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The Fight Corner: Leo Santa Cruz is a champion who trains like a challenger

Leo Santa Cruz
Leo Santa Cruz
(Stephanie Trapp/SHOWTIME)

Hi, my name is Lance Pugmire, and welcome to our weekly boxing/MMA newsletter. This newsletter will be delivered right to your inbox every week if you sign up here. Let’s get right to the news.

Leo Santa Cruz, in his 16th world title fight and first bout as a 30-year-old, views his World Boxing Assn. featherweight title defense against Tijuana’s Rafael Rivera on Saturday as a set of reminder notes.

Avoiding complacency, recalling his own desire when he was without a belt and appreciating his place in life have all been at the forefront of Santa Cruz’s preparation this camp as he heads to Saturday night’s Fox-televised main event at L.A. Live’s Microsoft Theater.

In an interview at his Corona home, Santa Cruz spoke as his wife wore a T-shirt reading, “Always Train Like a Challenger.”

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“Challengers come with everything they have. They come hungry. They’re more dangerous fighters because they want to achieve that dream of becoming a champion,” Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 knockouts) said in reference to the 24-year-old Rivera.

A replacement opponent after originally assigned challenger Miguel Flores of Mexico suffered a training camp injury, Rivera (26-2-2, 17 KOs) has a chance to redeem himself after losses in the last 18 months to former featherweight title challenger Joseph Diaz Jr. and unbeaten Southland featherweight Joet Gonzalez.

“You can’t take anyone lightly, particularly a guy with 17 of his 26 wins coming by knockout,” said Tom Brown of TGB Promotions, who is promoting the bout for Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions. “The champions Leo has fought before – [Carl] Frampton, [Abner] Mares – you know what they’ll bring. The key is to stay focused against guys like this [Rivera] because they can be the most dangerous.”

Santa Cruz lost his belt briefly in 2016 to Frampton by majority decision before reuniting with it in early 2017.

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“It does hurt a lot. It was very sad having that belt taken away,” Santa Cruz said. “Challengers who prepare like that have a special determination. Rafael Rivera is young and he’s coming to this fight with desperation. Since he’s a guy who leaves everything in the ring, I believe this will be the type of fight that everyone loves. He will bring out the best in me because I know how seriously he wants to take the belt from me.”

Santa Cruz aims to make the main event a platform for his interest to land a unification against World Boxing Council champion Gary Russell Jr., although he’d be pleased to see Haymon and Top Rank’s Bob Arum set aside their rivalry to let him fight unbeaten World Boxing Organization champion Oscar Valdez later this year.

“After this, I either want to unify or move up to [super-featherweight],” Santa Cruz said.

Well-matched

Brown, who served as lead matchmaker for several years under the late Sherman Oaks promoter Dan Goossen, scripted a thrilling slugfest Saturday in Carson when swing-fight participants Lennard Davis of Oakland and Maurice Lee of Covina staged a six-round classic in which both men landed crazed punches and each suffered a knockdown en route to a draw.

“I had no idea Lee would be swinging ... like that, and who knows what you’re getting from a guy who’s now 4-1-5 like Davis?” Brown said. “But I was so glad the timing of that fight was what it was,” before the Showtime-televised portion began, “because the crowd was all into it.

“I wish I could make like the old [pro wrestling] days and keep driving those guys around the country from card to card.”

While Lee and Davis recover, Brown has another likely doozy on his hands again Saturday when La Verne’s former 140-pound title challenger John Molina meets unbeaten Omar Figueroa Jr. in the Santa Cruz-Rivera co-main event.

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“Really, in my opinion, this is the main event and that may sound a little biased of me, but if you asked a panel of people who know boxing, I’m sure they’d agree with me,” said Molina, 36, who battled Lucas Matthysse to the 2014 fight of the year and was willing in late 2016 to meet unbeaten Terence Crawford in his home state of Nebraska.

“A win over Omar Figueroa would be huge. He has that coveted [zero]. I asked specifically for this fight. Stylistically, it’s a great matchup. He brings a lot to the table, but he’s also [an opportunity] to catapult off of.”

Joshua coming to U.S.

Promoter Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing is expected Wednesday to announce a deal for unbeaten three-belt heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs) to make his U.S. debut June 1 at New York’s Madison Square Garden against Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller (23-0-1, 20 KOs) of Brooklyn, N.Y.

DAZN will stream the card as England’s Joshua tests the market following widespread success in the U.K. as an Olympic champion and the man who knocked out Wladimir Klitschko before 90,000 at Wembley Stadium, ending the long (and unpopular) reign of the Ukrainian who announced his retirement afterward.

Joshua’s fight is expected to follow a late-spring rematch between unbeaten heavyweights Tyson Fury and World Boxing Council champion Deontay Wilder, positioning the winners for a showdown afterward.

Until next time

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