By Steve Wellings 

It was a Saturday morning in early November 2010 and four boxing heads were neatly tucked into a car, powering across the country.

Carl Frampton (driving), his dad Craig, fellow journalist Nicky Fullerton and I were heading down to Limerick. Later that evening Irish boxing’s man of the moment Willie Casey and Dublin’s Paul Hyland were scheduled to contest the vacant European super-bantamweight title. Frampton, increasingly recognisable and growing in popularity, may have been using the Brian Peters’ headliner as a reasonable career gauge but realistically this seven-fight novice already knew that his ceiling would rise considerably higher.

Halfway through our trip the petrol car started feeling sorry for itself and began overheating. Ace reporter and apparent automobile expert Mr Fullerton quickly sprang into action by jacking the heating up to full capacity and thus solving the issue to such a degree (pun intended) that we could continue on to our destination.Hours later and ‘Big Bang’ Casey was busy pummelling Hyland into submission in the fourth round of their clash and propelling himself towards an audaciously reckless crack at Guillermo Rigondeaux.

Our designated chauffeur was actually at the tail end of a training camp himself. Indeed, that scheduled outing concluded courtesy of a second-round beatdown of Gavin Reid in Belfast’s Ulster Hall for the Celtic title. Just weeks away from the bout, Carl was already in tip-top physical condition when we checked in, late afternoon, to a ubiquitous Limerick chain hotel.

I doubt ‘The Jackal’ has too many problems with his current vehicle of choice, whatever it may be. Six years on and his star has risen exponentially. Frampton now views himself as the best-supported fighter in the UK and with over 4,000 fans expected to travel to Las Vegas later this month, few could argue with his assertion. Carl’s face now regularly adorns the front and back pages of Northern Ireland’s national newspapers not to mention the legs and arms of ardent fans who have taken to tattooing their hero’s likeness across their skin (there are some good ones out there and some not so good ones, he acknowledges).

When it comes to matters of the ring, Frampton may have found himself a well-matched dance partner in the form of Leo Santa Cruz. Should the Los Angeles man take revenge in their January 28 rematch then a rubber match would interest all parties. Frampton’s team will happily forgo that notion if their man can comprehensively defeat his foe for the second time. Last month the pair engaged in back-to-back press conferences with the first in Belfast’s Europa Hotel and the second a day later in LA.

After the Belfast leg of the tour had ended I spoke briefly to Sam Watson, Al Haymon’s face of operations and father of the inescapable Watson twins, and asked about the possibility of a rubber match on Carl’s home turf should Santa Cruz win the rematch. Watson appeared open to this suggestion as did Leo himself but I am highly sceptical that Santa Cruz will ever set foot in Northern Ireland in a fighting capacity. Soaking up a convivial reception from a crowd of fight fans (many highly appreciative of Santa Cruz’s efforts in their Brooklyn encounter) is one thing, but entering the lion’s den on a chilly Belfast evening ready to do battle is another entirely.

Leo is clearly a nice guy who refrains from needless trash talk and does his talking in the ring, which is just as well given that much of his conversation meanders into banal clichés. Fighters like Santa Cruz are the enemy of the writer. Just as they appear ready to hit the point of saying something juicy or insightful they check themselves and slip back into media-trained mode: “He’s a great fighter, I’ve trained hard, this will be a great fight…” Rinse and repeat.

A second victory for Frampton will surely see the man regarded in many quarters as Fighter of the Year for 2016, muscle his way in to the lower reaches of the mythical pound-for-pound lists. Pushing national biases aside, Carl’s BoxRec CV is starting to stack up on any level and he would certainly be calling plenty of shots during negotiations with fellow champion Lee Selby who has fallen slightly off the radar.

With fights against Gary Russell Jnr, Oscar Valdez and even, remarkably, given the Bury man’s tepid performance in the first fight, a Scott Quigg rematch all being murmured there are numerous options on the table. None of these will be of any concern to Frampton whose primary focus rests on Santa Cruz and their MGM Grand, Las Vegas headliner. It’s a far cry from engine inspections on the hard shoulder of an Irish motorway but we all have to start somewhere and Frampton’s boxing journey is far from complete.

“This rematch with Leo Santa Cruz is going to be an amazing one,” he said. “The first one was considered a ‘Fight of the Year’ and I don’t think this can be any different. We’re going to kick-off 2017 with a bang.”

I wouldn’t disagree with any of that.