By Jake Donovan
Ten days before Santa Claus embarks on a worldwide journey to deliver gifts, Leo Santa Cruz will once again deliver fists in 2012.
In true throwback fashion, the unbeaten bantamweight titlist fights for the fifth time this year when he faces Alberto Guevara this Saturday at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles. Rare is the occasion these days when fighters in their prime even step to the ring three times in a calendar year.
Not only is Santa Cruz (22-0-1, 13KO) cramming in five fights into a 12-month stretch, but his latest ring adventure comes free of charge to all. CBS reenters the boxing fold for the first time in more than 15 years in showcasing boxing’s fastest rising action fighter (Saturday, 4:30PM ET/1:30PM PT).
Santa Cruz was still a few weeks away from his ninth birthday when Bernard Hopkins dismantled then-unbeaten Glen Johnson in July ’97, the last ever main event to air on the network.
“I wasn’t even old enough (to remember watching it),” the red-hot fighter sheepishly admits.
In fact, he was barely introduced to the sport at the time. Santa Cruz often accompanied his father and older brothers to the gym, but his first day on the job actually came on a dare.
“When I was six, he would take me to the gym to watch my older brothers. I played around on the gym equipment, but never received any real training back then. When I was eight years old, I remember one kid wanted me to spar. He was nine-years old - a year older than me – and had a year of training. I never fought before, but I beat him up. My dad asked me if I wanted to do it regularly, and I’ve been fighting ever since.”
The early years of his amateur days saw the final days of quality boxing on network TV. Santa Cruz was a couple months shy of his 12th birthday when Jose Luis Castillo upset Stevie Johnston in June ’00 in an afternoon out aired on ABC. It was the last time any free network aired a major title fight.
Santa Cruz is among an entire generation of fans having never experienced the feel of sitting at home on a Saturday afternoon to enjoy quality boxing without emptying their wallets. All of that will change this weekend, and hopefully for longer than just a one-time offering.
“I’m very excited that they chose me to be the fighter. It’s more motivation to train harder and give the fans a good show. It’s what I train for, to give the fans what I want. I’m very happy and excited, and I’m ready for this,” Santa Cruz insists.
Golden Boy Promotions has loaded up a card at the Sports Arena, most of which will air over three separate networks throughout the day and evening.
The main event – Amir Khan’s return to the ring against unbeaten Carlos Molina – headlines on Showtime Championship Boxing, with Alfredo Angulo plus unbeaten heavyweight and 2008 Olympic Bronze medalist Deontay Wilder in supporting action. Serving as the evening lead-in will be select bouts on Showtime Extreme, including a crossroads match between Shawn Porter and Julio Diaz
The building will have been cleared out and refilled by the time any of those fighters make their way to the ring. Paid tickets or a sufficient cable/satellite package will be the only way to catch that action.
For Santa Cruz, not only is the broadcast free, but so is entrance into the venue. He and his team understand the importance of getting their fighter’s name out to the masses, which can only create an even greater buzz for 2013 than what has already been the case to this point in his career.
“I’m grateful for that,” Santa Cruz says of the extra attention paid to his past several fights and even more so this weekend. “There will be millions of people watching and hopefully they will become fans. I’m happy and excited but at the same time very nervous. I want to give everyone a great show.”
Sending fans home satisfied – yet wanting more – has been the focal point in Santa Cruz’ training regimen as of late. That very mentality enabled him to steal the show during a Showtime-televised quadruple header this past June. The card was a dud for the most part, far more quantity than quality.
However, a hidden gem was discovered in Santa Cruz’ flame-throwing offensive output against Vusi Malinga. The knockout wouldn’t come, though not for a lack of trying. Santa Cruz threw a blistering 1,350 punches in pitching a 12-round shutout to win a vacant belt in his breakout performance.
A star was born, though Santa Cruz hardly rested on his laurels. Barely three months later, he once again caught the attention of many by becoming the first to stop Eric Morel, forcing the former U.S. Olympian and ex-flyweight champ to quit on his stool after five rounds.
The bout was the second of what has been three straight appearances on Showtime, having most recently dispatched Victor Zaleta in nine brutally one-sided rounds.
At the time, it was assumed that the November bout – which served as chief support to Abner Mares’ thrilling points win over Anselmo Moreno – would be his last of the year. Speculation had begun over the possibility of Santa Cruz facing the winner – or even the loser – of the evening’s main event.
Little did anyone beyond the fighter’s immediate circle know that plans were in place for fans to be treated to one more Santa Cruz showing before year’s end.
“They had given the heads up that if everything came up OK, that maybe there would be something in December,” Santa Cruz acknowledged of discussion that took place prior to the Zaleta fight. “I trained hard so that I could do good in November. I knew that this was coming up, but wasn’t for sure if it was going to be on CBS.”
What was known the moment the fight ended was that the all-action star would for sure return to the ring in a hurry.
“This opponent was already scheduled by the time we secured the fight date,” acknowledged Roberto Diaz, matchmaker for Golden Boy Promotions.
Saturday will mark the third time in four fights in which he fights within 15 minutes of his adopted hometown of Lincoln Heights, just east of Downtown Los Angeles. The show is aptly named ‘Santa Cruz is Coming To Town’ in conjunction with the holiday season. Santa Cruz was given a choice whether to take the fight or relax and come back early next year.
The final decision was a no-brainer.
“They asked me if I was ready and that it was up to me,” Santa Cruz revealed. “I wanted to finish the year strong. After this one, I will take a little rest and concentrate on next year.”
Just don’t expect the 100-plus per round punching machine to take a moment’s rest once the bell rings for Saturday’s matinee showing.
“I would like to go in there and finish with a knockout,” Santa Cruz admits. “I’m grateful to be in an opportunity where people get to know me better.”
So, too, are the fans for Santa Cruz agreeing to offer up a free holiday treat of a product already well worth the price of admission.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox