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Abner Mares-Leo Santa Cruz bout should have L.A. buzzing

Abner Mares-Leo Santa Cruz bout should have L.A. buzzing
Undefeated two-Division World Champion Leo "El Terremoto" Santa Cruz, left, and former three-division world champion Abner Mares face off at a press conference in Los Angeles on July 14. (FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP/Getty Images)

On Saturday night, when Abner Mares and Leo Santa Cruz step into the Staples Center ring, they will revive the rich legacy of talented Mexican boxers facing off in Los Angeles.

Mares, a former Mexican Olympian and three-division world champion raised in Hawaiian Gardens, will meet first-generation Mexican American and two-division champion Santa Cruz of Los Angeles in a non-title 12-round featherweight bout on ESPN.

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"I expect it will be the same kind of atmosphere when I fought," said Armando Muniz, 69, who twice lost world welterweight title shots against Carlos Palomino at downtown's famed Olympic Auditorium in 1977 and 1978.

"You see that kind of electricity in the crowd, you want to fight harder … especially at the moment you realize, 'My God, they're on my side.' "

A near-capacity crowd of 14,000 is expected at Staples.

Both fighters enter the bout driven by incentives beyond a years-long rivalry born in sparring sessions together.

After the 29-year-old Mares (29-1-1, 15 knockouts) won belts in three divisions during an 18-month span, he was stung by a first-round knockout loss to Jhonny Gonzalez in August 2013. Since then, Mares has beaten three lower-tier opponents.

"I'm very excited to show Abner Mares is not done yet," Mares said.

He has more experience, with 228 pro rounds to Santa Cruz's 175, and Mares also is expected to carry more weight into the ring.

Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs) won two belts in a nine-month stretch, impressing boxing purists with precision body shots, but he has drawn scorn by dominating four straight foes who have a combined 17 losses.

Santa Cruz, 27, said he pressed his manager Al Haymon for the real test of Mares, and intends to use the showdown as a launching pad to a string of major fights.

Santa Cruz is trained by his father, Jose. The elder Santa Cruz says Mares fades late in fights.

"After six rounds, he's not the same," Jose Santa Cruz said of Mares. "He fights open wide, so Leo has a real good chance of coming inside and putting his hands on him."

The winner of Mares-Santa Cruz appears likely to meet Haymon's World Boxing Council featherweight champion, Gary Russell Jr.

"I know it's a hard fight — the hardest of my career — but this is the fight I want," Santa Cruz said of Mares. "I've been in many wars. The more they hit me, the angrier I get. I don't back down. I want to stay there and brawl."

Palomino predicts riveting action. "Knowing this is for the best-fighter-in-L.A. title … with that type of pride at stake, that should make an amazing fight," the former champion said.

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Don Chargin, the matchmaker at the Olympic from 1963 to '84, agrees. In his time, Chargin said, he'd "strive to make fights between Mexican nationals and local Mexican Americans, whom Mexican national fans resented and called "pochos."

Chargin says the passion of a largely Latino fight crowd is something to behold.

In 1959, at the opening of the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Mexico's Jose Becerra knocked out Alphonse Halimi in the third round to claim the bantamweight belt, creating a roar likened to a jet engine at takeoff.

One of the greatest young Mexican Americans to grace the Olympic was Long Beach's Mando Ramos, who drew a fire-hazard crowd of 14,000 to the 10,400-seat venue in a 1970 epic against Cuba's Sugar Ramos.

The Santa Cruz-Mares bout, Chargin said, represents a chance for newer boxing fans to experience enthusiasm "you've got to see.… If you haven't yet, you don't know what you've missed."

Palomino anticipates a raucous scene Saturday.

"In the ring, you've got to put all of it in the back of your head — focus and realize you're in the fight of your life," he said.

Twitter: @latimespugmire

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