THEY say life flashes before the eyes of those approaching death. When Carl Frampton dropped in cinematic slow motion in the sixth round of his bout with Jamel Herring, it was almost as if he’d relived his entire career before his backside hit the canvas. Because the look in his eyes as he turned to pick up the referee’s count said it all: It was over.
From his days with Billy McKee, his old amateur coach he so dearly wanted to dedicate victory to last weekend, through to his final years under the tutelage of Jamie Moore, Frampton made his mark in boxing history both as a man and as a fighter.
Raised in a Unionist area of Belfast he learned to box in a Catholic gym and would represent Ireland – rather than Great Britain – during an amateur career that caught the eye of Barry McGuigan. Frampton and McGuigan formed a partnership that would see the young fighter, as he turned professional in 2009, quickly be recognised as one of the brightest young prospects in the world. It was a genuine surprise when that fruitful alliance ended so bitterly.
Trained initially by the great stalwart Gerry Storey before finding his best form under Shane McGuigan, Frampton won Celtic, Commonwealth, European and world titles. Each triumph was memorable: Outclassing Gavin Reid in 2010 to win his first professional title at Ulster Hall; the four-round thrashing of Mark Quon the following year for the vacant Commonwealth super-bantamweight belt inside Frampton’s ultimate fortress, the Odyssey Arena; at the same venue in 2013, in what might have been his most complete performance, he knocked the substantial stuffing out of the robust Kiko Martinez in the ninth round to become the European champion; Martinez would again be the opponent when Frampton won the IBF title on a triumphant 2014 night at Belfast’s Titanic Quarter.
That Frampton went on to achieve even greater victories should be testament to all involved at that time. His personality – so honest and genuine, so full of good humour – ensured he had the support of thousands whenever he fought. Ear drums popped in Manchester when he outboxed Scott Quigg (we should never forget what a big deal that bout was to the boxing hardcore in 2016). He followed that with his greatest victory, a 12-round New York humdinger against WBA featherweight king, Leo Santa Cruz, to cap a year that saw him named Fighter of the Year by Boxing News, The Ring, ESPN and the Boxing Writers Association of America.
Inevitably he started to fade. Approaching 30 years old – the standard age when smaller fighters tend to slip – Frampton’s relationship with the McGuigans started to sour and already he was talking about retirement. He lost a tight rematch to Santa Cruz in Las Vegas as 2017 began. A move to Moore’s gym revitalised his desire and, three years ago, under Frank Warren’s promotional banner, Frampton notched his final truly world class win. Back at the Odyssey (by then known as the SSE Arena), he defeated Nonito Donaire in yet another terrific 12-round war.
But Frampton’s diminutive albeit perfectly proportioned 5ft 5ins frame was starting to erode. Though he gave his all against Josh Warrington at the end of 2018 in a thrilling brawl, the defeat he suffered was foreboding. It is telling that Frampton looked at Warrington and later Herring before he fought them and was certain he would be too good for them. The truth turned out to be the hardest truth; that it wasn’t his opponents who could not compete to his own high standard but him. Time had taken something that he would never get back.
Personally speaking, Frampton was a joy to cover. I was struck by his charisma when calling him for a BN 60-Second interview way back in 2010. I remember his honesty behind the scenes after an unexpected 10-round struggle with Robbie Turley in Cardiff the following year. Most of all, I will never forget the noise – both raucous and joyous yet borderline uncomfortable due to its sheer volume – when he knocked out Martinez in Belfast and defeated Quigg in Manchester.
The end of the story, as Herring dropped him with blows he would have walked through at his peak, was infinitely harder to watch than the start. Out in faraway Dubai – a lucrative but unfitting alien land, eerily quiet and thousands of miles from Belfast – Frampton fought through tears to announce his retirement after regaining his balance and being stopped on his feet. Such harrowing career-ending losses are almost inevitable in this cruel sport yet somehow, as Frampton urged the media to only pay attention to the man who had just beaten him, he regained the class of old.