By Lyle Fitzsimmons
It wasn’t supposed to be time for Abner Mares’ all-or-nothing fight.
Only two years ago this week, he was prepping for the first defense of his third weight-class championship and had significant quarry lined up in his scope at 126 pounds and beyond.
Then came Jhonny Gonzalez. And things have never quite been the same.
Two minutes and 55 seconds with an eight-loss foe not only knocked a then-unbeaten 27-year-old off his WBC world featherweight throne, but it sent him careening from a perch in the low numbers of respected pound-for-pound lists to a far less-heralded slot in the somnambulant triple digits.
Boxrec.com has him at No. 110 in its fight-week P4P, one spot ahead of Ruslan Chagaev.
And while Mares, who’ll turn 30 in November, doesn’t necessarily agree with how he’s perceived these days, he does concede that the Gonzalez fight halted momentum that he’s still yet to regain.
“In my mind, after the loss, I left the top level of the game,” he said. “I had to overcome some issues mentally, but now I’m back better than I ever have been. I’m going to go in there (Saturday) ready to prove that. I’m going to make a statement that Abner Mares is back.”
The weekend appointment he refers to is a scheduled 12-rounder with Leo Santa Cruz, a 27-year-old whose career arc these days is strikingly similar to one Mares had previously been traveling.
The Mexican-born California resident was a world champion at 118 pounds at age 23, ascended to the next ladder rung just days after turning 25, and now views Mares as the first necessary domino to topple on the way to adding a third notch of his own in the featherweight division.
Mares has fought three times, and impressed only intermittently, between 126½ and 128 pounds since the Gonzalez loss. But while odds-makers have predictably set him as an underdog, he’s pretty confident that the matchup with his ethnic and professional doppelganger – on their dually-claimed territory at the Staples Center in Los Angeles – will provide an intangible boost that the sports books don’t foresee.
“It’s great to be here at my gym on my home turf. I started the hashtag #ThisIsMyTown because L.A. is my town. Leo can say whatever he wants but I’m at home and ready to put on a show,” he said. “I do feel very motivated. I’m extremely focused. I can't recollect the time where I felt like this. It would have to date back to when I was going after my first world title.”
Meanwhile, Santa Cruz is driven by continuing the wave that he’s been successfully riding.
He defended his initial title three times, with two stoppages; then won his second belt with a knockout and ended two of his subsequent four title defenses before the scheduled final bell.
He’s developed a following based largely on a throwback style that includes perpetual, effective body work, alongside an appearance that makes it look as if he truly enjoys his line of work.
And now that the fight’s here, he’s quick to point out that he believes he’d earned it a while ago.
“I wanted this fight three years ago and they said I wasn’t on Mares’ level. I said I was going to work hard to get on that level so one day we can make it happen, and here we are,” Santa Cruz said. “It’s the biggest fight of my career. I have a lot to lose. I have a lot to prove. I want to prove to all of the fans that I deserve to be on this level. A win against Mares will put me on the level to get more big fights.”
Their get-together will top a two-bout Premier Boxing Champions show on ESPN at 10 p.m., and more than a few outsiders have suggested it’s impossible for it not to live up to Fight of the Year status.
They’ve combined for 32 knockouts in their 59 victories and neither seems reticent to the idea of getting whacked a few times on the way to landing substantial shots of their own.
Especially with a revved-up crowd watching.
“We're both Mexican street fighters,” Santa Cruz said. “We come forward, trying to please the fans, and I think this is going to be a great fight. I think he's a great fighter and everything, and I see this fight like almost a 50/50. It could go either way because he's a good fighter. I'm a good fighter. So I think it's going to be great. I'm fighting for going ahead and being a world champion, fighting for Los Angeles.”
Mares agreed, particularly with the Mexican angle.
“It's just another day at work where it's a big party. Family from all over Mexico, from all over, it's just a big party where I have to entertain on fight night,” he said. “There is that pressure where you want to entertain the folks, but then you have that mindset where you can make it an easy fight and not so much entertaining. But you know what, I try to play both.
“I try to be more of a fighter in there, try to make it as easy as I can. But guess what, the Mexican heart, warrior, comes out, and I make it a hard fight. And at the end of the day I just want the boxing fans to go home happy.”
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
Last week's picks: 0-0
2015 picks record: 53-16 (76.8 percent)
Overall picks record: 692-239 (74.3 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.