Sports

Featherweight champ Leo Santa Cruz's bout against Kiko Martinez may be stepping stone to bigger things

As boxing returns to the Honda Center on Saturday after a four-year absence, the expectation is that featherweight world champion Leo Santa Cruz's superior talents will overwhelm veteran opponent Kiko Martinez in the main event.

If Santa Cruz (31-0-1, 17 knockouts), a three-division champion who lives in La Habra, wins Saturday, his next opponent might be the winner of a title bout taking place that same day in England. That distant fight is a super-bantamweight title unification bout between England's Scott Quigg and Ireland's Carl Frampton.

Other possible opponents for the 27-year-old World Boxing Assn. champion are featherweight title-holders Gary Russell (World Boxing Council), Lee Selby (International Boxing Federation) and Jesus Cuellar (also WBA).

"The featherweight and super-bantamweight divisions hold a lot of intrigue right now," said Stephen Espinoza, Showtime's executive vice president. "In terms of Leo, there are many interesting options."

Espinoza recently had talks with veteran promoter Bob Arum about a separate fight involving World Boxing Organization featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko, and agreed a possible meeting against Santa Cruz would be compelling.

“Unification fights would be perhaps the most attractive option for any of the top fighters,” he said.

Last August Santa Cruz posted his most significant victory yet, defeating former three-division champion Abner Mares at Staples Center. Santa Cruz connected on 373 punches to Mares' 227 en route to a majority decision.

All these plans, of course, are dependent on the outcome of Santa Cruz's fight Saturday.

Martinez (35-6, 26 KOs), of Spain, lost his super-bantamweight belt to Frampton in 2014, then in July was stopped by technical knockout against Quigg in the second round.

Santa Cruz senses his opponent's desperation. Adding to it, Martinez won't have his trainer, Gaby Sarmiento, who was kept in Spain due to visa issues. Veteran Southland trainer Robert Garcia will work Martinez's corner.

"I know [Martinez] is a great guy who fights for his family, but so do I," Santa Cruz said. "I have to go in there and take him out as soon as I can. . . . In the ring, there's no friends. You don't feel sorry for nobody."

Martinez, 29, said he's confident he can follow the script of a tough eight-week training camp and upset Santa Cruz in what he expects will be an entertaining slugfest.

An action fight is likely in the co-main event, a rematch for the WBC super-bantamweight belt between Mexico's Julio Ceja and Hugo Ruiz.

In their first fight, Ceja (30-1, 27 KOs) got off the canvas in the third round and knocked out Ruiz (35-3, 31 KOs) in the fifth.

"I was hurt and dug deep and proved my heart is massive — that's a telling sign," Ceja said in Spanish through an interpreter. "This fight will be better than the last one."

Ruiz, with a six-inch reach advantage, applauds Ceja's performance six months ago and vows it won't happen again.

"I was in control and got too confident. I'll be smarter and I worked on my strength," Ruiz said in Spanish through an interpreter. "This one will be better, more interesting. I want my title."

Victory could propel the winner into the conversation with Santa Cruz, as well.

"If an opportunity like that comes, I'll certainly do it," Ruiz said.

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimespugmire

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 27, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Featherweight Santa Cruz is a heavy hitter - A victory tonight at Honda Center could lead to even bigger things in the division." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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