The featherweight world title rematch between Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares has been a long time coming since their first action-packed encounter in August 2015.
Immediately after Santa Cruz won a majority decision and vacant title in a fierce fight at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Mares said he wanted a rematch, and Santa Cruz said he would give him one.
But it has taken time and twists and turns to get to the point where they will meet again on June 9 in the main event of a Showtime card, again at the Staples Center in another battle for Los Angles bragging rights.
“It was a really close fight the first time. Before the fight, I told him I would give him the rematch, just like I would have wanted if I lost,” Santa Cruz said this week as he met Mares face to face in Los Angeles at the kickoff news conference to announce the bout. “Now is the time, and I think this fight is going to be even better than the first fight. Mares will be better with (trainer) Robert Garcia. He has many champions, and I’ve seen the improvement. That’s great motivation for me.”
Mares has had to wait for the rematch longer than he wanted to, but he is very excited that it is finally on.
“The fight is here now, and it’s official. I’m eager to get this win and get redemption,” Mares said. “There were things I could have done that would have made the fight easier for myself. Once you get in there, I know we all have a plan, but once you hear the crowd, it can go out the window. I’m a warrior and that type of fighter who’s looking to get the win no matter what.
“This fight is dedicated to my dad as he battles cancer. The only way I can pay him back or try to lift his spirits is to train hard in the gym and give him this win. If he sees me not giving up, I think it will give him the courage to keep fighting his battle.”
Leo Santa Cruz
“I’m not worried about the decision in the first fight. I think he landed the clearer punches, but it was definitely a close fight. I was happy with my performance as far as pleasing the crowd. I’ve moved on to the rematch. I’m going to make adjustments and get the win.”
Since that first fight, Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 KOs), 29, has fought four times, including losing and regaining his title in two tremendous battles with Carl Frampton. Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs), 32, has fought just twice, but he claimed a secondary belt while also changing trainers to work with Garcia.
The rematch was supposed to take place last fall but Santa Cruz elected to put it off for one more fight as he and fellow three-division world titleholder Mares both won on an October doubleheader.
One of the reasons for putting it off one more fight was because Santa Cruz’s father and trainer, Jose Santa Cruz, was once again struggling with his health.
He was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and has had his ups and downs, including being forced to have a very limited role in the training camp for the first Frampton fight, for which Leo was instead trained by his brother. But the elder Santa Cruz said he will be in camp and will train his son for the rematch with Mares.
“This fight is dedicated to my dad as he battles cancer,” Leo Santa Cruz said. “The only way I can pay him back or try to lift his spirits is to train hard in the gym and give him this win. If he sees me not giving up, I think it will give him the courage to keep fighting his battle.”
Jose Santa Cruz has shown the sort of fight against cancer that his son has always showed in the ring. He is determined to see his son through training camp be in his corner on fight night.
“My fight with cancer is the toughest one of all. But I’m fighting very hard and I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I’m right there by Leo’s side all the way for this fight. For the first fight for Frampton (in July 2016), I had to try to prepare Leo from a distance.”
“I’m not worried about the decision in the first fight. I think he landed the clearer punches but it was definitely a close fight. I was happy with my performance as far as pleasing the crowd. I’ve moved on to the rematch. I’m going to make adjustments and get the win.”
Leo Santa Cruz lost that fight and his belt by majority decision in a classic fight of the year contender and then regained the title (with his father returning to the corner) by split decision over Frampton in his next fight in January 2017.
“This fight [against Mares] is different [from the first Frampton fight] because I’m right there every step of the way. I’m telling him what to do and guide him every day,” Jose Santa Cruz said. “I think Leo is even more prepared this time than for the first fight with Mares. Leo is doing great mentally because he’s such a brave kid. I tell him not to worry about me and to keep working hard. He seems really motivated right now. He knows he’s doing well.
“Right now we’re working on maintaining speed, being smart and not looking for too much of a clash of a fight. I know Leo can win with his speed and his brain. He’s learning and growing as a fighter. I think Mares has reached his peak. Robert Garcia is a great trainer, but at a certain point, there’s nothing the fighter can do to surprise anyone.”
Mares has worked with Garcia for his past two fights, and they have also had plenty of time in the gym to work together. Garcia thinks he can make a big difference for Mares in the sequel.
“I was there live for the first fight, and it was a great matchup. I knew then that Abner was much better than the fight he gave that night,” Garcia said. “He left the fans happy, which is all that matters to him. But with me in the corner, it should be a different fight. I think the fans have seen what we’ve done with Abner for his last two fights and they know that it’s going to lead to a totally different outcome in this fight.”