By Cliff Rold
Summer is sequel season for moviegoers. It’s only fitting we get a notable sequel this weekend in boxing as well.
Featherweight Leo Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 KO) will attempt the second defense of his second reign as WBA titlist against the man he initially defeated to win a belt in a third weight class. Former three-division titlist Abner Mares (31-2-1, 15 KO) battled Santa Cruz hard in August 2015, coming up short in a crowd-pleasing distance affair.
Now, almost three years later, the California pair will do it again.
For Santa Cruz, it will be his second rematch in three starts. In January 2017, he avenged the lone loss of his career and elevated his stock in more ways than one. It wasn’t just the simple act of winning that impressed when Santa Cruz regained the belt from former unified Jr. featherweight titlist Carl Frampton. It was the way he did it.
Gaining attention for a high volume, action style, Santa Cruz showed off boxing chops and the ability to evolve from one fight to the next. He was patient early, commanded space with his long jab, and deftly countered the talented Irishman to earn a competitive but clear decision. When it was over, it was safe to assume a rubber match was coming sometime soon.
Soon hasn’t arrived. Santa Cruz moved on to a tune-up in preparation for this rematch. Frampton has picked up a pair of wins, including a decision over an aging Nonito Donaire in April. Both Frampton-Santa Cruz fights, and Frampton-Donaire, aired in the US on Showtime or a Showtime affiliate. So did Mares’ December 2016 win over Jesus Cuellar.
Showtime has done a good job investing in the featherweight business and these three have all played crucial roles. Santa Cruz currently sits in the role of centerpiece. They aren’t the only featherweights in the Showtime pool.
WBC titlist Gary Russell Jr. (29-1, 17 KO) and newly minted IBF titlist Josh Warrington (27-0, 6 KO) both impressed in their last outings, Russell on Showtime proper and Warrington through a network online stream. Russell won an excellent fight against fellow US Olympian Joseph Diaz while Warrington upset fellow UK product Lee Selby.
The only one of the top five or so featherweights in the world who hasn’t appeared on Showtime this year is WBO titlist Oscar Valdez (24-0, 19 KO). Valdez is promoted by Top Rank and they are doing their business with ESPN. Valdez also has the issue of a jaw wired shut after a bruising win over Scott Quigg in March. There has been, and continues to be, talk about a potential Valdez-Frampton fight but it remains chatter and not a contract and wouldn’t appear to be next regardless.
If that fight doesn’t happen this year, Valdez may be in the difficult position of watching the rest of the division competing without him on another network for longer than he’d like. Showtime’s investment in the division gives them incentive to keep luring featherweight talent their way. Looking just at the talent on their air this year, Santa Cruz, Mares, Frampton, Russell, and Warrington could be mixed and match for the next year or two in multiples ways.
Almost all those ways are fresh. So far, we’ve only seen two of the potential matches this crew can deliver: Santa Cruz against Frampton and Mares. There are more than a half dozen pairings to be made no one has seen yet along with some more sequels.
Of course, after this weekend, the potential exists for a pair of rubber matches to emerge. If Mares wins, Santa Cruz is likely to want his chance to avenge that loss. If Santa Cruz wins, a third showdown with Frampton would be profitable for both if the Valdez fight doesn’t happen.
Seeing as the latter has already been held off, it might not be the fight fans would get most excited about. That could be Russell-Santa Cruz. Russell has two of the fastest hands in boxing and isn’t shy about mixing it up in the trenches. How would his speed mix with the volume attack of Santa Cruz?
While they find out, Frampton-Warrington would likely do solid business overseas and some recent reports online have Frampton looking in that direction. Depending on how he looks this weekend, Mares could be an option for either even in defeat. Mares-Russell would also be something we haven’t seen before.
When options abound in any division, the fans win. When one network digs into a particular class to make quality showdowns more likely, they win more often. It was the case in the featherweight classes (Jr. and classic) when HBO produced a slew of wars from the mid-1990s into the mid-00s. It was the case at lightweight in the 00s when Showtime aired a veritable round robin between Diego Corrales, Jose Luis Castillo, Joel Casamayor, and Acelino Freitas.
It can be the same thing here as the puzzle falls into place. We know what we get when we mix Santa Cruz with the rivals he already has. After Saturday, we may get to find out what much of the rest of the division looks like against each other.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]