Leo Santa Cruz can empathize with Gary Russell Jr. like perhaps no other boxer in the sport.
Just like his rival, Santa Cruz has been trained by his father throughout his career as an amateur and professional. Santa Cruz felt lost when his dad, Jose, couldn’t train him at times while he battled cancer and later COVID-19.
Russell acknowledged recently that he has essentially trained himself for his upcoming bout because his father/trainer, Gary Russell Sr., has been recovering from having one of his feet amputated last month, a complication from type 2 diabetes. Gary Russell Sr. is expected to attend his son’s fight Saturday night against Mark Magsayo, but it isn’t clear if the elder Russell will be able to work his corner.
In Southern California, meanwhile, Jose Santa Cruz has been busy helping Leo Santa Cruz prepare for what will be his first fight in 15 months. Leo Santa Cruz (37-2-1, 19 KOs) is scheduled to oppose Phoenix’s Keenan Carbajal (23-2-1, 15 KOs) in a 12-round junior lightweight fight February 5 at Mandalay Bay’s Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas.
“You know, it’s really hard going through that and I know what Gary Russell’s going through,” Leo Santa Cruz told BoxingScene.com. “You know, I send blessings to him. I hope his dad is doing good and he recovers and continues to do good. You know, I send nothing but the best for him. It’s very hard to go through that, you know, seeing your dad suffer and not able to do nothing.
“You want him to be in the gym. You know, your dad has always been there in the gym with you. And when he can’t do that, you miss that. You miss that and you just wish all the bad things that’s happening and all the health issues he’s going through never happened. … You want him to be normal and be happy and be able to enjoy everything that we have won and everything.”
Leo Santa Cruz’s older brother, Antonio, has served as his head trainer when their father couldn’t perform those duties. After he conquered cancer, Jose Santa Cruz nearly succumbed to COVID-19 in 2020.
The four-division champion remembers how frustrating it was to not have his dad’s familiar voice guiding him through training sessions during those trying times.
“It was very hard because, like I said, our dad has always been there for us in the gym, motivating us,” Leo Santa Cruz said. “And when he wasn’t here, screaming at us, we missed all that. The truth [is], we’re not really focused on the fight because we’re thinking about our dad. We’re checking if he’s doing good, if he’s gonna be able to be there at the fight with us. It’s a big distraction, not having our dad there, because mostly we’re thinking about them, hoping they’re doing good and everything like that. So, it’s very hard.”
Leo Santa Cruz also noted that he would still like to fight Russell later this year in a long-discussed showdown that hasn’t materialized. Both boxers are heavily favored to win their upcoming matches.
Showtime will air the 12-round battle between Russell (31-1, 18 KOs), of Capitol Heights, Maryland, and the Philippines’ Magsayo (23-0, 15 KOs) as the main event of a three-bout broadcast from Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, New Jersey (9 p.m. ET). Russell, boxing’s longest-reigning men’s champion, will make a mandatory defense of his WBC featherweight title against the hard-hitting Magsayo.
Santa Cruz-Carbajal is the co-feature of a FOX Sports Pay-Per-View show that’ll feature former WBA/WBC welterweight champion Keith Thurman (29-1, 22 KOs, 1 NC) and ex-WBA world super lightweight champion Mario Barrios (26-1, 17 KOs) in the main event.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.