Come On Up For The Rising: Leo Santa Cruz Brings His “A” Game

(Leo Santa Cruz; Suzanne Teresa, PBC)

In the end, it was a hell of a fight, even if it didn’t quite live up to its Fight Of The Year expectations. Saturday night at the Staples Center, undefeated Leo Santa Cruz withstood a spirited attack from Abner Mares and beat him by majority decision in a featherweight fight that saw a combined 2,000 punches thrown. Both fighters needed to answer multiple questions during the ESPN-televised fight, and for the most part, both answered them well. But it was Santa Cruz who showed that he could elevate his game to the next level when taking on a top-level fighter.

While his run of opponents lately ranged from mediocre to god awful, his performances remained stuck somewhere in the middle. Despite winning every fight, he has looked at times lately both inconsistent and disinterested. We had a feeling that Santa Cruz might finally shine when faced with a tough fight, and he did exactly that. And in a losing effort, Mares confirmed what we already knew — he is a tough S.O.B. with impeccable hair.

Mares came out of the gate in the 1st round and practically trucked Santa Cruz through the ropes, flying right at him and winging bombs while perpetually-confused referee Jack Reiss employed that timeless ref technique of demanding that the fighters both punch and stop punching at the same time. That 1st round was fantastic, with Mares landing 28 shots to Santa Cruz’s 22, according to CompuBox. And though Mares seemed to win the round, the last 30 seconds would foreshadow how the rest of his night would go.

Santa Cruz offered a bemused look and counterpunches during the early onslaught, and then finally backed Mares away, landing a fantastic jab to set up multiple shots that deterred Mares from blitzing him. In the 2nd, Mares attacked again, but this time with a bit of hesitation, perhaps realizing that his opponent might have an answer for him after all. Mares is an attacking fighter. He forces the action, muscling his way in and landing hard shots. It’s the style that’s most comfortable to him. Sticking and moving just doesn’t work as well, and when he started to try and outbox Santa Cruz, he just couldn’t do enough to win rounds.

The problem for Mares was that Santa Cruz, using major height and reach advantages, can use either of those styles, and he’s pretty damn effective with both. When Mares attacked, Santa Cruz countered. When Mares took a breather, Santa Cruz attacked. And perhaps most impressively, when Mares would try to maul Santa Cruz into a corner, “El Terremoto” would quickly spin his man into the ropes and avert danger. This was brilliant stuff, something we weren’t sure Santa Cruz had in him. It turns out, he just needed a beast in front of him to show off the skills.

By the later rounds, Mares was a bloody, busted up mess. He was still fighting his ass off, but with a bit of resignation in his eyes. It may have been because Santa Cruz remained utterly contented, occasionally offering that gleeful smile, even when Mares would land a right hand or illegal blow to the back of the head. He wasn’t going to fade. He wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, despite throwing over 1,000 punches in the fight, he looked like he could have easily gone another few rounds.

Despite one last, desperate charge from Mares, Santa Cruz was in no danger, and they fired away even as the final bell sounded and the crowd roared in approval.

For Mares, the fight did nothing to hurt his career. Matched correctly, he’s pure entertainment. But one major problem is clear — his corner is a mess. He just hasn’t been firing on all cylinders in a couple of years, and hearing that half of his team called for aggression while the other half called for countering and boxing last night really isn’t all that surprising. He tried a new trainer once, a so-so one-off affair with Virgil Hunter, and went back to his old group. I think another change might be in order, this time toward someone who could take his offensive attack up a notch or two, like Freddie Roach, or maybe Robert Garcia. Point is, the feeling is that he’s being hurt more than helped is evident.

For Santa Cruz, he proved that he’s definitely still a very, very good fighter, and that he can hang in there just fine at 126 lbs. A fight I’d absolutely love to see his Santa Cruz vs. Gary Russell, Jr. Russell’s otherworldly hand speed would be a serious problem to overcome, and it would be fascinating to see how Russell deals with having an indefatigable machine raining punches on him from everywhere. Either way, despite a less-than-stellar knockout percentage, Santa Cruz remains a must-see.

Let’s just hope that in the future, his opponents are as well.

Some Random Notes From Last Night:

  • Welp. We were afraid that Ricardo Mayorga was going to look like a chubby old guy cashing in one last paycheck on Saturday night. And then Mayorga looked like a chubby old guy cashing in one last paycheck. Shane Mosley, who despite being far removed from his prime, is still good enough to absolutely butcher guys like this, ESPECIALLY guys who don’t do things like, I don’t know, train for fights. Still, nobody came out looking particularly good here. Let’s just move on.
  • It’s still impressive to me, the amount of money Mayorga has earned off of basically two successful fights. He destroyed Vernon Forrest, and then beat him in the rematch. And even though he was exposed (figuratively, though I’m sure he’s exposed himself during a fight before) by Cory Spinks, he has scored huge fights with top names again and again, losing every goddamn time. It just proves that there’s always room for a raving lunatic in boxing. I guess when the sport generally shows itself to have all the competency of an Eli Roth movie, this is what you get.
  • ESPN analyst Teddy Atlas is clearly out of his mind, but there’s something soothing to me in his delivery. Although, I’m used to listening to three children running around while screaming, so perhaps I’ve just grown accustomed to drowning out unnecessary noises. Still, I bet we’ll miss him when he’s gone. I loved the revelation about Santa Cruz shaking his right hand, something I’m pretty sure most of us on twitter have discussed quite frequently over the last three years or so.
  • Julio Ceja’s comeback knockout of Hugo Ruiz on the ESPN undercard was damn fun to watch. More of both guys, please.
  • I know scores were all over the place on social media, but I’m having a hard time justifying Max Deluca’s 114-114 score for Santa Cruz-Mares. While some rounds were certainly close, giving Mares a draw is lousy in my book.
  • Jack Reiss Incompetency Update: He wasn’t asked to count, so there’s that. Still, stopping the fighters in the 2nd round for no reason and then apologizing when both fighters looked at him like that fuckin’ camera on his head sprouted wings was telling enough.