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Abner Mares looks to set up Santa Cruz fight with NBC opener

Abner Mares will need a statement victory over Arturo Santos Reyes to set up big fight with Leo Santa Cruz

The all-Los Angeles version of Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao is unbeaten super-bantamweight world champion Leo Santa Cruz vs. former three-division champion Abner Mares.

For it to happen, Mares needs to produce an impressive victory March 7 when he fights the debut bout of NBC’s new Premier Boxing Champions series at MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

“I’m more focused and now I’ve got to make a statement,” Mares said Wednesday at a workout at Hollywood’s Fortune Gym. “It’s a new brand and I’m branding myself.

“National TV. I’m the first fight. People are going to be saying, ‘What’s this all about?’ And, boom!, Abner Mares comes out. I have to impress right away. That’s my mentality. Impress, steal the show, win the crowd, get a bigger fan base.”

Mares’ date against Arturo Santos Reyes (18-4) is his second since reuniting with his Southland-based trainer, Clemente Medina, following an ineffective union with trainer Virgil Hunter.

Mares won three division belts in four fights from December 2011 to May 2013 with Medina when he opted to change.

On Aug. 24, 2013, he was promptly knocked out in the first round by Jhonny Gonzalez at StubHub Center. His return bout in July was an unimpressive victory by decision.

“There’s no perfect coach as there’s no perfect fighter,” Mares said. “We learn from each other. To go back to Clemente is to go home, get more comfort. He knows me, he gives me the little expression on his face and I know what he means: ‘Keep your hand up.’ ‘You’re slouching.’ Come on Abner.’ ”

Mares (28-1-1, 15 knockouts) also admitted the realization of most of his boxing dreams came with a cost after he moved up in weight and scored an impressive ninth-round technical knockout of Daniel Ponce De Leon.

“Going into the [Gonzalez] fight, I can honestly say I lost hunger,” Mares said. “I got into a comfort zone. I’m young. I was a three-time world champion. On the pound-for-pound list. Amazing!

“So you don’t train as hard. You don’t take fights as serious. ‘This is just another fight, I’m gonna win … .’ You lose focus from the things that got you to where you are.”

On the new PBC card, Mares’ bout was added after powerful boxing manager Al Haymon had already arranged a main event pitting welterweights Keith Thurman and Robert Guerrero, and a co-main between Adrien Broner and Covina’s John Molina.

Victory means Mares can renew talk of a long-discussed showdown against Santa Cruz, who’s been protected in his last two lopsided bouts.

“I know it’s there, know it’s up for grabs,” Mares said. “It could happen.”

Haymon has a close relationship with Showtime, which can offer a lucrative license fee to make such a bout.

“He’s working hard, working hard with me,” Medina said of Mares. “Together, that’s good for boxing. Sometimes, things happen in boxing, like losing by one punch … Now, Abner’s a better fighter -- a more confident, angry fighter.”

Follow Lance Pugmire on Twitter @latimespugmire

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