LOS ANGELES (AP) No championship belt is at stake when Leo Santa Cruz steps into the Staples Center ring to take on Abner Mares.
Both featherweights realize that the winner will only be the unofficial king of L.A. boxing, and that’s an ample reward.
Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs) risks his unbeaten record against Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs) on Saturday night in a tantalizing featherweight matchup between two fighters with numerous similarities. Both were born in Mexico and grew up in the Los Angeles area, and they occasionally sparred in training as they built their parallel careers to world-class levels over the past decade.
One more similarity: While both are skilled punchers, they really love a good brawl.
“This is a huge fight for Los Angeles,” said Santa Cruz, who grew up in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood. “Everyone in the city has wanted us to fight, and now they’re going to get it. We’re excited and happy to give the fans a great fight.”
Mares fought for the Mexican Olympic team, but the former three-division champion grew up mostly in Hawaiian Gardens, a blighted city southeast of downtown Los Angeles. After winning three world titles in a two-year span that ended in 2013 with his first defeat, Mares aggressively pursued a fight with Santa Cruz, and he got it under the downtown lights on ESPN.
“It feels good to be fighting in my hometown,” Mares said. “It’s been so long since I’ve been able to fight here in Los Angeles. Headlining at Staples Center means the world to me and my fans. … I work so hard for these opportunities. But it’s for everybody, my family, my fans and everyone. I work hard in the gym every day for them.”
Both fighters are managed by Al Haymon, the guru behind Premier Boxing Champions. Haymon’s venture has received criticism for its occasionally cautious matchmaking, but nobody is mad about this clash between two of the world’s top lighter-weight fighters in their primes.
Both had a role in making it: Mares began calling out Santa Cruz in the media several months ago, and Santa Cruz says he eagerly asked Haymon to book the fight.
Santa Cruz secured his up-and-coming reputation with a series of impressive victories on the undercards of big-name bouts, creating a record of action-packed fights with his power and skill. But his career stalled in the past few years when he accepted a series of matchups against second-tier competition instead of risking his reputation against the best.
“Fight by fight, I’ve been learning and picking up new things,” Santa Cruz said. “I am definitely a brawler, but I can box, too. I want to finish my opponent once I get in there.”
With three straight victories, Mares is back in the championship hunt two years after his only loss – a shocking first-round stoppage by Jhonny Gonzalez. Santa Cruz fought on the same card at the famed StubHub Center in August 2013, winning the WBC super bantamweight title by stopping Victor Terrazas.
“My experience is going to be the difference in this fight,” Mares said. “I’ve faced tougher opponents and been a three-time champion. I’ve been in against legitimate champions. Every time that I fight someone at this level, it brings the best out.”
Although this is only Santa Cruz’s second featherweight fight, both boxers already rank with Nicholas Walters, Vasyl Lomachenko and Gary Russell Jr. as the biggest names in the 126-pound division.
If their first meeting is as entertaining as they hope, both Mares and Santa Cruz could be propelled to a new level of stardom in front of their hometown fans.
“I’m not worried about the crowd and who they’re rooting for,” Mares said. “I’m there to make everybody a believer. It’s going to be an amazing atmosphere, and I can’t wait.”