By Michael Rosenthal
LOS ANGELES – Leo Santa Cruz had a big victory this year – a unanimous decision in his rematch with Abner Mares in June – and that’s it. He will have fought only that one time in 2018, which doesn’t sit well with him.
That’s why the WBA featherweight titleholder is determined to make a big splash in 2019.
Santa Cruz is scheduled to defend his belt against fellow Mexican native Miguel Flores on February 16 in Los Angeles, Santa Cruz’s hometown. It will be his third defense.
After that, he has his sights set on a familiar foe and one he feels he must beat to be considered the best featherweight in the world – Carl Frampton and Gary Russell Jr.
“Yes, last year was frustrating,” Santa Cruz said at a news conference to formally announce upcoming matchups under the new deal between Premier Boxing Champions and Fox Sports. “After the Mares fight, I wanted to fight again before the year ended but it didn’t happen. (PBC) told me 2019 would be a great year, it would be busy. I’m going to fight Flores. Then I want Frampton and Gary Russell. It doesn’t matter what order.
“I want to prove that I’m the best featherweight. To do that, I have to beat Gary Russell.”
Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 knockouts) and Frampton have split two fights, the Irishman winning a majority decision to take Santa Cruz’s WBA title in July 2016 and Santa Cruz winning a majority decision the following January to win it back.
The rubber match, Santa Cruz reasons, will settle things once and for all between the rivals.
However, he has never been more determined to fight Russell, the WBC titleholder with whom he shares a management company (PBC). Santa Cruz has a better resume than Russell, who has fought infrequently, but the latter is deemed by many as more gifted. That’s why a victory over Russell would boost Santa Cruz’s image tremendously.
Plus, they have a history in the amateur ranks. Russell outpointed Santa Cruz in the 2006 U.S. Amateur Championships final and the latter wants revenge.
“It was a close fight but I thought I won,” Santa Cruz said of the amateur encounter. “Ever since then, I wanted a rematch. Now, in the pros, it can happen. That’s what I’m pushing for. I sometimes wonder whether it will happen. Sometimes he’s hurt, he only fights once a year. But that’s the fight I want.”
Of course, Santa Cruz must first get past Flores (23-2, 11 KOs). The challenger had a rough year in 2017, losing by knockout to Dat Nguyen and by a cut against Chris Avalos, but stopped journeyman Raul Chirino in April.
“Flores is a good fighter,” said Santa Cruz, who plans to move up to 130 in 2020. “He puts on a lot of pressure, throws a lot of punches. And he’s from Michoacan, where I’m from. Fighters from there have big hearts, they leave everything in the ring.
“To me, every opponent is dangerous. They’re fighting for their careers, their families. I’ll train for Flores like I’d train for Russell. I have to stay hungry to accomplish what I want to accomplish.”
Michael Rosenthal is the most recent winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism. He has covered boxing in Los Angeles and beyond for almost three decades.