by Cliff Rold
There is already an endgame in sight.
Sometime, presumably next year, Golden Boy Promotions has their eyes on what already sounds like a potential Fight of the Year caliber brawl at Featherweight.
Abner Mares vs. Leo Santa Cruz.
It just sounds right.
We’re not there yet. This Saturday’s Showtime card (10:30 PM EST/7:30 PM PST) is about the journey.
While he might have fought in front of one of the sports largest televised audiences in recent years on CBS, and has already developed a fan base with his all action style, the former IBF Bantamweight titlist Santa Cruz (24-0-1, 14 KO) isn’t quite ready.
Ready in this case has nothing to do with whether or not he could handle the fight. Maybe he needs more experience; maybe not. His resume is still lacking in terms of quality, but resumes are like that until they aren’t.
No, in this case, ready is about maximizing the fight. Hardcore fans would want it now. They might bring more fans with them another fight of two from now. Considering the damage Mares and Santa Cruz might inflict on each other, its only fair to risk the simmer.
They can always make a good fight.
Time will likely make their good fight more profitable.
So this weekend, we have a fairly normal part of the boxing tradition. Take two fighters who make desirable opponents, put them on the same show against other guys, and hope the night ends with increased anticipation.
Sometimes, same show means literally the same card. In television terms, it can also mean showcasing two fighters on the same broadcast. Sometimes, it means putting the two stars of the budding drama in showcase garbage. Sometimes, it’s a weekend like this one where both men are matched in fights they could lose but probably won’t.
Some of boxing’s biggest fights have come out of weekend’s like these.
In 1981, Welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard took a calculated risk in moving up the scale to challenge Ayub Kalule for the Jr. Middleweight crown. Thomas Hearns, the other Welterweight champion of that novel ‘only’ two title era, fought on the undercard against Pablo Baez.
Both men won by knockout.
They knocked out the box office together the next time they stepped into a ring.
In 1999, Oscar De La Hoya faced the dangerous Ike Quartey and the following week Felix Trinidad squared off with aged great Pernell Whitaker. The De La Hoya-Quartey replay was paired with the Trinidad-Whitaker broadcast. The broadcast did a 16.5 rating (about 4 times what the best shows do these days).
While their ultimate Welterweight unification showdown fizzled in the ring, the Trinidad-De La Hoya build meant much towards the largest non-Heavyweight pay-per-view audience ever to then.
Mares and Santa Cruz aren’t likely to end up with any sort of monster pay number, but they could easily build a monster gate in Southern California. Boxing television ratings appear on the rise. Those can only be helped by fights built well.
And so we get this weekend.
It’s hard to say which man has the tougher assignment but clear that for Santa Cruz it is at least his toughest assignment to date. Veteran Victor Terrazas (37-2-1, 21 KO) is the WBC titlist at 122 lbs., making his first defense after a debatable decision victory for the vacant belt against Cristian Mijares earlier this year. He’s also a fighter on a roll.
Since being stopped against Rendall Munroe in 2010, he’s won eleven in a row with victories over former title challenger Nehomar Cermeno and former multi-division titlist Fernando Montiel. Already 30, he’s never going to have a better chance than he will have this Saturday to move into a better income bracket.
Santa Cruz, at 25, will have more chances. Terrazas may not. This is the sort of fight where neither guy appears to have the power to stop the other early. The chance of a protracted battle is high.
If Terrazas wins, the conversation can evolve to include him as a possible foe for Mares or any other big name from 118 to 126 lbs. While Santa Cruz would remain a factor even in defeat, a win would burnish his bona fides and likely generate the sort of action that feeds further buzz.
The chance for all-out war might not be as high in the main event. It’s still a very real fight.
Mares (26-0-1, 14 KO), now with a belt in a third weight class after runs at 118 and 122 lbs., is no stranger to the building of one fight into another. His role as part of the Showtime Bantamweight tournament led to a finals fight with Joseph Agbeko and a rematch with the same. Their rematch co-featured Anselmo Moreno vs. Vic Darchinyan.
Mares fought Moreno too in one of 2012’s best match-ups.
Now, one fight after stopping Daniel Ponce De Leon for a WBC belt at Featherweight, he gets the man De Leon beat for that strap. Jhonny Gonzalez (54-8, 36 KO), a former champion at 118 and 126 and a failed challenger at 122, has been a quality gunslinger over the years. His dossier of opponents is deep and while he hasn’t won them all he’s fought more than his share and won enough to remain a test.
Given his activity level, and name value, this may not be his last chance but Gonzalez likely doesn’t have as much time ahead as he does behind. With a solid height and reach advantage, and proven punching power, Gonzalez might just be the sort of foe who can upset the Mares apple cart or at least cause some scary moments.
If at night’s end, Gonzalez and Terrazas are the winners on the night, it wouldn’t be that surprising. They’d be upsets, but not huge ones. It’s what makes the card commendable. There are easier ways to get to a big fight.
But this is the better way.
Make no mistake: the intended endgame is Mares-Santa Cruz. By testing both on the way there, it will only make their eventual showdown all the sweeter.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]