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Leo Santa Cruz tries not to forget where he came from as he prepares for a rematch with Abner Mares

There’s something about the shrimp soup and kung pao chicken that keeps Leo Santa Cruz coming back to the B-rated Chinese restaurant in Lincoln Heights.

Maybe it’s that the place is a reminder of what life was like for Santa Cruz and his first-generation Mexican-American family as they struggled for survival near the strip mall that’s home to the restaurant, Boda, and other simple stores.

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Santa Cruz, 29, is set to collect a purse in excess of $1 million for his World Boxing Assn. featherweight title rematch against Abner Mares on Saturday in the Showtime-televised main event at Staples Center. But for several years, starting at age 12, Santa Cruz, his three older brothers, father and mother made a desperate daily push for any income. Often, that meant searching for redeemable aluminum cans.

“If me and my mom saw one … we’d pick one off the ground or in the trash cans,” Santa Cruz said recently during a lunch at Boda following a media-day workout in downtown Los Angeles. “We had to do what we had to do to help the family survive, to buy tortillas or stuff like that. We were never ashamed or embarrassed.

“All the hard work, the sacrifice I went through. … Now I have a lot, but right here, there used to be this little [redemption] store, and my mom and I used to come here with a shopping cart and sell the cans and then use the money to buy soup and milk.”

Being back, he said, “reminds me to never get a big head, that I’m always going to be the same person.”

Times reporter Lance Pugmire takes a look at the rivalry between Abner Mares and Leo Santa Cruz, L.A. natives who will fight for a second time on Saturday, June 9.

Santa Cruz has a record of 34-1-1 with 19 knockouts. He fought Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs) in 2015 and won a majority decision. Another win Saturday would open his options to include a third fight with former champion Carl Frampton, a title-unification bout or a move to super-featherweight.

He is being trained by his father, Jose, who has endured severe pain during training camp as he continues to recover from spinal cancer.

“My dad says to focus more on power and to be smarter,” Santa Cruz said of his strategy. “I do 13 rounds of sparring. My dad says to do one [round] extra. That way, you know you’re ready. Him seeing me in the gym training motivates him. When he sees me train good, he gets happy, so I always try to keep him happy.

“You learn a lot from 12 rounds,” he added, referring to his previous bout with Mares. “You know everything he’s going to do, what punch hurts him. We know how to fight him. My dad says I can stop him.”

Family is obviously important to Santa Cruz, whose brother Antonio is an assistant trainer. The entire household of six resided in a two-bedroom home about five blocks from this favorite restaurant.

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“We took three buses to the gym,” Santa Cruz recalled. “We’d get on at this corner to Chinatown, then walk to Olvera Street, then take another bus … it’d take like two hours. Good memories because we laughed on the bus and joked around, but sad because sometimes we’d be out of money and had to walk.”

Through it all, he never tuned out the voice of his father, who aimed to turn each of his sons into a world champion fighter.

“I knew he was doing it for my own good, not to be annoying,” Santa Cruz said. “I knew by him pushing me and motivating me, it would make me work harder for it.

“It did. Thank God it did.

Leo Santa Cruz takes part in a media workout at City of Angels Boxing Club on May 22.
Leo Santa Cruz takes part in a media workout at City of Angels Boxing Club on May 22. (Joe Scarnici / Getty Images)

“He always had a dream, a vision, and if he hadn’t done that we would’ve never accomplished what we did. My dad’s love for it made me believe. He knew I had the talent to be somebody. I never gave up. I worked hard. I dedicated myself. I took it serious. There were times I didn’t want to do stuff. I wanted to achieve that dream, though, so I did it.”

On his most recent drive to Boda from the downtown City of Angels boxing club, Santa Cruz said he passed hundreds of ordinary Angelenos carrying on with their day, bringing him to reflect on why he became successful.

“All that suffering made me work hard to give my family and my kids a better future. I wanted my kids to live a good life,” he said. “When you feel that in your heart, that you want to be somebody, you give it that extra. … I had that special talent inside to not give up.”

He sees people from his old neighborhood showing a similar attitude, and said he was particularly touched by those lugging plastic bottles and cans.

“It reminds me of myself, my family,” he said. “Every time I can, I stop and give them change. It might be $10, $20 … I know what they’re feeling. They’re trying to get something to eat.

“They want to be bigger than the minimum wage. They work hard for it. God has a plan for everybody. If you put effort into it, you can do it.”

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