Leo Santa Cruz is enthused about his June 9 featherweight title rematch against Abner Mares at Staples Center and the potential to unify belts in the deep division.
But at 29, with a third child due in August and his father-trainer emerging from a life-threatening cancer scare, Santa Cruz is more aware than ever of his boxing mortality.
In a discussion with the World Boxing Assn. featherweight champion after his Tuesday media workout at City of Angels boxing gym, Santa Cruz told The Times he’s aware of the brain damage absorbed by his predecessors from the Southland, Danny “Little Red” Lopez and the late Bobby Chacon.
“I don’t want to be like that, like Hector Quiroz … a good fighter who used to train in the gym with me,” Santa Cruz said. “I started seeing him again after about three years, and he was different. He wasn’t the same as before. He’d come and talk to me, and I could only understand one-third of what he was saying.
“Seeing that, it got me scared — ‘Is that going to happen to me too?’ It will happen if I continue fighting for a long time and get hit and don’t retire. I don’t want to be them. When I feel it’s the right moment, that’s when I’m going to go. I’m not going to wait until it’s too late.”
Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 knockouts) has fought only once — in October — after a taxing two-fight set against Northern Ireland’s Carl Frampton, who dealt Santa Cruz his only loss in 2016 and continued with heavy blows in their January 2017 rematch.
“I don’t want to box until I’m 40,” Santa Cruz said.
Fellow featherweight champions Gary Russell Jr., Southern California-trained Oscar Valdez and new International Boxing Federation champion Josh Warrington would await following a June 9 victory. Santa Cruz also said he’ll consider moving up to super-featherweight (130 pounds), where he could be in position for a megafight against fellow three-division champion Vasiliy Lomachenko.
“I want to retire healthy, take my kids to school, enjoy life. I don’t want to end up like the fighters who retire hurt with no money. I want to see how my body reacts. My body will tell me when.”
The “X” factor is his father’s health. Santa Cruz is fiercely loyal to the idea of having his father, Jose, as his cornerman.
On Tuesday, the elder Santa Cruz said his recovery from spine cancer is going better.
“As far as my cancer goes, I’ve KO’d it, laid it out flat on the ground, and now my only battles are maintaining my medications to keep it there,” Jose Santa Cruz said. “The medicine is really what the biggest struggle is because it makes me feel so sick. Even then, you can’t keep me away from the gym and my son.
“When I was getting really sick and I told my son we should hire a replacement trainer, that day, Leo said he would retire if he knew I could no longer train him. So I know, if I can be strong for my son, he will be strong for me.”