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Leo Santa Cruz defends belt by unanimous decision in rematch against Abner Mares

Once more, with even more feeling.

In an intensely fought rematch that improved upon their first, all-action fight, Leo Santa Cruz retained his World Boxing Assn. featherweight belt Saturday night before 12,505 at Staples Center with a unanimous-decision victory over Southland rival Abner Mares.

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Judges Rey Danseco (115-113), Steve Weisfeld (116-112) and Zac Young (117-111) awarded Santa Cruz the victory after he answered Mares’ gritty inside attack with an equally heartfelt reply that was aided by height and reach.

“Another war, like we said,” Santa Cruz said after throwing 1,061 punches to Mares’ 977.

The bout began where the last one ended here in 2015, with plenty of punching. While Santa Cruz (35-1-1) used his three-inch reach advantage for a more effective jab, Mares (31-3-1) was active and effective inside.

Santa Cruz adjusted to Mares’ ferociousness, relying on his distance in the fourth and imposing his will again in the seventh, a sequence that closed with an exchange that brought the crowd to its feet.

Mares swept the sixth and the eighth with the judges, working to take the fight back inside, and he and Santa Cruz again threw voluminous punches as the bell rang.

Santa Cruz was cut near the left eye during the activity and Mares’ commitment to grinding it out in tight revealed the high stakes of the rematch after the former four-division world champion lost the first meeting and retained trainer Robert Garcia to make a difference.

“It’s always a problem getting on the inside,” Mares said.

In the 10th, Santa Cruz made Mares pay for his risk, burying two hard rights to the challenger’s head in the final 30 seconds.

The beauty of the rivalry is that neither man was capable of knocking down the other and the rounds were so competitive that the tiebreaker often went to whoever landed the most telling punches.

The crowd grew to become like Pavlov’s dogs at the smacking of boards indicating 10 seconds remaining in a round, rising and cheering to goad on the flying fists.

Mares asked for another rematch, urging “this is our town,” but Santa Cruz reigns as the world’s No. 1 featherweight and said he wants to move on to a title-unification bout with WBC champion Gary Russell Jr.

World Boxing Council light-middleweight champion Jermell Charlo retained his belt by majority decision with two knockdowns of former champion Austin Trout, the effort soured only by an unlikely 113-113 scorecard from judge Fernando Villarreal.

The other judges had it 118-108 and 115-111 for Charlo (31-0), who seems destined for a title-unification bout later this year against two-belt, 154-pound champion Jarrett Hurd.

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“Trout moved, that’s why he survived 12 rounds,” Charlo said.

“If Hurd sat in front of me and took those shots, he’d be done. I’ll do it right here in L.A.”

The crowd booed the early inaction until Charlo pounded Trout in the head with a third-round power punch that sent the challenger stumbling backward to the canvas.

The defensive-minded Trout was leery and backing, seeming content to wait on a Charlo approach and then counter-punch.

The problem is that Charlo’s aggression netted results that reduced Trout’s thoughtful efforts to footnotes.

Trout (31-5) enjoyed some good moments in the sixth and seventh, but then Charlo accelerated his aggression.

Early in the ninth, he dropped Trout with a quick left to the top of the head, then pounded him with another power shot that forced Trout to grab the top rope to avoid falling again.

A flush right by Charlo in the 10th backed up Trout, but the 32-year-old who’d been stopped in his career only once (by Hurd) hung on as he did against Charlo’s twin brother, Jermall, two years ago in defeat.

“They’re used to seeing me knock boys out, but at least they saw me take care of business,” Charlo said.

The Showtime-televised bout was preceded by a news conference announcing a July 28 lightweight unification title fight between unbeaten World Boxing Council champion Mikey Garcia (38-0, 30 knockouts) of Riverside versus International Boxing Federation champion Robert Easter (21-0, 14 KOs).

Garcia said after solving the taller, skilled Easter he’d like to pursue a December mega-fight against unbeaten welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr. (23-0, 20 KOs), who has a title defense Saturday against Carlos Ocampo (22-0, 13 KOs) at the Dallas Cowboys’ sold-out, 14,000-seat practice facility.

In earlier action at Staples Center, Santa Maria’s Karlos Balderas, a super-featherweight and 2016 U.S. Olympian, battered awkward Barstow fighter Alex Silva on the undercard with left-handed power punches and scored a first-round knockout in 2 minutes 25 seconds.

Balderas (5-0, four KOs) scored an earlier knockdown with a body shot, then made Silva wince in agony from another, adding a head punch before a finishing power blow to the stomach when Silva (3-8) turned into it.

Balderas promoter Richard Schaefer said his own elite prospect is interested in fighting the top youngster in Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions stable, Victorville’s Ryan Garcia.

Due to the acrimony between De La Hoya and his former CEO Schaefer, that’s unlikely.

The card also featured an impressive pro debut by Westminster’s Lina Licona, who immediately made her light-flyweight bout against Brittany Horton a toe-to-toe affair and finished her by second-round TKO.

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