At first look, Carl Frampton doesn't exactly set the imagination alight. The Northern Irish junior featherweight possesses an array of techniques straight out of a "boxing for beginners" tutorial: straight jab, short left hook, hard right hand, and a beautiful right uppercut. All effective, all so terribly run-of-the-mill.
Except, as it turns out, textbook boxing techniques were put in the textbook for a reason. Frampton's style is distinctly lacking in wild punches, unorthodox footwork, and all things flash. In fact, aside from his occasional indulgence in every modern boxer's fascination with switching stance periodically, everything Carl Frampton does is strictly by the book, in the best way possible.
Consider this: in 19 wins, Frampton has knocked out 13 opponents, giving him an impressive finishing ratio of about 68%. And unlike many of his contemporaries, Frampton didn't merely bolster his ratio with a lengthy early career run through the mud. Frampton has been fighting winners since his ninth professional fight, and veterans since his seventh. He hasn't knocked out every opponent along the way, but he's continued knocking men out consistently since the start of his pro career. Frampton recently went on a four-knockout streak that was only stopped by a dominant decision over fourth-ranked Kiko Martinez. And not only did Martinez go down in the fifth round, he himself was the second knockout in Frampton's streak.
And yet despite all of this, it's hard to look at Frampton's punches with awe. They don't seem pack the earth-shattering power we normally associate with knockout artists and yet, sooner or later, Frampton finds a way to put elite opposition on their backs.
So how does he do it?
Frampton's is not the art of the power punch so much as it is the art of the clean punch. There are boxers so naturally powerful that they knock men out on accident. Frampton is not one of these men. Frampton works hard to prepare the opponent for his fight-ending blows, setting up his knockout punches from the opening bell of every bout. His toolkit is purpose-built for putting opponents in the right positions to be hurt when hit.
Let's imagine that a fighter's fist is a sort of projectile weapon--like an arrow. Assuming that it has been aimed well, an arrow's success lies in its ability to penetrate the surface of its target. With the right arrowhead, history's best archers could even send a clothyard shaft through armor, or at the very least shoot the horse out from under the man wearing it.
But an arrow can't just pierce any target. The sharpened tip of the arrow must grip whatever surface it is fired at, and to do that it needs to strike at something close to a perpendicular angle.
(Click to enlarge)
Striking at ninety degrees, the arrow passes right through the flat surface of our wooden archery butt. No problem. If we were to change the angle of the target, however, we would change how well the tip of the arrowhead could bite, and thus the depth of its penetration into the target.
(Click to enlarge)
With the addition of a slight angle, our arrow loses some of its piercing properties, but it still manages to get a firm enough grip on contact to bury itself in the target. But the more dramatic the angle of the butt, the less likely the arrow is to do its job.
(Click to enlarge)
At a certain point, the arrow becomes completely ineffective, glancing off its target and ricocheting off to the side. Thus we have the ingenious engineering behind the armors of the late medieval era, smoothly curved steel plates that minimized the chance for the arrow--or any other weapon for that matter--to bite into its surface. After the end of the middle ages, engineers constructed fort walls in sharp angles and slants to encourage a glancing blow from incoming cannon fire.
In the world of boxing, there are many subtle forms of defense, but none are more frustrating than that of misdirecting otherwise unobstructed strikes. Fighters like Bennie Briscoe used to do this masterfully. Here, he all but asks Marvin Hagler to punch his forehead and the rounded top of his skull.
Bernard Hopkins uses a different iteration of the same style. These men mastered the art of taking a punch without taking a punch--allowing a blow to land without letting it land cleanly.
And on the other side of that equation, we have Carl Frampton. Frampton is as accurate as any marksman, and his entire approach to fighting revolves around the idea of taking away the opponent's ability to absorb or deflect his punches. When he finds himself with an uninviting target, he moves to find that perpendicular angle of contact, or moves his target until the angle presents itself. In this way, without possessing particularly heavy hands, Frampton has has become one of the most consistent knockout artists at 122 pounds.
PREPARING THE CANVAS
It starts with the jab.
Frampton throws dozens of jabs per round, but few of them ever land. They're not meant to. Above, he sticks a hard jab in the face of Kiko Martinez as the Spaniard walks in a little too confidently. This one punishing left, which stops the aggressive Martinez in his tracks, is enough for Frampton.
Carl doesn't want to land jabs--he wants to land straight rights and left hooks, his two most reliable knockout punches. By establishing his jab as a convincing threat, he can use it to move his opponent into position for the punches that won't just stop them in their tracks, but put them flat on their backs. Frampton loves nothing better than for an opponent to counter his left with their own.
Here, Frampton occupies Martinez's right hand with a flicking jab. As Martinez tentatively leans toward his left hip, it becomes clear that he is looking to respond with his own left hand. Frampton is ready for it--when Martinez leaps forward with a left hook, Frampton covers the exact same distance in reverse, hop-stepping backward and letting Martinez miss.
