Carl Frampton: 'Jackal Army' on tour in Las Vegas
They came, they saw, and the 'Ulster Boys' left an indelible mark on the famous Las Vegas Strip.
Since the Carl Frampton-Leo Santa Cruz rematch was announced, thousands of Frampton fans have been busy making their plans, saving their money, and buying their T-shirts for the trip of a lifetime to come to the mecca of boxing to support their local hero.
Not since the halcyon days of Ricky Hatton has a fighter from the United Kingdom brought such a following to Vegas. While it will take some doing for any boxer to match the estimated 33,000 supporters Hatton brought over in December 2007 for his highly anticipated bout with Floyd Mayweather, Frampton has a large and loyal fan base that continues to grow.
It all led to an incredible atmosphere on the Strip with a sea of green and chants of 'mon the Jackal' emanating from many a hotel casino in the days leading up to the fight.
The sense of anticipation continued to build in the MGM Grand Hotel on Friday at the weigh-in and on Saturday ahead of the fight. The MGM's Grand Garden Arena has hosted many iconic fights down the years, and given the quality of their first world featherweight title contest, the rematch was widely expected to be another classic.
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Vegas is notorious for the chancers and spivs who weave their way round the Strip. The way Frampton and Santa Cruz conducted themselves in the build-up to, during and after their fights has been in stark contrast to that, with honesty, sportsmanship and mutual respect emanating from all their actions.
The bonhomie between the fighters extended to both sets of supporters on fight night with the Irish and Mexicans mixing well before and after the fight. This led to some unexpected sights including a group of Santa Cruz supporters singing "everywhere we go - it's the Ulster boys making all the noise" and Frampton fans trying to explain to a rather bemused group of Mexicans who Gareth McAuley and Stevie Davis are, and why they were being continually celebrated in song.
While 'Sweet Caroline' was sung with the usual gusto and the fans gave feverish support to Frampton as he made his way to the ring, his supporters were acutely aware that the two fighters are evenly matched and that the fight was likely to be another tight affair. So the tension was palpable in the arena at times during the fight.
The bout was another demonstration of boxing at the highest level and the majority decision in favour of Santa Cruz reflected the closeness of the contest.
But Frampton was heroic until the end. His gracious comments in his post fight interview did him immense credit, proving he is as class an act in defeat as he has always been in the ring.
He did not attempt to make any excuses for the loss - but simply conceded his opponent was the better man on the night. The way he has conducted himself since the result has left an indelible mark in Vegas, with a number of Mexican and American fight fans commenting on how they were struck by the dignity and humility Frampton demonstrated in defeat.
One of the reasons Frampton generates such devotion from his fans is that he has remained genuinely unaffected by the great success he has achieved and the fame that has come with it. It is very evident he appreciates the huge level of support and loyalty he generates in his fans, and he is keenly aware of the financial sacrifices his fans have made to support him on his quest to conquer America, which is why he is adamant his next fight will be in Belfast.
First career defeat
The loyalty is reciprocal as it is clear the support means a great deal to Frampton, and in the immediate aftermath of his first career defeat he spoke of feeling he had let his fans down. But none of his supporters felt let down at all, they were all aware that Frampton had lost narrowly to an excellent fighter, and they wanted to show the Tigers Bay man that they would be backing him now more than ever.
This was evident in the feverish cries of "there's only one Carl Frampton" as soon as the result was announced in the ring and in the raucous welcome Frampton received the following day when he attended a post-fight party in a local Irish bar.
At that gathering in the Irish bar, the overwhelming feeling from the fans was that while they were of course disappointed the Ulsterman had lost, they felt it was a very close fight and they just wanted to be there to demonstrate to Frampton that they would support him in the tough times as well as the good.
As many of the Jackal's fans began their long journey home on Monday, they were in upbeat mood, in spite of the result, as Jonathan from Antrim explained.
"While the result was obviously not what we wanted, Frampton fought well, and certainly did not disgrace himself in the ring. The way he has accepted defeat has also reflected well on him," said Jonathan.
"The whole trip has been amazing. Seeing so many people from Northern Ireland descend on the Vegas Strip to support one of our own has been fantastic. Northern Ireland is on a real sporting high at the minute with the success of our golfers, our football team and of course Carl's achievements. Long may it continue."
Throughout fight weekend in Vegas, as the song goes, the Ulster Boys really were making all the noise with casino bosses eager for another Frampton fight on the Strip before too long.
For many Frampton fans, recovering physically, emotionally and financially from this "trip of a lifetime" may take some time!