By Francisco Salazar
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - It lived up to expectations. Probably exceeded them.
Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares brought it for 12 rounds, giving the announced crowd of 13,109 at Staples Center and a television audience many thrills during their back and forth exchanges.
But it was Santa Cruz who had his arm raised in victory, winning by majority decision over 12 rounds to win the WBA Super regular featherweight title.
With the win, Santa Cruz improves to 31-0-1, 17 KOs, while Mares drops to 29-2-1, 15 KOs.
There were many story lines going into the fight. Santa Cruz was trying to shake the stigma of what boxing fans consider to be fighting less than stellar opposition in his last couple of fights. For Mares, some wondered whether he would regain the same form prior to getting stopped by Jhonny Gonzalez over two years ago.
As the fight date approached, boxing fans were eager to watch two aggressive Mexican-American boxers with television-friendly styles put it all on the line in their adopted hometowns around the Los Angeles area.
Boxing fans were not disappointed early on as both fighters went right at one another from the opening bell. Mares was able to get on the inside of Santa Cruz's long reach, landing to the head and body with hooks and crosses.
Mares continued to have success early on, smothering any offense Santa Cruz attempted to launch.
"I was surprised Abner came out so strong," said Santa Cruz after the fight. "He came right at me but we figured him out. My dad told me that we could beat him by boxing."
Santa Cruz began to find success early in the third round, keeping Mares at bay with repeated jabs and right hands that followed. As the bout progressed into the middle rounds, Santa Cruz began to find a rhythm of being first and keeping Mares at the end of his punches.
Undaunted, Mares tried to use lateral movement early on in the second half of the fight. It worked at times, as he was able to sneak an occasional left hook to the head of Santa Cruz. Mares' work rate decreased with each passing round though, as it looked like Mares had to expend more energy to launch an attack.
Both fighters had their moments during the championship rounds. Sensing he was down, Mares tried to muster offense, but Santa Cruz seemed to offset it by countering to the head and body of Mares. Both fighters went for broke in the final 30 seconds of the 12th round, bringing the fans to their feet until the final bell.
One judge scored the bout 114-114, while the other two judge scored the bout 117-111 for Santa Cruz. Boxingscene.com scored the bout 115-113 for Santa Cruz.
Both fighters combined to throw over 2,000 punches. Final punch stat numbers had Santa Cruz throwing 1,057 punches, connecting on 373 of them. Mares landed 227 out of 980 punches.
A rematch between Santa Cruz and Mares could be next for both fighters. Then again, there is a possibility for Santa Cruz to fight the likes of Carl Frampton and Gary Russell, Jr., both of whom are advised by Al Haymon.
With the atmosphere at Staples Center in Los Angeles, a rematch may be more realistic. Santa Cruz seems to be on board.
"If he wants the rematch I'll give him the rematch. I want to fight the best. I want the big fights. "
Mares thought he did enough to win.
"It was a close fight, but I thought I won the fight," said Mares, whose three-bout winning streak was snapped by Santa Cruz. "Leo is good. He's a great fighter. I knew it was going to be a tough fight."
"I'm more than willing to have a rematch. I knew he had never faced a fighter like me and he proved today he's a good fighter."
Ceja survives knockdown to stop Ruiz
In the opening bout of the ESPN telecast, Julio Ceja survived a third round knockdown to stop Hugo Ruiz in the fifth round. With the win, Ceja wins the WBC interim junior featherweight title.
After a slow opening round, both fighters began to let their hands go. The action was fought mostly in the center of the ring, where both fighters were able to score.
With less than a minute in the third round, Ruiz dropped Ceja with a counter left hook to the head. Ceja got up on wobbly legs and Ruiz went in for the kill, but was unable to drop him again.
Ruiz continued to land a barrage of punches in round four, keeping Ceja on the defensive. Just when it looked as though Ruiz would run away with the fight, Ceja dropped Ruiz with a hard left hook to the head in the fifth round. Ruiz got up, but was repeatedly tagged with hooks and crosses to the head. Another left hook sent Ruiz reeling back against the ropes, prompting referee Raul Caiz, Sr. to stop the bout at 2:34.
"I felt prepared," said Ceja after the fight. "I was surprised when i got dropped, but i was mentally sound. I knew I was going to come back and I knew I was going to win. I hope Santa Cruz drops down (in weight) so I could fight him next."
Ceja threw 353 punches, connecting on 107 of them, while Ruiz landed 96 out of 256 punches.
Ceja improves to 29-1, 27 KOs, while Ruiz drops to 35-3, 30 KOs.
Luna stops Lopez
In a swing bout, lightweight Alejandro Luna stopped Sergio Lopez (18-10-1, 12 KOs) in the fourth round. A barrage of punches from Luna (19-0, 14 KOs) promoted referee Dr. Lou Moret to step in and stop the bout at 34 seconds.
Francisco A. Salazar has written for Boxingscene.com since September of 2012 and has covered boxing in Southern California and abroad since 2000. Francisco also covers boxing for the Ventura County (CA) Star newspaper, RingTV, and Knockout Nation. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at FSalazarBoxing