go out fighting. He only stopped when in the middle of a Herring onslaught, Frampton’s corner stepped up and said he no longer should. Frampton turned and slumped over the ropes and gave a knowing glance to his corner.
It was time to go.
“I’m deeply upset. I said I’d retire if I lost this fight and that is what I’ll do,” Frampton said in the ring following the fight. “My wife and kids have made so many sacrifices. I have missed them so much. I just want to dedicate my life to my family. Boxing has been good to me. It’s also been bad to me. But the last few years with these boys has been the best few years of my career. I just want to go home to my beautiful wife and kids. And that’s it, you know, just dedicate my life to them.”
When it was Herring’s time to speak, in the midst of a career-best win that will catapult him into a high-profile fight and another earnings bracket, the thing that was top of mind for him was instead what was on everyone else’s—a sadness that we would never see Frampton again.
The first words out of Herring’s mouth when he was presented with a microphone were: “No matter what, he’s always going to be one of my favorite fighters.”