LAS VEGAS -- Trilogy, anyone?
Six months ago, Carl Frampton won a majority decision and a featherweight world title from Leo Santa Cruz in a fantastic fight of the year contender in Brooklyn, New York, on his way to 2016 consensus fighter of the year honors.
They moved across the country and did it again on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where Santa Cruz flipped the script, regaining his 126-pound world title by majority decision in another classic battle before an electric crowd of 10,085 -- thousands of whom traveled from Frampton's home country of Northern Ireland.
Judge Burt Clements scored the fight 114-114 but was overruled by judges Dave Moretti and Glenn Feldman, who both scored it 115-113. ESPN.com also scored the fight 115-113 for Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz sealed the victory by winning the final four rounds on two scorecards and three of the last four on the third card, making the need for a rubber match obvious.
"Before the fight I said I wanted revenge and I wanted to work hard. I went to the gym and I worked hard, and I did what I had to do," Santa Cruz said. "Carl Frampton is a good fighter. Let's make it a third fight!"
Frampton was gracious in defeat.
"It was a very tough fight. Some of the rounds were close. I really think Leo deserved it," said Frampton. "He was very clever and he used his reach. I think he deserved it. I'm being honest. I think he deserved it. But it was a very good fight. I think I can perform slightly better. No excuses."
Santa Cruz kicked himself after the first fight for failing to use enough of the boxing skills he possesses. In the rematch, however, he did what he said he would do -- box more, slug less. He relied heavily on his jab and used his height and reach advantage, boxing just enough to keep Frampton off balance to earn the victory.
"We got the belt back," Santa Cruz said. "I consciously threw less punches than I normally do. I had to fight smart and I did what I had to do."
According to CompuBox punch statistics, Santa Cruz, who usually throws more than 1,000 punches in a 12-round fight, landed 230 of 884 (26 percent) and Frampton connected with 133 of 592 (22 percent).
"He told me what he was going to do. The brawler was out-boxing the boxer," Frampton said. "My fault. I'm sorry. We will have to do it again. We have to do it again."
Ringstar Sports promoter Richard Schaefer was impressed by Santa Cruz's game plan.
"He fought a very disciplined fight," Schaefer said. "He used his height. He used his jab. He entertained the crowd and he really came to fight. You could see he really wanted this one. I'm very proud of him."
Santa Cruz, 28, of Los Angeles, stayed on point because of the constant reminders from his father and trainer, Jose Santa Cruz. The younger Santa Cruz went into the first fight riding an emotional roller coaster. He nearly pulled out because his father was diagnosed a few months before the fight with stage 3 bone cancer in his spine. But the elder Santa Cruz insisted that his son go through with the fight and then perked him up when the illness went into remission and he was well enough to join him in the later stages of training camp and travel to New York.
But he was not a big part of that camp or fight, unlike Saturday night, when he was the constant voice in his son's ear, like usual, thanks to his cancer going into full remission.
"It definitely felt different having my father fully in the corner and fully in the gym," Leo Santa Cruz said. "I knew if I listened to him and did what we practiced, I would win. I always fight for the fans, but tonight I also fought for myself.
"My head was telling me to go forward and pressure him, but my dad and corner were telling me to box him. That's what I had to do."
Jose Santa Cruz was proud of his son's performance.
"He did exactly what we practiced in the gym. He boxed and countered," Jose Santa Cruz said. "This was better than anything I could have asked for. I am so happy I could be in the corner for my son."
While Leo Santa Cruz, who exercised his right to an immediate rematch just days after the first fight, did box more than he did in the first fight last July 30, he is still a warrior at heart, as is Frampton, and they produced another enthralling battle.
With the crowd erupting at the opening bell -- and bursting into song shortly thereafter -- Frampton and Santa Cruz went right to work in a fireworks-filled first round in which they both landed heavy shots and engaged in fierce exchanges. It was as though they were picking up with the 13th round rather than the first. Santa Cruz, however, seemed to get the better of the action.
While Santa Cruz (33-1-1, 18 KOs), who earned $900,000 to Frampton's $1 million, had no problem mixing it up with Frampton (23-1, 14 KOs), he's the taller, longer fighter and used his jab effectively to keep him off balance. Much of the final minute of the fourth round was one long extended exchange with each man giving and taking shots.
They went back and forth in several rounds in an exciting fight that had the crowd alternating who it was cheering for. Frampton, 29, turned up the pressure in the seventh round as he began to back Santa Cruz up and land left hands to the head.
Santa Cruz, who appeared to forget about his jab later in the fight, nonetheless had one of his best rounds in the ninth as he plowed forward and snapped Frampton's head back with a right hand and also nailed him with a clean left to the chin in a round he clearly controlled.
There was tremendous action in the 10th round, and it continued through the 11th with the fighters battling toe-to-toe. As the final round began, the crowd was chanting "Leo! Leo!" as they went to battle for three more minutes.
Frampton tried to force Santa Cruz to the ropes, but Santa Cruz fought his way out of it and they wound up trading in the center of the ring. They let it all hang out for the final minute, including a heavy exchange in the final seconds. When it was over they fell into an embrace and waited anxiously with everyone else for Jimmy Lennon Jr. to read the scorecards.
Whether Santa Cruz, who has won world titles in three weight classes, and Frampton, who has done it in two divisions, face off for a third time next or wait a fight or two, they both are up for another chapter in their rivalry.
"They are both open to a rematch, but we have to sit down and see what makes sense," Schaefer said. "These are two truly great guys outside of the ring and made for each other inside of the ring. I'm very proud of both of them. It was a spectacular fight just like we expected. Put them in the ring 10 times and you will get that kind of fight 10 times."
The fighters, who throughout the promotion of both bouts seemed to have a genuine affection for each other, said they're ready for Chapter 3.
"Let's do it again," Frampton said. "I hope he's a man of his word and comes to Belfast. I hope he does."
While Santa Cruz wasn't about to commit to going to Belfast five minutes after the fight, he said to bring on the rubber match.
"Of course I want the rematch," Santa Cruz said. "I'm a man of my word, and I said if I won I would give him the trilogy."
Bring it on.