If the television ratings reflect the enthusiasm contained in Staples Center for Leo Santa Cruz’s majority-decision victory Saturday night over Abner Mares, there may be no better option than for the two Southland boxers to fight again, sooner rather than later.
Mares wants a second crack and Santa Cruz said he’d give him one, but off to the side of the post-fight news conference stage late Saturday, Santa Cruz’s father and trainer, Jose Santa Cruz, said he prefers moving on to other challenges.
“I didn’t like the way Mares fought,” Jose Santa Cruz said in reference to the former three-division world champion’s behind-the-head punches and borderline below-the-belt deliveries seen early in the bout.
“Leo doesn’t need him. … I make the decision.”
Certainly, the father’s voice has meaning. He taught his son to fight the way he did in outboxing Mares in a 2,007-punch slugfest in which judges gave Santa Cruz a victory by scores of 117-111, 114-114, 117-111.
But Santa Cruz’s powerful manager, Premier Boxing Champions creator Al Haymon, is the ultimate decision maker, and he will decide whether the 31-0-1 World Boxing Assn. “super” featherweight champion will pursue a unification with Haymon’s World Boxing Council champion Gary Russell Jr., a Mares rematch or something else.
“The dad is obviously going to say [no rematch] because he’s [like] a manager, but Leo, by saying he’ll give me the rematch, he knows I gave him a hell of a fight,” Mares said.
Said Leo Santa Cruz: “If the rematch is possible, I think he deserved it. I know if I lost, I’d want a rematch. … I’ll go with whatever my team wants.”
Both fighters were paid $1.25 million for the bout, so the elder Santa Cruz’s stance could be for bargaining leverage, especially if ESPN’s numbers reveal solid nationwide interest.
The judges only agreed on four of the rounds in the closely contested battle in which Mares (29-2-1) abandoned jabs, landing only seven, and sought to turn the tables on body-puncher Santa Cruz by aggressively seeking out punches toward the gut.
“I’d change some things,” Mares said. “I can make a lot of adjustments.”
One strength Mares needed to show and did was taking Santa Cruz’s punches on the jaw. After a first-round knockout loss to Jhonny Gonzalez two years ago, Mares fought cautiously in his next three fights against ordinary foes.
This was a world-class test, and only in a four-punch Santa Cruz combination in the eighth round did Mares wobble, holding on to Santa Cruz to stem the attack as the 13,109 in attendance roared.
“That’s what I get paid for — to get hit and to hit the guy,” Mares said. “I love my sport. I gave the fans a really good fight. I think all you guys really enjoyed this. This is what boxing really, really needs and I’m glad to be one of the fighters who gives the sport the fights it needs.”
So is Santa Cruz, who won the mythical crown of Los Angeles’ best fighter with the victory. By landing 373 punches to Mares’ 227, Santa Cruz kept the crowd on his side throughout, calmly muting Mares’ rushes with an effective jab.
The 27-year-old was asked afterward if he feels as if he’s reaching the status of Oscar De La Hoya on his way up.
“I know I have to grow before I reach that level, but I’m going to continue to grow, to train hard and continue to show everyone I’m a great Mexican champion,” Santa Cruz said.