Leo Santa Cruz knows sports well enough to understand nearly everyone loves a good underdog story, so he tapped his right glove to the face of his spirited challenger Saturday as Rafael Rivera threw his arm behind Santa Cruz’s neck at the final bell.
A contender’s fight-of-a-lifetime energy is one thing. A champion’s pedigree is something more substantial.
Santa Cruz (36-1-1) retained his World Boxing Assn. featherweight belt with a unanimous decision over replacement opponent Rivera (26-3-2) by three scorecards of 119-109 in front of 5,137 at L.A. Live’s Microsoft Theater.
“I could’ve done better, but as long as the fans liked it and go home happy, I’m happy,” Santa Cruz said after landing 334 of the 1,273 punches he threw at Rivera, who landed 151 of 805.
“Next fight, I’ll be better.”
With Santa Cruz seemingly leading by a lot on the scorecards, his father and trainer, Jose, preached patience over going for the kill.
“I saw I hurt him. I landed some good punches, but he was able to take them and my dad told me not to risk it,” Santa Cruz said. “He throws those big, wild punches, so I didn’t risk it.”
Rivera’s activity and endurance made for an entertaining evening, as exchanges to close the fifth, ninth and 12th rounds resulted in hearty cheers for the 24-year-old from Tijuana, and smiles of respect from the three-division champion Santa Cruz.
“This guy worked very hard and tonight he learned something for the future, for his next fights,” Hall of Fame fighter Erik Morales, also from Tijuana, said of Rivera. “Santa Cruz, at times, played with him because he has more experience. He would fight him face to face, and then moving was the easy part.”
Rivera took solace, saying, “I showed I was good enough to go 12 rounds with one of the best fighters in the world, and I’m very proud of that. I tried all night long. He’s just very experienced, and he showed that all night long. He’s a great fighter and I’m very proud to have shared the ring with him.”
Santa Cruz repeated his interest in featherweight unifications against World Boxing Council champion Gary Russell Jr., International Boxing Federation champion Josh Warrington or a move to meet super-featherweight champion Gervonta Davis this year.
Santa Cruz, who said he plans to fight in the summer and then for a third time before the year ends, expressed satisfaction with winning to uplift his cancer-stricken father, who said he was pleased with the victory against the inspired challenger.
“He brought a lot of fight to us, but we know what we’re doing,” Jose Santa Cruz said.
In the co-main event, unbeaten welterweight Omar Figueroa Jr. was rewarded for his activity and defeated Covina’s John Molina Jr. by unanimous-decision scores of 97-93, 98-92 and 99-91.
Former lightweight world champion Figueroa (28-0-1) absorbed defining blows from the former 140-pound title challenger in the third, fifth and sixth rounds, but didn’t bow and remained busy while engaging in entertaining exchanges.
CompuBox reported Figueroa out-landed Molina, 241-159, even after he reported hurting his hand in the third round.
Judge Eddie Hernandez Sr. surprisingly gave Molina only the fifth round, taking a liking to Figueroa’s combinations and more frequent power punches, even if few backed gritty Molina (30-8).
“I thought I won comfortably and, aside from some middle rounds, I felt like I was in control,” said Figueroa, who unloaded one right to the head that sent Molina reeling in the seventh. “When I hit him with some hard shots, he withstood them.”
Molina expressed frustration with a fight-week contract adjustment that forced him to make a 145-pound limit instead of the official welterweight limit of 147.
“I didn’t even have 24 hours to adjust,” Molina said. “I take my hat off to him. I have been in there with a bunch of guys and he has a decent punch.”
Figueroa figures to face one of the three Premier Boxing Champions welterweight world champions: Errol Spence Jr., Keith Thurman or Shawn Porter, who defends his belt March 9 at Carson’s Dignity Health Sports Park.
Earlier, Coachella’s Sebastian Fundora, a 6-foot-7 super-welterweight nicknamed “The Towering Inferno,” dealt Donnie Marshall of Buffalo, N.Y., his first loss in an impressive third-round technical knockout.
Santa Maria-based lightweight prospect Karlos Balderas improved to 7-0 with a third-round knockout victory over Jose Cen Torres.