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Why the Santa Cruz vs. Mares fight matters to Los Angeles

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.

There are important boxing matters to be settled when Southland rivals Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares square off Saturday night in a Staples Center rematch for a featherweight world championship.

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First-generation Mexican American Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 KOs) and the Mexican-born Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs) meet at a moment when immigration and border security have become hot button topics with the election of President Trump.

But both fighters view this as an opportunity to showcase the struggle and success of the Mexican and Mexican American communities in the United States.

“It’s a fight for our people, to show that we come to work hard, to make something of ourselves, to live the American dream,” World Boxing Assn. champion Santa Cruz said. “Yes, there are people who’ve come here and have done bad stuff. But there are more nice people who come here to work. Our people deserve the opportunity.

“And I’m pretty sure there’ll be many of those people supporting us, cheering us on Saturday night.”

Staples Center was near capacity in August 2015, when Lincoln Heights-raised Santa Cruz defeated Mares, of Hawaiian Gardens, by majority decision.

Their rematch could settle who stands as the best boxer in Los Angeles, and No. 1 in a deep division that counts another Southland-trained Mexican American world champion, Oscar Valdez.

Santa Cruz and Mares have a rivalry that starts with mutual respect.

“He’s a great guy, doing it for his family,” Santa Cruz said. “This is a matter of business. We both need to win, to keep providing for our family, and that’s why we’re both fighting.”

There is a divide that Mares sees, however.

While Santa Cruz was born in the U.S., rising as the youngest of four boxing brothers raised in a single-unit apartment to become a champion, Mares came across the border with his parents illegally.

Mares has since become a U.S. citizen, but he is intimately familiar with the fear of being deprived of the better life his family sought and attained in Southern California.

“Not taking anything away from Leo, because he is proud of his Mexican American side, but he’s not Mexican,” Mares said. “He didn’t cross the border like I did. He can’t relate to all that.

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“Me, I crossed the border illegally, was brought here at a young age, and I went back and continued to cross, only with my school I.D., risking getting caught and deported. So I can truly relate to the millions who live here without papers.

“I’m a little more aggressive on that. I lived it.”

The common bond is that each has exceeded the aspirations his parents carried when they came here.

Santa Cruz not only owns a boxing gym, but he also recently opened a new auto body shop and has purchased property throughout the Southland, anticipating a coming move into a sprawling home in Corona as he awaits the birth of his third child.

Mares, now residing in Huntington Beach, has taken on a heightened social advocacy role, distributing educational materials and food to those in need, urging neighbors he refers to as “family” to follow his lead and strive for success despite tough surroundings.

“It’s not so much that I think about why me? Why am I special?” Mares said. “It’s what am I going to do with this opportunity? What kind of message can I send? I try to be positive and send a message that you can make it, do good for yourself or change your negative ways. You can do whatever you want. Every time I see those kids, the reason I do it is because I see myself. I grew up in that. That’s me.”

Mares sees nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s first home, and celebrating the accomplishments achieved in a new one.

“I was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco. I’m 100% Mexican,” he said. “I came here to better myself and take opportunities. I know some say they didn’t make it because they lived in a tough neighborhood. That’s an excuse.

“But other people try to bring us down. There seems to be no respect for the hard-working Mexican Americans who’ve come to the United States to make a difference in our country. It’s hard to see what’s going on, the racial stuff, but that’s what we’re getting.”

Santa Cruz would rather the attention be spent on the work ethic his Mexican-born father has drilled in to him.

He’s developed from taking two-hour walks with his family as a youth to train in a rugged L.A. gym, to winning bouts at Alameda Swap Meet and Commerce Casino en route to a world-title victory at StubHub Center and now the main event at Staples Center for a second time.

It’s taken nearly three years for this second meeting to happen, and Santa Cruz said one of the silver linings to the wait is the positive attention on how he and Mares gain Saturday’s spotlight as self-made men from Mexico and the U.S.

“Things happen for a reason. I hope this is that reason,” Santa Cruz said.

BOXING

Main event: Leo Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 KOs), Lincoln Heights, vs. Abner Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs), Hawaiian Gardens, for Santa Cruz’s World Boxing Assn. featherweight belt

Where: Staples Center

Television: Showtime

When: First fight begins at 3:50 p.m. Pacific. Showtime portion begins at 7 p.m. Pacific; f

Tickets: $50, $75, $100, $150, $200, $350, $560, $670, at axs.com and Staples Center box office

Co-main: Jermell Charlo (30-0, 15 KOs) vs. Austin Trout (31-4, 17 KOs) for Charlo’s World Boxing Council light-middleweight belt.

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