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Leo Santa Cruz fights for another world title and takes inspiration from his father’s cancer battles

Leo Santa Cruz, left, gets help from his father, Jose Santa Cruz, in readying for a recent media day training session.
Leo Santa Cruz, left, gets help from his father, Jose Santa Cruz, in readying for a recent media day training session. Jose Santa Cruz will be in his son’s corner when he fights Miguel Flores for the vacant WBA junior lightweight title Saturday in Las Vegas.
(Cris Esqueda / TGB Promotions)

Jose Santa Cruz still maintains an exterior image of machismo when he’s shouting instructions from the corner of the ring as his son Leo Santa Cruz, a three-division champion, further builds on his budding boxing career.

As has been customary for years, on and off the camera, Jose is adorned with his traditional black cowboy hat, leather boots, dress shirt, suit vest, pocket square, bulky gold chains, rings and bracelets and a thick black mustache. He drives around in a Corvette, but his demeanor is so hardened, he rarely cracks a smile, even when his son wins.

But beneath the bravado and bold appearance is a man who’s masking pain and a broken-down body after battling with myeloma spinal cancer for the last three years.

Jose, 59, now in remission, has needed the use of a wheelchair at their City of Industry gym of late, but come Saturday, he will put aside the morphine that he ingests daily and step into the bright lights of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to coach his son toward a fourth world title as Santa Cruz (36-1-1, 19 KOs) makes his junior lightweight debut against Miguel Flores (24-2, 12 KOs) for the vacant WBA title. The fight will serve as the co-main event for the Deontay Wilder vs. Luis Ortiz heavyweight rematch on FOX pay-per-view.

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“It’s been very hard for me and what my dad has been going through with cancer,” Santa Cruz said in an interview. “He gets happy when I train, but it’s painful for me because he’s always in pain. I can’t really concentrate on training sometimes.”

During a recent media day training session in Los Angeles, the elder Santa Cruz ceremoniously held mitts for his son as a mariachi band played in the background. Santa Cruz barely peppered the pads his father was holding, hoping the cameras got the necessary clips they needed before moving on two minutes later.

Leo and Jose Santa Cruz
Jose Santa Cruz holds the mitts for his son Leo as a mariachi band plays in the background during a recent media day training session.
(Sean Michael Ham / Mayweather Promotions)

The relentless and always-swinging Santa Cruz won’t be offering the same fate to Flores. He’ll be fighting to inspire his father and challenge his body for the first time above the featherweight division, a weight class that he has campaigned for his last seven fights before vacating a title to further chase history. A champion at 118, 122 and 126 pounds, Santa Cruz is now trained by his brother Antonio, 41, who holds mitts as their father, still the boss of the gym, offers instructions seated outside the ring.

“I’m always in pain from the cancer. I’m not going to give up though. I’m going to give it my all,” said Jose, as he moved around the MGM Grand on Thursday in an electric scooter. “I’m still the mastermind behind it all. I’m the one telling Antonio and Leo what to do. Not being in the ring training Leo is actually better for me because I get to see a different vantage point. It’s a better view because I get to see the mistakes and correct them. I’m very proud of Leo.”

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Santa Cruz is no stranger to moving up in weight. For this fight, he’s leaning on strength and conditioning coach Andy Aguilar, who’s tasked with helping his 31-year-old pupil carry his power up to a new division. Santa Cruz has been sparring with much heavier opponents and sucking down extra protein shakes every morning to make sure he molds into his weight.

“We always work hard in the gym so that we can throw a lot of punches in the fight. We want to put the pressure on and give the fans a great fight and take home the win,” said Santa Cruz.

“He’s motivated me to go even harder. He has to live with the pain. My pain is temporary.”
Leo Santa Cruz on his father, who has battled cancer the last three years

Born in Mexico but now representing Los Angeles, the Corona denizen brings a fan-friendly style to fights. He escaped an impoverished adolescence in Compton, his family struggling to make rent, using candles for light and picking at scraps from the trash to sell later.

Now, Santa Cruz drives a Lamborghini among a cavalcade of others cars because he’s been making big money ever since becoming a world champion in 2012. The only hiccup of his career was a lone career loss to Carl Frampton in 2016. Before that fight, Santa Cruz had to deliver the news that his father had Stage 3 myeloma — bone cancer at the spine that would require chemotherapy and surgery. The following year, Santa Cruz would avenge his loss to Frampton, and has since been calling for the glamour names in the sport.

“There’s a lot of pressure on me because I’m favored against Flores, but I never see myself like that,” said Santa Cruz. “He’s going to come with everything he has. It’s the opportunity of his lifetime.”

If he beats Luis Ortiz on Saturday, Deontay Wilder should get a Tyson Fury rematch and an eventual meeting with the Anthony Johsua-Andy Ruiz winner.

After cementing his “King of L.A.” status with a second win against Abner Mares last year, Santa Cruz started calling out the likes of Gary Russell Jr. and Gervonta Davis for a unification fight. However, neither happened, and Davis vacated his title by moving up to 135. Now, Santa Cruz and Flores will fight for that crown.

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“I’m really motivated, like this is my first world title. This is something big for me. It will help me be remembered as one of the best Mexican fighters, and that’s my goal.”

Jose and Leo Santa Cruz
Jose Santa Cruz, left, shares a laugh with son, boxer Leo Santa Cruz, in 2016.
(Amanda Westcott / Showtime)

The boxing-obsessed Jose Santa Cruz had dreams for one of his four sons to one day become a world champion when he was taking each of them to gyms as teens. His youngest son ended up realizing his vision, and will hope to do it four times over.

The father will be in his son’s corner Saturday once again, ignoring his agony, and wheelchair, to step into the ring and shout instructions.

“He’s motivated me to go even harder,” said Leo Santa Cruz. “He has to live with the pain. My pain is temporary. My goal when I began boxing was just to become a world champion. To be a four-division champion is an even bigger dream.”


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