Leo Santa Cruz Graduates To First Class

In one of the most entertaining fights of the year, undefeated Mexican star Leo Santa Cruz eked out a victory over a game Abner Mares last Saturday night.

This fight delivered immediate gratification for the more than 13,000 fans in attendance at the Staples Center and the largest viewing audience on ESPN since February 1998! Mares flew out of his corner from the opening bell like a man possessed. Faced with that onslaught coming toward him, and the vocal crowd calling for blood, there were significant pressures pushing Santa Cruz to lose his composure. It would have been easy for a young, unpolished star on the rise to lose his head in that situation. But ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas said it best:

"He [Santa Cruz] grew up tonight."

Santa Cruz showed restraint when necessary, kept a tight, high guard in the fray of some brutal exchanges on the inside, and displayed a consistent use of the jab and counter-punching ability that his fans aren't used to seeing. Mares and the moment brought that out of him.


Let's be clear, however. Despite Santa Cruz's very respectable ability to adapt and vary his game to the fight that Mares brought, Santa Cruz did not win the fight 117-111 as two judges had on the scorecards. I personally agreed with Judge Max DeLuca, who had the fight a draw, but would have been OK with a victory in either direction by a round, or two, at the most. Regardless, the ink has been set down in the official history books for the night, and Santa Cruz is the new WBA featherweight champion.

The WBA has already mandated that Santa Cruz face challenger Jesus Cuellar within 18 months, but that is of very little importance or concern for Santa Cruz's manager Al Haymon. Haymon will set up the next best fight for Santa Cruz based on dollars and cents, not mandates from a sanctioning body replete with arbitrary rules. But if Cuellar does get the nod, he's said:

"Whenever Santa Cruz wants to do it, I'm ready. Every time I enter the ring, I go in there to fight and win."

Big-punching Cuellar was an underdog in that match-up even before Santa Cruz faced Mares; now, Vegas will have to offer some big odds to get fans to bet Cuellar.

Of all the options out there for Santa Cruz, you can bet two names won't be on the list of (Haymon's) possibilities: Guillermo Rigondeaux and Vasyl Lomachenko. Santa Cruz won't go back down to 122 to face the best counter-puncher in the division (Rigondeaux), nor is Santa Cruz likely to entertain a fight against Rigo at 126. Haymon is equally unlikely to pair up Santa Cruz with the other featherweight champion, Lomachenko, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from the Ukraine who completely eclipsed one of Haymon's other rising starts, Gary Russell Jr. If it were up to Santa Cruz's father, however, we might get one of these exciting match-ups:

Leo Santa Cruz, Sr. wants one of the more "technical" fighters out there. When asked if he meant Lomachenko, he didn't mince words:

"That fucker, give him to us."

Later he said that are some others out there as well, and he'd like his son to face them. I'd like to think Rigondeaux falls into that category, but hoping for it is a wasted wish because, sadly, Santa Cruz, Sr. doesn't call the shots.

Whomever is next for Santa Cruz, you can be sure the young Mexican champion isn't likely to wilt under the pressure, and his ever-growing Mexican and Latino fan base will come out in throngs to cheer his name, all but guaranteeing box -office success — the match-up was the "highest-rated and most-watched boxing telecast to ever air on ESPN Deportes." With his victory, or at least substantial performance against Mares, Santa Cruz has graduated to a first-rate fighter. Big money is certainly within reach. But if he wants glory, if he wants history, he'll need to face those technical "fuckers" Santa Cruz, Sr. is calling out.

Glancing Blows (where we offer some tangential thoughts on the fight game):

Julio Ceja Has The Goods

Ceja put on a special performance on the undercard to Santa Cruz vs. Mares. He came off the canvass in the third to knock out Hugo Ruiz in the fifth. Ceja's chin, heart and guts are what make this sport great. His performance deserves a big-money follow-up, and with the ratings throughout the night, you can bet he's going to get it sooner rather than later.

The Olympians Are Still The Best

Santa Cruz's performance on Saturday night legitimized, at least in part, his middling résumé of opponents at 122 lbs. and immediately made him a force at 126 lbs. But let's be honest: The men to beat at either division both have two gold medals to their names. Until defeated, Ridondeaux is the best man at 122, and Lomanchenko is the best at 126. In my book, either finishes Santa Cruz's education in the sweet science. It will be a hard lesson followed by a poor grade because there's little chance of Santa Cruz beating either man.

Andre Ward, The Undercard Fighter

Boxingscene.com reported that the WBC received a request from Andre Ward for a "voluntary defense" of his title in November. Clearly, Roc Nation and Ward are somewhat serious about making the Cotto-Canelo PPV a truly exciting event. The problem is that even if Ward is allowed to make the voluntary defense, he isn't likely to leave much money on the negotiating table to bring in a substantial opponent. For the sake of boxing fans and the quality of the overall Cotto-Canelo PPV card, I hope I'm wrong.

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