By Thomas Gerbasi
In describing WBC super bantamweight champion Victor Terrazas, the man he will be facing on Saturday night at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, Leo Santa Cruz reserves the highest praise for his Mexican countryman.
“I see another me,” said the former IBF bantamweight king in search of a second divisional world title. “He comes forward, throws a lot of punches, he’s Mexican, and he’s a warrior. So I think it’s going to be a war, and I think whoever comes more prepared is gonna take it that night.”
If you’ve seen Santa Cruz fight before, you would have to think that facing someone like that would be a fate worse than a week’s worth of root canals. But when you present this idea to “Teremoto,” he just laughs.
“It gives me more motivation to go out there and fight hard.”
That’s why Leo Santa Cruz is currently my favorite fighter, the one I will make sure I am home on Saturday night to see fight. And if he’s not your favorite, he’d better be in your top five or you’re just not a boxing fan. Because despite being just 25 years old, the Huetamo native has an old school approach to the fight game, one where you win fights in the most basic of manners: you throw and land more punches than the other guy.
It seems simple, but it’s not. Yet Santa Cruz is on his way to mastering that style, one instilled in him by his father Jose and built on that of the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez.
“When I was small I used to see Julio Cesar Chavez fights with my dad, and he said he was going to teach me how to do those body shots and put the pressure on, and I said when I grew up I wanted to be like that,” he said. “My dad’s been a great help in my training. He’s always been right there and he doesn’t let me rest. He gave me this ability to be a fighter like that, and I’m very blessed.”
There are hints of Chavez in Santa Cruz’ style, especially his body work, but the one fighter the rising star really reminds me of is another legendary Hall of Famer, Alexis Arguello, and if the Nicaraguan great was alive today, he would have likely been a big fan of Santa Cruz, especially given his thoughts on modern boxers when I spoke to him in 1998.
“The kids these days have lost the mystique of the sport,” said Arguello. “My trainer used to tell me ‘Alexis, get to sleep early, don't get laid too often.’ (Laughs) I remember he used to say ‘you're supposed to sleep thinking about boxing, take a shower thinking about boxing, take a s**t thinking about boxing.’ These kids only think about it in the gym. Most of the time they don't even get up and run…That's the reason why they don't have the stamina to throw more than three or four in a combination pattern. And that's a problem.”
A problem Santa Cruz doesn’t have. His tireless pace makes those viewing his fights run out of breath, so just think what it feels like to fight him. And when it comes to combinations, he rips them off effortlessly, making it clear that if he doesn’t get you with the first two, the next two will certainly find a home.
So what’s the secret?
“It takes determination, dedication, and wanting to become somebody,” he said. “Growing up as a little kid it was really hard, and I really wanted to become champion. And the only way to do that was by training hard, always being in the gym, focusing, and always being determined to become somebody. That’s what I’ve been doing. And the training that my dad does, we’re always in the gym. We don’t go to parties, we don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we’re just dedicated to the gym. I’m healthy, I’m clean, and that’s the reason that I go out there and throw those punches with stamina.”
And that work has paid off to the tune of a bantamweight title, three successful defenses of that belt, and a successful move to 122 pounds in May, when he stopped Alexander Munoz in the fifth round. More importantly, the soft-spoken Santa Cruz, who now makes his home in Rosemead, California, has become a highly-ranked member of the Next Big Thing list. Five fights in 2012 and several Showtime appearances have helped that cause, but the bottom line is that fans love this kid because he delivers action-packed fights every time out.
“I’m so excited,” he said. “I never thought it would be like this. When I heard people talking, I never thought I would be this big or doing things like I’m doing right now. It’s been a year since I won the title, but ever since then, my life has changed a lot. People recognize me in the street, people want to meet me, and I hear from all different places: from Puerto Rico, Colombia, England, China, everywhere. There are people telling me they love my style, and that makes me really happy because it shows all the work has paid off. But I still can’t believe it. I remember thinking about these things and now I’m living it. I’m very happy.”
But there’s got to be more to his punch-a-second attack, and I had my own theory, which I presented to Mr. Santa Cruz. The way I see it, if he was sparring with his older brother, former interim lightweight champion Jose Armando Santa Cruz, Leo would have to throw a lot of punches just to keep his heavier and stronger brother off him. The younger Santa Cruz agreed that this was the case, only it was the other way around.
“He (Jose Armando) used to throw a lot at me because that was the only way he could keep me away from him,” he laughed. “But I was always right there, coming after him.”
Santa Cruz admits that his brother didn’t throw that hard at him, but it does explain a lot when it comes to the competitive spirit of a young man with a bright future in this game. He’s a fighter, and when you fight, you throw punches. So fighting a clone of himself in Terrazas is no problem for him, dealing with high expectations is no issue, and he’s not even bothered when the topic of everyone’s next big superfight – him vs. WBC featherweight champion Abner Mares – comes up yet again.
“Nah, I’m not tired of it,” he said. “I’m used to hearing it. Whenever the people and the promoters want it, I’m ready for that fight. Until then, I’ll have to wait.”
If you’ve seen Leo Santa Cruz in action, you’ll know it’s the only time he will.