There's so much to like about Leo Santa Cruz, except this situation he's found himself in by balking at an anticipated rematch with co-World Boxing Assn. featherweight champion Abner Mares in favor of a tune-up fight with Lancaster's Chris Avalos.
Santa Cruz (33-1-1, 18 knockouts) is so genuine he could only bring himself to describe the cause of his delayed date with Mares as "whatever reason", at the fighters' Tuesday news conference for an Oct. 14 card at StubHub Center in which both will defend their belts.
Avalos (27-5, 20 KOs) might have impressive one-punch knockout power, but he's lost three of his past five bouts.
Jose Santa Cruz, Leo's father and trainer, was absent from Tuesday's session at L.A. Live's Conga Room, but he has been pointed to as the No. 1 reason Santa Cruz-Mares was moved out of an Oct. 7 date at Staples Center in favor of this doubleheader in Carson. The elder Santa Cruz advised his son to take less dangerous work after splitting back-to-back dates with Northern Ireland's former two-division champion Carl Frampton. Santa Cruz hasn't fought since defeating Frampton in January.
Southland rival Mares (30-2-1, 15 KOs) has been out of the ring since December, when he also impressed by out-boxing heavy-handed Jesus Cuellar at USC's Galen Center.
"Our whole plan and training camp has been to fight Leo," said Mares' trainer, Robert Garcia. "That's the fight we're waiting on. When they made the change, we didn't want to take an easy opponent. We wanted something that made sense. This kid we're fighting is solid, has decent skills and power. We talked about it and said, 'If you're going to fight in your hometown, let's go give 'em a good fight.'"
Mares is fighting Mexican countryman Andres Gutierrez (35-1-1, 25 KOs), a stablemate of Jhonny Gonzalez, who knocked out Mares in the first round of their 2013 bout at StubHub.
"This actually works perfect for us — Leo deciding go take a tune-up fight — because it gives me more time to tune Abner," Garcia said.
There's an obvious — and surprising — reluctance from the Santa Cruz side, even after he defeated Mares by majority decision in their 2015 bout at Staples Center.
"That's what we see," Garcia said. "He needs more time? We were ready for the fight."
The loss and revenge with Frampton should've removed the "protected" stigma from Santa Cruz, but he had to defend against it once more Tuesday.
"I feel I'm ready, that I don't back up from anybody, and if they had told me I'd be fighting Mares, I would've fought him," Santa Cruz said. "But my team gave me the advice that after two hard fights and a long layoff, maybe my body won't be the same … with Mares, we know it's going to be a hard fight. So I listened to my dad. He's always been in my corner. I do what he tells me. He told me to take a tune-up fight. I can box a little more with Avalos, can test my body."
It might make sense, but it's not a good look.
Santa Cruz said he was impressed by the improved patience Mares exhibited under Garcia in December.
"Maybe he was too aggressive in the first fight against me, going for the early knockout. If he changes it up, it's OK. If he boxes or brawls, we're prepared for whatever they bring us," Santa Cruz said.
Mares said Santa Cruz pressing pause while promising him a date in early 2018 reminds him of what former heavyweight champion Joe Louis used to say: He can run, but he can't hide.
"It is what it is," Mares said. "Any top featherweight should know our eyes are set on them and [super-featherweight champion Vasyl] Lomachenko, too."