By Jake Donovan
Boxing fans and media like have eagerly awaited the long-awaited featherweight showdown between Abner Mares and Leo Santa Cruz. So, too, have the fighters themselves, as they were both already within the 126 lb. contracted weight prior to the weigh-in.
Naturally, both fighters easily made weight ahead of their scheduled 12-round clash Saturday evening at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. Mares came in at a ripped 125.4 lbs., while Santa Cruz weighed 124.8 lbs., barely heavier than his last fight despite this being his first scheduled fight at the full featherweight limit.
ESPN will air the fight live in primetime, beginning at 10:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. PT, as part of the network’s latest installment of the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) series.
Santa Cruz (31-0-1, 17KOs) rose to prominence beginning with his June '12 bantamweight title win over Vusi Malinga. The all-action pressure fighter brawled his way into the hearts of boxing fans thanks to his tireless workrate and active schedule.
Momentum was slowly building towards a planned showdown with Mares (29-1-1, 15KOs), who at his peak was an undefeated fighter with titles claimed in three weight classes. Dating back to his 12-round draw with Yhonny Perez, the road on which Mares embarked was nearly unrivaled, posting wins over Vic Darchinyan, Joseph Agbeko (twice), Eric Morel, Anslemo Moreno and Daniel Ponce de Leon.
Had both won their respective bouts on the same Aug. '13 show, it's possible this matchup could have taken place much sooner. Santa Cruz did his part, icing Victor Terrazas in three rounds to claim a super bantamweight title, which he still possesses (more or less) to this day.
Mares, however, fell miserably short as he suffered a shocking 1st round knockout loss to a resurgent Jhonny Gonzalez in what went down as the 2013 Upset of the Year.
Neither fighter has lit the boxing world afire since that night. Santa Cruz' competition level has declined, to the point of drawing stark criticism and his combat readiness called into question despite having remained unbeaten.
Mares has won three straight, but has yet to prove that he has all the way recovered from the lone loss of his career. Perhaps it takes a certain opponent to bring out the best in him, which we will find out on Saturday night.
Opening the telecast, Julio Ceja and Hugo Ruiz will contender for an interim version of the super bantamweight title still in Santa Cruz’ possession.
The winner will be the mandatory challenger for Santa Cruz. In the event that Santa Cruz opts to not return to the super bantamweight division—win, lose or draw versus Mares—the winner will then be named super bantamweight champ.
Both fighters make their U.S. debut in the matchup and are in phenomenal condition as they easily made weight. Ceja tipped the scales at a fine-tuned 121 lbs., while Ruiz was a ripped-and-lean 121.4 lbs.
Ceja (29-1, 26KOs) suffered his only loss in his lone title fight to date, dropping a heartbreaking decision to Jamie McDonnel in their May ’13 vacant bantamweight title fight on the road in England. The 22-year old knockout artist from Mexico has since won five straight, including a 10-round decision over countryman Oscar Blanquet in his most recent fight this past March.
Ruiz (35-2, 31KOs) previously claimed an interim bantamweight title, but—like Ceja—came up short contending for the real thing in his opponent’s backyard. The free-swinging slugger from boxing-rich Los Mochis, Mexico gave Koki Kameda all that he could handle in dropping a disputed split decision in their Dec. ’12 clash in Osaka, Japan.
Just four fights have followed and none since last November, though hardly by his own doing. Ruiz—who turns 29 in September—saw two separate ordered fights fall by the wayside.
Ruiz’ promoter, Promociones del Pueblo, won the purse bid for a final elimination bout with former four-division champion Nonito Donaire. However, the matter became a non-starter, as Top Rank was already steering Donaire for a fight in Macau (which he won), followed by plans to a desired showdown with unbeaten super bantamweight titlist Scott Quigg later this year.
Rather than order another eliminator, it was decided that Ruiz would earn a mandatory title shot by default. However, Santa Cruz’ decision to move up to featherweight to face Mares left Ruiz to settle for a consolation prize in the form of his dangerous clash with Ceja.
Leo Santa Cruz, 124.8 lbs. vs. Abner Mares, 125.4 lbs.—12 rds, featherweight
Hugo Ruiz, 121.4 lbs. vs. Julio Ceja, 121 lbs.—12 rds, super bantamweight
Alejandro Luna, 135 lbs. vs. Sergio Lopez, 134.2 lbs.
Alfredo Angulo, 163 lbs. vs. Hector Muñoz, 159.8 lbs.
Jessie Roman 144.2 lbs. vs. Hector Serrano 143.8 lbs.
Brian Castano, 158.4 lbs. vs. Jonathan Batista, 158.2 lbs.
Alan Castano vs. Tom Howard
Anthony Flores vs. Curtis Morton
Paul Mendez vs. Andrik Saralegui
Min Wook Kim vs. Miguel Huerta
Antonio Santa Cruz vs. Isaiah Najera
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com.