If this was the anointment, make Leo Santa Cruz the king of Los Angeles boxers.
Producing a knack for landing the defining punches in a riveting featherweight slugfest against fellow Southland fighter Abner Mares, Santa Cruz won a majority decision at Staples Center on Saturday night.
Judges Jesse Reyes (117-111), Max DeLuca (114-114) and Steve Morrow (117-111) awarded the unbeaten Santa Cruz victory in front of a crowd of 13,109 that leaned the winner's way throughout the evening.
"I'm very happy," Santa Cruz said. "This is a dream come true. I'm happy and excited and thankful to all of my fans who supported me."
The World Boxing Assn. on Friday designated that the winner receives its honorary "super" version of the featherweight title. Argentinian Jesus Andres Cuellar is the sanctioning body's "world" champion.
Santa Cruz (31-0-1) gained the nod over his ex-sparring partner and former three-division world champion by answering an aggressive body attack by Mares (29-2-1) with effective jabs and crisp, attention getting punches.
Punch statistics showed Santa Cruz landed 71 jabs to Mares' seven, and connected on 373 total punches to the heavier Mares' 227.
"I stayed outside with the jab [and] we were able to take control," Santa Cruz said in the ring afterward. "My dad [trainer Jose Santa Cruz] told me that we could beat him by boxing. We wanted to be aggressive, but tonight we had to box him too and that's how we got it done."
The fight fulfilled expectations with a slew of will-testing exchanges. Mares opened with a first-round surge only to absorb three hard rights by Santa Cruz in the second.
"I think I made a mistake in my strategy," Mares said. "I came out strong. My corner was telling me to slow down. I should've listened to them."
A third-round head butt cut Mares' scalp and by the 10th round he was getting swabbed for a cut near the right eye.
Mares' aim to the body didn't impress the judges as much as Santa Cruz's clean shots to the face.
In the eighth, Santa Cruz, 27, wobbled Mares with a four-punch combination that caused Mares, 29, to lean on the current super-bantamweight world champion as a means of stopping the punishment.
Mares' extra aggression in the 12th made it clear he was seeking a knockout, but Santa Cruz remained calm and shined, landing an impressive left to the head late.
The action of the much-anticipated showdown could spark another meeting, or Santa Cruz could opt to take his special World Boxing Council diamond belt and seek a shot at the body's true champion, Gary Russell Jr.
"If [Mares] wants the rematch I'll give him the rematch," said Santa Cruz, whose previous four fights against boxers with 17 combined losses brought calls for him to step up.
He embraced the moment, saying, "I want to fight the best. I want the big fights."
The bout proved complicated to score. The judges were all in agreement in only four rounds.
"I knew what I was up against … Leo is good. He's a great fighter," Mares said. "I will 100% take a rematch."
Earlier, Mexico's Julio Cesar Ceja (29-1) recorded his 27th knockout with a fifth-round technical-knockout stoppage after enduring a third-round knockdown from countryman Hugo Ruiz (35-3).
A big right by Ruiz followed the knockdown, leading him to charge Ceja and pursue the kill that didn't come.
"I was surprised when I got dropped, but I knew I'd come back," Ceja said. "He was moving too much, but I figured it out and knew I was going to win."
Early in the fifth, Ceja was standing his ground and he threw a clean left that dropped Ruiz, causing the back of Ruiz's head to thump the canvas.
Ruiz made the sign of the cross upon rising, and was met with a vicious attack of at least 14 unanswered punches.
Ceja's flurry ended with a combination that left Ruiz defenseless, as referee Raul Caiz Sr. stopped the bout 2:34 into the fifth.