Leo Santa Cruz is walking a perilous path as he tries to build his audience.
He’ll have more people watching him than ever when he battles an unfinalized opponent on the main undercard May 2 at MGM Grand before the anticipated Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao welterweight title unification.
But it appears he will continue a stretch of mismatches, something tiring to boxing fans.
“I have to concentrate, show the fans who I am so they can follow me,” Santa Cruz said. “That’s the way to become a superstar. That’s what I want.”
At 26, Los Angeles’ Santa Cruz (29-0-1, 17 KOs) has been a world champion for nearly three years, but he’s been kept away from serious challengers.
Since winning his super-bantamweight belt in 2013, he’s defended it four times and, with the exception of veteran opponent Cristian Mijares, the combined knockout percentages of Bedak and the three others is a woeful 44%.
Santa Cruz’s humility, toughness and dominating body punching have the potential to make him a favorite among the many Latino boxing fans, but television officials note his continued soft choices have caused interest in him to sag.
It’s believed Santa Cruz’s manager, Al Haymon, who operates the new Premier Boxing Champions series staged on CBS, NBC and ABC/ESPN, intends to match Santa Cruz later this year against former three-division world champion Abner Mares, also a Southland product.
Santa Cruz said this week at Mayweather’s media day that he is excited to be part of an event expected to draw a record audience of more than 3 million pay-per-view buyers.
“This is an opportunity anybody would like, to be part of this undercard -- the biggest card I could be in, even my own main event,” Santa Cruz said. “I’m the only Mexican on the main card, so I’m more than happy to represent Mexico on Cinco de Mayo and fight for all the Mexicans.
“Hopefully, after this one, I get to get the big fights. I’ve said I’ve wanted Mares a long time ago. He even said at one point he didn’t know who I was. I know he’s said now he’ll take this fight on short notice. But I don’t want that now. I want him to come prepared to give the fans a great fight.”
Santa Cruz said by training “really hard” he’ll be prepared for any opponent, regardless of style.
"I’m young," he said. "There’s time for the big fights and they’re going to happen and [Haymon] knows when to do them. All I can do is get ready. I have my family to feed. Whoever they put in front of me, bring them on, I’ll fight them. But I have to work as a team. We have to agree together. And when the time comes, as long as I’m patient, we’re going to give you those big fights."
The Mayweather-Pacquiao undercard will also feature featherweight world champion Vasyl Lomachenko (3-1) of the Ukraine defending his belt against Gamalier Rodriguez.
The 27-year-old Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic champion, could make for an ideal match in the future for Santa Cruz.
The major obstacle is Haymon’s tense relationship with Lomachenko promoter Bob Arum.
“It takes a fighter with [much bravery] to fight Lomachenko,” Arum said. “I don’t think Santa Cruz would be competitive against Lomachenko. But if he wants that fight down the road, we would be for it.
“But I don’t see any featherweight who could match the body punching of Lomachenko. He’s a master at it.”