What a difference three years can make. Leo Santa Cruz was calling for a battle against Abner Mares back in November of 2012, immediately after having made the second defense of his bantamweight belt over Victor Zaleta at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Santa Cruz vowed to fight his way into a mandatory slot for Mares’ super bantamweight belt, and though the idea wasn’t ludicrous, it seemed a lofty goal for a young, green champion.
Mares would overwhelm Anselmo “Chemito” Moreno in the main event of the card, and all the victor wanted to talk about was fighting Nonito Donaire, joking that he would go down to Top Rank’s offices himself to demand the fight. Santa Cruz wasn’t even on his radar. “I can’t take a step back,” Mares said in his post-fight interview. “No disrespect to what’s his name, Santa Cruz, he’s a great champion and a great fighter, but we want to fight the best.”
Both fighters return to the Staples Center this Saturday on ESPN among the best at 122 and 126 pounds, but now Santa Cruz, 30-0 with 17 knockouts, is the undefeated champion and a 2-to-1 favorite; his name, previously unfamiliar to Mares, is first on the fight poster. Mares, now 29-1-1 with 15 knockouts, is still shaking off the residual effects of being demolished in less than a round by Jhonny Gonzalez in 2013, and ironically Santa Cruz now represents a large step forward from the opposition Mares used as comeback fodder. Indeed the last three years have changed matters.
With Santa Cruz from Michoacan and Mares from Guadalajara, this is a showdown between two usually-aggressive Mexicans in front of Southern California fans that have already embraced them several times before. On paper Santa Cruz-Mares leaves little to be desired. But one reason why the fight’s promotion hasn’t gained much steam and plenty of tickets remain is what’s happened in the last three years to the careers of both fighters.
Still young at only 27, the level of Santa Cruz’s opposition had been steadily increasing until his move to super bantamweight. Pickings were considerably slimmer at bantamweight, but three of his six fights at 122 pounds were against opponents who began their careers at 115 pounds or below. He defended a belt there, but could Santa Cruz be called champion in a division that houses Guillermo Rigondeaux, Scott Quigg, Carl Frampton and Nonito Donaire without having fought any of them? Whatever the reason behind pumping the brakes on his career, doing so has not earned him any new fans.
The rebuilding process Mares has undergone since being walked over by Gonzalez is at least understandable; having the rug yanked out from under him as a 10-to-1 favorite on a hot streak could have done funny things to his mind. And maybe that’s why none of his opponents since his lone loss have sported a knockout ratio much higher than 50 percent, but it’s almost assuredly why he hired trainer Virgil Hunter and began fighting with a much more cautious approach. Mares has since ditched Hunter and gone back to old trainer Clemente Medina, and still questions about his durability and confidence remain.
With a game based more on volume and pressure than punching power, Santa Cruz is unlikely to provide a serious test to Mares’ chin or psyche straight away. Mares has faced bigger punchers and better fighters before, while Santa Cruz will certainly be stepping in with the best fighter he’s ever faced. Tack on that this will be the younger man’s first showing against a real featherweight (who appeared really jacked in recent photos), and anything past even money in favor of Santa Cruz feels off.
Whatever the outcome, fans are likely to tab a win in their column during the bout, as both fighters are known for a good punch output and haven proven themselves to be sturdy. If there is ground to give, Mares would be the one with the option to give it and still win. Still, the fighter able to maintain forward momentum has the better chance of winning over the fans, and likely the judges as well, should the fight make it the distance.
As of now Mares has the experience and just enough versatility to prevail and doesn’t appear sufficiently chewed up to be in danger of falling apart. Maybe three years from now that will change.
– Patrick Connor