Boxer Leo Santa Cruz thrives with blue-collar approach in the ring

Boxer Leo Santa Cruz thrives with blue-collar approach in the ring
Leo Santa Cruz, right, exchanges punches with Abner Mares in their featherweight fight on Aug. 29, 2015, at Staples Center. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Leo Santa Cruz is a product of Los Angeles who remains true to his roots.

Santa Cruz pocketed $1.25 million for winning his third boxing world title in front of 13,109 in August at Staples Center, but the money and recognition hasn't much altered his life.


He remains a shopper at outdoor markets, frequents food trucks on Cesar Chavez Avenue and makes weekly treks to his favorite Chinese restaurant in Lincoln Heights.

"I still feel like the same person I was growing up," Santa Cruz (31-0-1, 17 knockouts) said recently at a gym in the City of Industry. "I miss those places. I like going back."

Santa Cruz, 27, is preparing for his first World Boxing Assn. featherweight title defense Saturday at Honda Center against former super-bantamweight champion Kiko Martinez.

Santa Cruz's title bouts have taken place in relative obscurity. He won a bantamweight title in an undercard in Carson in 2012, and defended his super-bantamweight belt in the undercards of Floyd Mayweather Jr. fights. Even the big crowd at Santa Cruz's showdown with Abner Mares in August was primarily the result of the popularity of both local fighters.

Now, Santa Cruz has some apprehension about what kind of crowd will show up in Anaheim when he is the headliner.

"I'm feeling some pressure. I'm hoping a lot of people will come watch me," he said.

A few years ago, as Santa Cruz generated knockouts in 12 of 15 fights, a boxing official advised him to show the flash and attitude correspondent to his talent. He responded, "I can only be me."

That seems to be part of Santa Cruz's appeal. He is just a regular guy fighting for a living.

Santa Cruz finished a recent workout with a flurry of situps, then cut into a visiting friend's birthday cake, serving his celebrating buddy a slice and asking everyone else in the room if they wanted any.

His father-trainer, Jose, sipped a beer, not surprised by the scene.

"He has all the charisma he needs. He doesn't have to change anything," Santa Cruz said of his son through a Spanish interpreter. "He has to stay humble, even as he gets higher and higher. You can make a lot of money, but everybody's the same. The fans make him. Stay humble to the fans."

Unflinching about engaging with an opponent, his method of victory routinely is hinged to hammering his foe's body with rapid punches no matter what is thrown back at him.

"You know you're getting all he's got. His personality with his style is a can't-miss. He's what Southern California boxing is all about. The kid's old school, a throwback to the Mexican American who fought at the Olympic [Auditorium] and the Forum," said Tom Brown, a Southland-based fight promoter.

Santa Cruz, the youngest of four boxer brothers, said he developed a fighting mentality by the grueling workouts his father pushed him through as a youth.


"When I'm in pain, I try not to think about it," he said. "I know it's only going to hurt for a few seconds. The glory, if you know how to handle everything, that's what will last … forever."

Against Mares, Santa Cruz weathered a first-round attack and proceeded to win by majority decision, landing 373 punches to Mares' 227.

"I tell myself I'm going to take [punches] like a man. Like Muhammad Ali said, 'Suffer now, live the rest of my life like a king,' " Santa Cruz said.

His opponent Saturday is a 29-year-old Spaniard who lost the International Boxing Federation super-bantamweight title to Ireland's Carl Frampton in 2014, then lost to WBA bantamweight champion Scott Quigg in a second-round technical knockout in July. Martinez (35-6, 26 KOs) has rebounded with victories in three nontitle bouts.

"From seeing him in person, how in shape and strong he was … he said this might be his last fight," Santa Cruz said of Martinez. "When you know it could be your last fight, you're going to come with everything.

"He brings pressure, throws a lot of punches, big hooks and could surprise someone. But we're going to work hard.

"I always bring the fight. I leave everything in the ring and I promise I'll put on a good show."