Boxing saved Abner Mares from gangs, drugs and dangers of his neighborhood

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.

A dog barks at the visitor who used to call this weathered, yellow-orange building home. Two older men sit on opposite sides of a card table next door and wave hello. A vendor hawking pork rinds wheels his cart up the road.

“The neighborhood’s still the same,” Abner Mares says during his recent homecoming to Hawaiian Gardens. “Life here was tough, but there’s beautiful memories, too.”


Mares, 32 and a four-division, world champion boxer, navigated his way from a community that was gang-infested, drug-littered and dangerous by remaining true to boxing.

That journey brings Mares (31-2-1, 15 knockouts) back to Staples Center for Saturday night’s Showtime-televised main event, a World Boxing Assn. featherweight-title rematch against Leo Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 KOs). It’s the same arena where Mares lost to his rival from Lincoln Heights by majority decision in 2015.

“I lost a lot of money on you to those boys from Lincoln Heights when I was in the can,” a neighbor informs Mares.

“Bet on me again,” Mares answers. “You’ll win this time.”

The encounter underlines who Mares has become: a champion who’s as comfortable conversing with an ex-con as he was that night in 2015 when he sat near Donald Trump and his wife ringside at the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas.

“He seemed cool, was asking me about the fight — ‘Champ, you think he won that round?’ He’s a boxing fanatic,” Mares says of Trump. “But seeing him now as a president and being really racist about my people and bringing so much hate… .

“It tells you this world is not as pretty as it looks sometimes. People can be deceiving. I’ve seen good and bad, shaken the hands of many, from the poorest to the richest. It doesn’t change me.”

That empathy is rooted in his experiences in Hawaiian Gardens, where Mares saw how drugs can ruin people while observing humanity in the law-enforcement officials he was raised to distrust.

“I was a fighter my whole life — I used to get down in the street — so I had respect from that sense from the big homies,” Mares says. “But I was in a tagging crew and I remember they had a big meeting and said, ‘There’s no more crews. If you want to be involved, you have to be a part of the Hawaiian Gardens gang.’ My parents heard about that and said, ‘No, you’re not going to do that.’ At 14, they sent me back to Mexico.”

After competing in the 2004 Olympics for his native country, he returned to Hawaiian Gardens to pursue a professional career, becoming the first homegrown champion of Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions.

Tragedy during that first homecoming moved Mares. Jerry Ortiz, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department gang-enforcement officer who’d tried to keep Mares off the streets, was gunned down by a neighbor Mares knew.

“Craziest story,” Mares says, nodding at the adjacent apartment building where Ortiz was shot. “Weeks before it happened, I got pulled over by Jerry Ortiz in my car with my brother on that corner.


“We were always paranoid, scared, afraid of the cops. It wasn’t like we had a reason to be afraid, but that was our reaction. I remember I tried to get away from Jerry. He ran, he caught me and told me, ‘Abner, I know who you are. You’re a boxer. I box myself. Tell your brothers not to do that [other stuff]; keep them out of the streets. Just box. Do your thing.’”

On June 24, 2005, Ortiz was investigating a drive-by killing in which Jose Luis “Sepy” Orozco, a Hawaiian Gardens gang member who lived across the street from Mares, had possibly acted as the triggerman.

As Ortiz was talking to a woman at the door of her apartment,Orozco opened fire at point-blank range. Orozco was convicted in 2007 and is on death row.

“Right down that street,” Mares says. “It changed my life. I’d met the guy, he was cool with me, and ‘Sepy,’ knowing him my whole life … it was drugs.”

There was a boxing gym named for Ortiz that Mares visited to help inspire area youth, one just like the sheriff’s Century Station boxing club he made a trip to late last month.

“A while back I was you, looking at a guy [De La Hoya] giving a speech, being successful,” Mares told a group of school children who greeted him with hand-made signs.

“I had been in trouble before. One day, an officer took me home handcuffed. I felt shame. My mom was crying. I felt like nothing in this world. Nothing. From then on, I said, ‘I’m here to make my mom proud. It won’t happen again.’ It was hard, I was young. I grew up poor in a tough neighborhood, honestly thinking I wouldn’t make it. But I had a vision: I wanted to be a fighter. So I prepared for my fights. It was a mental thing.

“By thinking positive, I made it. Forget me being the four-time world champion. I’m just a person, well-mannered, respectful. Don’t ever lose that. This is not just about boxing. You can be a sheriff, a teacher, whatever you want. I’m an example you can make it. You’re my family. So be successful. Go to school. Graduate. There’s opportunities out there.”

Little did he know that when he and four brothers slept on the floor of the old house. One of the boys became a world champion, another spent five years behind bars.

“This place makes you the person you are. Strong — physically and mentally. I overcame a lot of things,” Mares says. “I’ve gone through things in this sport and can think to myself, ‘I’ve been through things 10 times worse.’ It’s a mental game. I’m really tough because of this. I am the person I am because of the way my mom raised us. People see me now with nice hair, nice clothes, a nice car … they don’t know the story behind how I grew up.”


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

Where: Staples Center

Television: Showtime

When: Saturday; broadcast begins at 7 p.m.; first fight begins at 3:50

Tickets: $51.75, $77.65, $103.50, $155.25, $207, $362.25, $569.25, $672.75, at 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.