LOS ANGELES (AP) With his hometown crowd going crazy and Abner Mares charging right at him from the opening bell, Leo Santa Cruz really wanted to brawl.
Santa Cruz survived and thrived when he returned to the skill that made him the unofficial king of L.A. boxing.
Santa Cruz beat Mares by majority decision Saturday night, remaining unbeaten with a superior technical performance in an entertaining featherweight bout between two local fighters.
Santa Cruz (31-0-1) survived a night of furious exchanges and eventually controlled several rounds with his superior jab and reach, overcoming Mares’ heavy pressure. He left Mares bloodied after the final bell, raising his arms in victory.
“My dad told me that we could beat him by boxing,” Santa Cruz said about his father and trainer, Jose. “We want to be aggressive, but tonight we had to box him, too. And that’s how we got it done.”
A raucous crowd at Staples Center supported Santa Cruz over Mares, but just barely. Both fighters were born in Mexico and grew up in the Los Angeles area, attracting a turnout of 13,109 to decide local bragging rights.
Those fans got a treat of a fight featuring 2,037 total punches, and Santa Cruz emerged with the virtual crown. Both fighters immediately said they would welcome a rematch, which wouldn’t be difficult to book because both fighters are managed by Al Haymon under the Premier Boxing Champions banner.
Mares (29-2-1) did admirable work inside and survived numerous big shots, but ultimately couldn’t land a decisive blow. Although he felt he won the fight, Mares emerged frustrated by Santa Cruz’s jab that kept him inches away from a chance to change the fight.
“I think I made a mistake in my strategy,” Mares said. “I came out strong, and my corner was telling me to slow down. I wanted to go as fast as I could.”
Two judges scored the fight 117-111 for Santa Cruz, while Max DeLuca had a 114-114 draw. The Associated Press favored Santa Cruz, 116-112.
Santa Cruz landed 35 percent of his 1,057 punches, while Mares connected with just 23 percent of his 980 blows.
Santa Cruz’s superior reach and dominant jab work made the difference: In just his second 126-pound fight, Santa Cruz landed sharper and bigger punches during long stretches of the bout, which was mostly action-packed from the opening bell.
The crowd was worked into a furor by the opening bell, and the fighters responded to that energy by basically running straight at each other and throwing haymakers. They took only occasional breaks in that pace during the frenetic first half of the fight, even after both were cut during a clash of heads in the third.
“I stayed outside with the jab,” Santa Cruz said. “We were able to take control.”
Santa Cruz maintained distance and used his left hook to punish Mares, who had blood trickling from a cut near his right eye in the late rounds. Mares kept throwing shots to Santa Cruz’s body, but Santa Cruz calmly kept peppering Mares’ face until the final bell.
Los Angeles boxing fans had eagerly anticipated this matchup between these occasional sparring partners.
Santa Cruz, who grew up in the nearby Lincoln Heights neighborhood, became a fixture on the undercards of major fights. His career slowed in recent years with several matchups against second-tier contenders for his WBC 122-pound title, but he moved up in weight last May on the Mayweather-Pacquiao undercard.
Mares, from Hawaiian Gardens, won titles in three weight classes during an impressive two-year span, but his progress was interrupted by a stunning first-round knockout loss to Jhonny Gonzalez in 2013. After 11 months off, he returned with three straight wins.
On the undercard, Julio Cesar Ceja rebounded from an early knockdown and stopped Hugo Ruiz with 26 seconds left in the fifth round of the impressive U.S. debuts by two promising Mexican 122-pounders.
Ruiz knocked down Ceja (29-1, 27 KOs) with a looping left hook in the third round, and Ceja was down on all three judges’ scorecards when he flattened Ruiz (35-3) with a dynamite left to the chin. Several moments later, the referee stopped the bout.
Ceja earned a shot at Santa Cruz for his WBC 122-pound belt if Santa Cruz elects to drop back down to super featherweight.
Alfredo “Perro” Angulo also stopped Hector Munoz after five rounds for his second straight victory following a three-fight skid for the popular Mexican super middleweight.