By Keith Idec
For Abner Mares, his rematch with Leo Santa Cruz is much about the trainer he added since losing their first fight.
For Leo Santa Cruz, the Mares rematch is more about the trainer he almost lost since winning it. While Mares is thankful for how his professional partnership with Robert Garcia has helped him improve in his last two fights, Santa Cruz can’t stress enough how having his healthy father/trainer, Jose Santa Cruz, alongside him throughout this training camp has enhanced his training from physical, mental and emotional standpoints.
Jose Santa Cruz has worked his son’s corner for his last two bouts, but now that his cancer is in complete remission and he feels stronger, he hasn’t had to miss a single day of this training camp.
“I think my dad is the most important thing right now,” Leo Santa Cruz said during a conference call Wednesday. “And knowing that he had cancer and everything, before I really couldn’t concentrate in my training because I was thinking about if he’s going to be with me in the camp or if he’s going to be with me in the fight or if he’s going to wake up today or tomorrow.
“But right now, I’ve been dedicated to my training. I’ve been focused in the gym. Now I could focus and I could relax and I don’t have to worry about dad. I haven’t really been thinking about that. I’m just been thinking about training, about going out there and giving a great fight. So this has been a great camp and I’m glad my dad’s there. That way, I can concentrate and put my 100 percent in my boxing.”
There were times, particularly prior to his first fight against former champion Carl Frampton, when Leo Santa Cruz wasn’t certain his father would survive. He was bound to a wheelchair during that training camp, which was run by the three-division champion’s older brother, Antonio.
Though thankful for his brother’s efforts, it just wasn’t the same, according to Leo Santa Cruz, as having his father there to give him the type of insightful instructions he has followed since childhood.
Eventually, however, Jose Santa Cruz conquered Stage 3 multiple myeloma, a cancer that impacts plasma cells in bone marrow. His intense treatment included chemotherapy and spinal surgery, from which there are lingering side effects.
“Right now, thank God, he is in complete remission,” Leo Santa Cruz said. “His cancer is at zero right now. The only thing that he has right now is like he has back pain, like he’s always feeling nauseous, he’s feeling sick, he’s throwing up. But even though that don’t stop him. He’s still in the gym every day. He’s right there observing me, telling me what to do in the gym and everything. He’s been there every day.
“And I’m glad to have him in there. And every time I do good in the gym and I do what he wants, it makes him happy and he forgets about all the pain and everything he’s feeling. So thank you for that and, yes, my dad, he’s in complete remission and he’s feeling a lot better than before.”
As much as Mares wants to avenge his majority-decision defeat to Santa Cruz when they meet again June 9 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, he has admired the strength his opponent and his family have demonstrated during this trying time.
“That’s really difficult,” Mares said. “I know he’s going through a hard time and you don’t wish that on anybody. It’s hard and I respect him as an individual, as a person, his father. You know, it’s just tough what they’re going through and I’m always wishing them the best, praying for them, you know, and God be with them.”
Promoter Richard Schaefer noticed a looser Santa Cruz during an open workout recently in Los Angeles. Schaefer senses Santa Cruz’s calmness comes from his father’s improved health.
“Given the fact that his father feels so much better,” Schaefer said, “I think I can see a different Leo Santa Cruz.”
Jose Santa Cruz returned to his son’s corner for his rematch against Carl Frampton in January 2017. Leo Santa Cruz was able to box in a smarter, more disciplined way that night in Las Vegas, avenged his majority-decision defeat to Frampton six months earlier and won back the WBA “super” featherweight title he’ll defend against Mares a week from Saturday night.
Jose Santa Cruz also worked with his son for the humble champion’s eighth-round technical knockout of Chris Avalos in his last fight, October 14 at StubHub Center in Carson, California. Schaefer expects another superb performance from the Rosemead, California, native when he meets Mares again.
Showtime will televise the second bout between the 29-year-old Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 KOs) and the 32-year-old Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs) as the main event of a doubleheader. The two-bout broadcast will start with Jermell Charlo (30-0, 15 KOs) defending his WBC super welterweight title against Austin Trout (31-4, 17 KOs).
“With Leo Santa Cruz, last week was the open media day here in Los Angeles,” Schaefer said. “And what I came away with is I was very impressed. I was, of course, impressed with Leo Santa Cruz. He looked spectacular. He looked fast. He looked strong. But what I was maybe even more so impressed with [was] his father.
“As we all know, his father suffered cancer, wasn’t really much of a factor in Leo’s last few camps and that clearly weighed on Leo’s shoulders. And now to see Leo’s father in full strength, making comments, “I defeated, I KOd cancer,” you can just see how that weight has been lifted off Leo’s shoulders. So I have no doubt that we will see the best Leo Santa Cruz we have seen in many years. And we will see the best Abner Mares. I think the timing is perfect for June the 9th for those two guys meeting each other again at the famous Staples Center, which always brings out the best in the fighters.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.