By Jake Donovan
Leo Santa Cruz picked up the first defense of his featherweight title, stopping a game Kiko Martinez in five rounds Saturday evening at Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
The Showtime-televised headliner appeared to be on the same path as was its chief support, where Hugo Ruiz knocked out Julio Ceja in less than one minute. Martinez was decked by a right hand barely 20 seconds into the contest and was dropped again with a left hook, right hand combination with one minute to go in the round.
Somehow, the former 122 lb. titlist from Spain not only made it out of the round, but dug deep and fought hard every step of the way. Against any other opponent, he'd have a shot at slugging his way back into the fight. Unfortunately, his every punch thrown was a necessity, as Santa Cruz was a machine in every second of every round.
"I just keep throwing punches like I want to break every (Compubox) record," Santa Cruz said of his activity. He lived up to his word, throwing 142 punches in the opening round.
It took four more rounds of that, including a non-stop flurry to prompt referee Raul Caiz Sr. to stop the contest.
Prior to that point, it was oh-so much fun while it lasted.
Martinez was a massive underdog heading into the fight, having already suffered three combined losses to Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg, who fought earlier Saturday in a title unification bout in Manchester, England. Not only has the Spaniard proved to be on the outside looking in, but was also moving up in weight for this fight.
The fact that he made it entertaining for as long as it lasted was a testament to his resolve. While Santa Cruz forced the punch stat guys to work their fingers to the bone, Martinez contributed with a surprisingly high workrate considering the incoming. Despite being dropped twice and the hailstorm from Santa Cruz, he managed to throw 109 punches of his own in the opening round and more than 470 on the night.
It was just never enough, although he nearly had his "oh s***" moment when Santa Cruz hit the deck early in round two. The sequence was correctly ruled a push, as Martinez cupped his hand just enough for it to not be entered as an official knockdown.
Santa Cruz never relinquished control from that point forward, but still had to defend off a determined foe. The unbeaten Mexican - who has claimed title wins in three weight classes - spent more time fighting in reverse than in any other fight in recent memory, including his 12-round war with Abner Mares last August.
Martinez wasn't having much success despite constantly coming forward, but at least was taking punches on his terms rather than serving as wounded prey.
Unfortunately, that moment would, too, eventually come. Santa Cruz turned up the intensity in round five, unloading with power shots until Martinez simply had no proper response. Referee Raul Caiz Sr. - one of the very best in the business - gave him every chance to fight back before jumping in to rescue the battered former titlist.
The official time was 2:09 of round five.
Santa Cruz improves to 32-0-1 (18KOs) with the win, his first since claiming a vacant featherweight belt last August. As for his next trick, he'd like to take on another certain fighter who had his hand raised on Saturday.
"I'd love to fight Carl Frampton," Santa Cruz stated, taking note of the unbeaten boxer from Belfast picking up a second 122 lb. belt in his 12-round split decision win over Quigg. "He won, he said he wants to move up in weight, so let's do it."
Absent that, the undefeated 27-year old is open to facing anyone in the featherweight division. Jesus Cuellar and Gary Russell Jr. both own 126 lb. titles and - like Santa Cruz - are advised by Al Haymon.
Not quite as available from a political perspective is Ukrainian wunderkind Vasyl Lomachenko, who is under contract with Top Rank, which presently has a $100 million lawsuit filed against Haymon.
Though not belted, there's also the possibility of a rematch with Mares. The former three-division champ was in attendance, serving as a guest analyst at the Showtime hosting table while awaiting reassignment of a planned clash with Fernando Montiel.
“I’m up for anyone,” Santa Cruz insists. “I want the rematch with Mares. I’m ready for whoever, whenever they are ready and when my teams says I’m ready.”
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox