Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares need wins on Saturday to set up rematch

Boxing


Los Angeles featherweight rivals Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares, both three-division world titleholders and among boxing’s most exciting fighters, have a deal in place to face each other in a rematch of Santa Cruz’s majority decision victory to claim a world title in August 2015 in one of that year’s best fights.

“Assuming everything goes well, they will fight each other in March of next year here in Los Angeles,” Ringstar Sports promoter Richard Schaefer said.

But to get to the rematch there is still the thorny issue of “assuming everything goes well.”

What Schaefer is referring to is the fact that Santa Cruz will first defend his title against Chris Avalos and Mares will defend his secondary belt against Andres Gutierrez on a Premier Boxing Champions card on Saturday (Fox/Fox Deportes, 7:30 p.m. ET) at the StubHub Center in Carson, California.

In the opening bout of the tripleheader, junior welterweight Eddie Ramirez (17-0, 11 KOs), 25, of Chicago, will take on former lightweight world titleholder Antonio DeMarco (32-6-1, 23 KOs), 31, of Mexico, in a scheduled 10-round bout.

Santa Cruz and Mares are both heavy favorites but they must retain their titles or the rematch, which was initially intended for Saturday but put off by the Santa Cruz camp, will go down the drain.

While Santa Cruz (33-1-1, 18 KOs) and Mares (30-2-1, 15 KOs) both say they are in fine form and expect to win and move on to their sequel, underdogs Avalos (27-5, 20 KOs) and Gutierrez (35-1-1, 25 KOs) would love nothing more than to wreck the best laid plans.

That Avalos, 27, of Lancaster, California, is getting a world title opportunity is a shocker, even to him.

“It was a big surprise (getting the fight), but even though it was a surprise I honestly thought I was going to get a world title shot later on, maybe next year, like middle of next year. But now that it’s here now, I’m ready,” Avalos said.

Avalos is a much bigger underdog than Gutierrez is against Mares. The reason is because Avalos is just 2-3 in his past five bouts and has been knocked out inside six rounds in all three of the losses, including by Carl Frampton in a junior featherweight world title bout and by Oscar Valdez, who went on to win a featherweight world title. Avalos is coming off an unexpected fifth-round knockout of Miguel Flores in July.

A victory Saturday would be career-making and another loss would probably spell the end of any future title shots. He knows it.

“It’d be a blessing,” Avalos said of winning. “I’ve been in training and I’ve been working hard, staying focused at the gym. I’m really planning to pull an upset that night.”

As for being a do-or-die fight for him, Avalos gets it.

“Yes, well actually it is,” he said. “Yes, and that’s how I feel about it. That’s exactly how I feel about it.”

Gutierrez, 24, of Mexico, probably has a better chance of pulling an upset than Avalos but he is still an underdog. His only loss came by majority decision to former unified junior bantamweight world champion Cristian Mijares in June 2016 in a junior lightweight bout. Gutierrez has won his only bout since but will be ending a one-year layoff when he faces Mares.

However, Gutierrez was supposed to face Frampton on July 29 in Frampton’s first fight since a rematch loss to Santa Cruz in January. But after the weigh-in the day before the bout, Gutierrez fell in the shower. He broke his nose, lost two teeth and cut his chin.

Now he is healthy, has put the Frampton debacle behind him and, like Avalos, is aiming for an upset.

“I’m back 100 percent from what happened in the whole Carl Frampton situation,” Gutierrez said through a translator. “That’s all behind me. My focus is Abner Mares. I’m ready for Abner Mares. You all will see on (Saturday) that I am 100 percent and extremely focused and ready.

“Look, I’m coming to surprise everybody. I feel very good. It is my dream to bring home the world championship and I’m going to go ahead and really shock boxing fans in Los Angeles. I am not just an opponent.”

The interim bouts for Santa Cruz, 29, and Mares, 31, could have been avoided had Santa Cruz’s side gone ahead with the original plan for the rematch taking place now. Mares was ready to go and very much wanted it for his next fight. In fact, he was already in camp with trainer Robert Garcia getting ready for the rematch when the plans changed.

Instead, Mares was saddled with the more difficult interim bout, at least on paper.

“I’m not going to lie, and most people know I felt upset,” Mares said. “I felt a little irritated that I wasn’t getting that fight because at first it was solid, but at the same time things happen for a reason. It gives us that much time to get ready even more for the Leo Santa Cruz fight. But, again we’re not looking past Gutierrez. He’s a great fighter; he’s a hungry kid. I remember when I got my opportunity for a world title. So, I can imagine how happy he is and really looking forward to this fight.”

When asked why he put the rematch off, Santa Cruz at first talked about wanting a tune-up fight first because he had not fought since January — though Mares has been off since December. Then Santa Cruz talked about a crowded schedule that included Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor on Aug. 26 and Canelo Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin on Sept. 16, although Santa Cruz-Mares II is not a pay-per-view fight like those other biggies and not competing with them.

Eventually, Santa Cruz admitted that it really came down to his father and trainer, Jose Santa Cruz, making the decision to put the rematch off for one more fight.

“I think it was kind of my father’s decision because I was getting ready, because they told me I was going to fight Mares, so I was getting ready for Mares. I was in camp, and then they came and I think they asked my dad for his opinion and I think my dad said I had the long layoff and that he wanted me to get another fight before going in there with Mares,” Santa Cruz said. “So that’s what happened. But, yes, I think it was kind of my dad’s decision that he would prefer for me to go and get a fight before fighting Abner a second time. So I said, ‘All right. If that’s what you want, well let’s go for it.'”

While Mares has always been committed to the rematch with the hope of exacting revenge, Santa Cruz insisted that should all go well on Saturday that he too is committed to facing Mares again early next year. He said he wants the rematch “really bad.”

“I wanted it ever since that first fight. He said right after that he wanted the rematch and I said I would give it to him. The fans loved that fight,” Santa Cruz said. “We both gave a great fight and it was a great turnout (at Staples Center), so I said, ‘I’ll give it to you. Why not?’ I said, ‘If he would have beat me, I would have liked him to give me the rematch.’ I said, ‘Since I beat him, I said I would give him the rematch.’ “I’m not looking past this fight. First I want to get this fight, and if we both get our wins, we’ll work everything to get our fight next in the beginning of the year.”

Unless, of course, Avalos and Gutierrez wreck the best laid plans.



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