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Boxer Leo Santa Cruz is living his father's dream

Jose Santa Cruz was a young adult working in Mexico when he was drawn to look inside a local boxing gym by the repetitive popping sound of a speed bag.

He was too old to take up the sport himself, but he was so infatuated by the action in the ring, he resolved, "I'm going to push my sons to boxing."

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Santa Cruz and his wife ultimately had four boys, raising them around Los Angeles, and they all became boxers. But it was their youngest son, Leo, who would become a champion.

The 27-year-old Leo Santa Cruz is now one of boxing's rising stars. Santa Cruz is 30-0-1, with 17 knockouts, and has already won the world bantamweight and super-bantamweight titles. On Saturday night on ESPN, Santa Cruz will face his Southland rival and former three-division world champion Abner Mares in a non-title featherweight fight (126 pounds) at Staples Center.

Santa Cruz remembers the day his father lined up his sons, to make clear the family's mission.

"One of you guys is going to be a champion, but we have to keep working hard," Jose said to the group. "If it's not you, it's going to be you. If it's not you, it's going to be you.… One of you guys will be a champion."

The path would be difficult. The Santa Cruz family usually lived in a one-bedroom apartment, with the kids sleeping in the living room, often relying on instant soup bowls as dinner.

But Jose Armando Santa Cruz, the second-oldest boy, recalls thinking, "One of us was going to make it … come on! Out of four brothers, one of us has to make it!"

One by one, the older brothers' boxing careers ended without a belt. Antonio quit, saying it was his father's dream, not his. Robert was struck by lupus following a defeat in 2005. Jose Armando made a bold run but was diagnosed with brain swelling before a fight in 2010, forcing retirement.

Only Leo remained.

The youngest had thoughts of quitting. He wasn't thrilled about participating in the family ritual of Jose Sr. waiting after school to take his sons for training in a gym. If there was no bus money, they were forced to walk 10 miles from their neighborhood in Los Angeles to the gym in Huntington Park.

"When I got done with school, sometimes I wanted to stay around and play with my friends from school," Leo said. "My dad told me, 'You have to go the gym,' and I cried. If I would've been by myself, maybe I wouldn't have wanted to go. But knowing we were all going, there was this desire. … And as I started doing it, I realized this is what I wanted to do."

Shy and quiet, Leo was observant and "remembered everything I taught him," Jose Sr. recalls. The boy watched what skills worked best for his siblings, and avoided their mistakes of neglecting sleep and gaining too much weight between fights.

He made it a habit to watch old fight tapes of his dad's hero, Julio Cesar Chavez, the former Mexican star, renowned for punishing foes with body blows, who was blessed with power in both arms and was undefeated in his first 90 fights.

"They'll love your style and you'll be a good fighter," Jose Sr. told Leo as they watched the Chavez fights. "People can take a lot of punishment to the head, but they won't fall. With the body, little by little, you break them down and no matter how strong the fighter is, they're going to end up falling down."

Said Leo: "When I started, I fought like 14 times without losing. People would tell me I was so good, said I could be a world champion. They gave me the strength and mentality that I could make it. And when it was down to just me, I said to myself, 'I'm going to put everything into it and keep that dream for my dad.' "

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On June 2, 2012, Santa Cruz won a unanimous decision in Carson that made him the International Boxing Federation bantamweight champion.

He accepted the belt in the ring and turned to his father/trainer, saying, "Here, this belt is yours."

"If it hadn't been for him, I'd be working a regular job," Leo said.

Now Santa Cruz faces his stiffest test in Mares.

And it comes after Santa Cruz and his manager, Al Haymon, have been criticized for selecting a steady string of soft opponents. (Haymon is also Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s manager.)

Santa Cruz said he'd heard enough of the complaints, and told Haymon he wanted to fight Mares.

A slender 5-foot-7, Santa Cruz is aiming for a career marked by multiple world titles as he moves up in weight classes, to as high as 140 pounds.

"This fight means the world to me," Santa Cruz said about the Mares bout. "It brings me to the next level. I'm ready for the biggest names, the best fighters, and I want to show I'm ready. Getting the win over Abner Mares will prove that."

BOXING

WHO: Abner Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs) vs. Leo Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs), featherweights, scheduled for 12 rounds.

WHERE: Staples Center.

TELEVISION: ESPN.

WHEN: Saturday, broadcast begins at 7 p.m.

UNDERCARD: Hugo Ruiz (35-2, 30 KOs) vs. Julio Cesar Ceja (28-1, 26 KOs), super-bantamweights; Alfredo Angulo (23-5, 19 KOs) vs. Hector Munoz (23-15-1, 14 KOs), middleweights; Alejandro Luna (18-0, 13 KOs) vs. Yakubu Amidu (19-7-2, 17 KOs), lightweights.

TICKETS: $25-$300 at axs.com and Staples Center.

Follow Lance Pugmire on Twitter @latimespugmire

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