By John J. Raspanti
Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares are ready to “throw hands” once again.
Three years ago, the California natives engaged in an exciting war that had the sellout crowd at the Staples Arena screaming themselves horse. The rematch hasn’t created much buzz since many feel that no matter what he does, Mares can’t defeat Santa Cruz.
Mares,32, feels differently. He thinks he’s a better fighter now with an improved attitude. He put away what was starting to become a problem, an inflated ego, and hired world class trainer, Robert Garcia.
Garcia took charge immediately. Mares responded. The results have been good. Two fights, two victories.
Now, the ultimate challenge.
How do you defeat WBA super featherweight champion Santa Cruz?
Santa Cruz, 29, is a punching machine, overwhelming his opponents with volume and angles. Though not a big puncher, he’s very good at exploiting weaknesses. He burst on the boxing scene in 2012 by knocking out reigning IBF world bantamweight champion Vusi Malinga. Over a span of six months, he successfully defended his title three times.
His most impressive outing was a beat-down of one-time Mares opponent Eric Morel. Sick of starving himself to make weight, Santa Cruz vacated his title and challenged WBC super-bantamweight titleholder Victor Terrazas. Santa Cruz knocked Terrazas to the canvas twice, winning the bout and another title by a third-round stoppage.
Santa Cruz (34-1, 19 KOs) has known Mares for 10 years. They’ve sparred over 30 rounds.
“I’ve always thought that when you’re in the gym training with someone around the same weight class and category as you that eventually you’re going to fight," Mares said in an article by Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times. "He was coming up, I was coming up. We went our separate ways, but now here we are."
Their fight was a classic, reminiscent of the wars fought at the historic Olympic Auditorium. When it was all said and done, Santa Cruz was the majority decision winner. The decision (should have been unanimous) was the right one. Mares complained, but finally accepted it.
“I’m not worried about the decision in the first fight,” said Mares last month at a press conference. “I think he landed the cleaner punches. I was happy with my performance as far as pleasing the crowd.”
In 2016, Santa Cruz faced former super bantamweight champion Carl Frampton in Brooklyn, NY. Santa Cruz was his usual active self, but Frampton was a tad crisper and more accurate. Frampton ended Santa Cruz’s undefeated run and took his title via majority decision.
Four months later they met again, but this time it was Santa Cruz, fighting with more emotion than usual, who edged Frampton.
Mares (32-2-1, 15 KOs) captured his first world title seven years ago by defeating Joseph Agbecko by majority decision. In 2012, Mares moved up to the super bantamweight division (122 pounds) and pummeled Eric Morel to win the vacant WBC crown.
Mares claimed his third title in 17 months by stopping Ponce De Leon in nine rounds. Mares defended his featherweight championship three months later against hard-punching former champion Jhonny Gonzales.
Two minutes into the bout, a blistering Gonzales left hook sent Mares crashing to the canvas. Mares pulled himself up, but his eyes were glassy. A cracking combination floored him again. The referee wasted no time waving off the contest. Mares took off almost a year before returning to the ring. He hooked up with trainer Virgil Hunter but wasn’t satisfied with his performance.
Mares hired Garcia soon after his loss to Santa Cruz. In 2016, he won a piece of the featherweight championship for the second time by defeating Jesus Andres Cuellar. Last October he stopped Andres Gutierrez.
“I can talk about how I’ve changed, but just need to look at my last two performances,” Mares said. "People thought Jesus Cuellar was to knock me out, but I was the one who dropped him. That lets you know what kind of team I have.”
“Mares will be better with Robert Garcia,” said Santa Cruz who defended his title with an eighth-round stoppage of Chris Avalos in his last bout. “He (Garcia) has many champions and I’ve seen the improvement. That’s great motivation for me.
Santa Cruz utilized his reach advantage very successfully over Mares in their first match. Mares has to figure out a way to get off first against the energetic Santa Cruz.
“I know he’s going to seek revenge, but I’m not going to let that happen,” Santa Cruz said.
Santa Cruz is likely right. His style is perfectly suited to defeat Mares, unless his fellow Southern Californian has a new trick up his sleeve.