Now, notice the clean opening for a counter when Martinez overextends on his hook. As his body rotates to the right, he exposes the left side of his head to Frampton. It's not just the fact that his left hand isn't there to guard, but the fact that his missed punch has caused him to turn his cheek, giving Frampton the flat surface he needs to land a truly clean blow. Frampton looks for a right hand over the top, but mistimes it, and Martinez resets. Still, he knows that Martinez can be made to open up.
Though he is a natural counter puncher, Frampton isn't shy about leading. A missed punch can leave an opponent exposed, but so can a mistimed slip or parry. Like a little Lennox Lewis, Frampton loves to use his left hand to encourage head movement that leaves the opponent open for the right or the left hook. When the opponent refuses to move his head, as Martinez started to do after eating a few punishing blows, Frampton turns to his wide right.
This is not a punch that Carl throws particularly well--unlike his straight it isn't likely to produce a knockout. He fails to turn his hand over, and usually leaves his elbow too low to arc the punch over his opponent's guard. For a truly effective wide right, we'd have to look at men like Gennady Golovkin and Juan Manuel Marquez, both of whom throw looping punches with craft and ill intent.
Still, Frampton's wide right is a useful part of his arsenal. More slap than punch, it carries more than enough force to knock his opponent off balance, breaking his confidence and scoring points in the eyes of the judges. It also displaces the opponent's guard--note how Frampton's strike actually rips Martinez's left glove away from the side of his head. Instinctively, he overcompensates and yanks his hand in the opposite direction, covering higher than necessary and leaving an opening for a jab down the center. Frampton delights in finishing combinations with his jab. He doesn't commit to it above, but here's a nice slow motion example from his bout with Hugo Fidel Cazares.
Frampton's other option with the right hand is the uppercut. The straight right attacks the exposed left cheek, and the wide right loops around to attack the same target even when it isn't exposed. The uppercut, on the other hand, finds its perpendicular angle from beneath the target, striking up to find the chin or torso of an opponent who leans forward. Here, Frampton uses the jab, wide right, and uppercut all in succession. Creating openings with one attack in order to capitalize with the next.
First, Martinez lunges in from much too far away--leaving himself leaned forward but not close enough for an uppercut. Frampton sends a wide right crashing into the side of his jaw. Next Frampton starts to work his jab, avoiding a cross counter by stepping back and circling to his left. Martinez chases him with a leaping left hook--the same punch which Frampton looked to counter with his straight right earlier--but because he is circling left, Frampton is not at the right angle or distance to capitalize on the exposed side of Martinez's head when the punch fails. He is, however, close enough for the uppercut, and as Martinez ducks down to regain his balance Frampton brings his right hand up and catches him on the chin.
Valuable as they are, the wide right and uppercut are really workarounds--fallback options turned to when Frampton's favored opening doesn't present itself. Frampton will use these tactics to win rounds and keep the opponent working, but he always gravitates back to his beloved straight right. Here, he gets Martinez to chase him straight back toward the ropes.
As Martinez loads up his left, Frampton leans his head over his left foot, making himself appear closer than he actually is. The moment Martinez commits, he pulls his head back just far enough to make the Spaniard miss. A quick jab measures the range, and Frampton subtly pivots to his right as he throws his right hand, getting as clean an angle as possible on that exposed left side. And, as a bit of a bonus, he finds the angle for an equally clean left hook when Martinez slips to his left, exposing the right side of his head to Frampton's left hand.
In his rematch with Martinez, Frampton showed the depth of his mastery, creating angles with ease and timing his counters perfectly. Once again, it was his beloved counter right hand that stole the show, putting Martinez down in the fifth round in what might be the most perfectly-placed counter of Frampton's career.
All of the pieces of Frampton's game come together here. The measuring jab draws Martinez in. The right uppercut tries to catch him leaning and lift his head for the left hook that follows. And though Martinez manages to bob under the hook, the moment he tries to fire back he leaves himself exposed. Frampton slides back to his right, causing Martinez's left hook to catch him on the chest rather than the jaw. And as Martinez pops up with his punch, Frampton is already ready with the right hand, which meets Martinez's jaw at a perfect ninety-degree angle before he can even get his feet set on the ground.
Fight analysis tends to focus on the positions of the fighters hands--whether or not they brought their jab back too low, or dropped their right hand as they threw it. These things matter, but a punch's effectiveness is determined by more than a lack of obstructions. Carl Frampton has perfected the art of placing his punches, creating the openings he wants and positioning himself so that he can take full advantage. Some men can rely on their punching power to get the knockouts for them; they hit so hard that they knock men out on accident. Carl Frampton has power, but his skill is his true weapon. And when he knocks you out, you can be sure that it was no accident.