By Keith Idec
Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares share a respect that’s both unique and unwavering among boxers who’ve spent 24 rounds trying to take one another out.
That’s what made it so difficult for Santa Cruz when he learned during his recently completed training camp that Mares had suffered another detached retina. Mares sustained this career-threatening eye injury while sparring three weeks ago to prepare for what was to be a “Showtime Championship Boxing” main event last Saturday night against unbeaten 130-pound champion Gervonta Davis in Carson, California.
As Mares recovers, the former three-division champion is faced with the grating reality that he might never fight again. Santa Cruz realizes just how hurtful that is for Mares, who revealed during an episode of FOX’s “Inside PBC Boxing” on February 3 that the real reason he withdrew from the Davis fight the previous week was because of a detached retina in his right eye.
Mares admitted during that interview that he initially claimed a far less serious elbow injury was the reason he pulled out of the Davis bout because he was fearful fans and media would assume his career is over if they knew he has a second detached retina.
Mares remains on Santa Cruz’s mind as the WBA super world featherweight champion prepares for his “Premier Boxing Champions on FOX” main event Saturday night against Mexico’s Rafael Rivera (26-2-2, 17 KOs, 1 NC) at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT).
“It’s sad, you know?,” Santa Cruz told BoxingScene.com following a press conference Thursday in Los Angeles. “And it hurts to see him go through that because I put myself in his shoes and if it happened to me, I would be devastated. Not being able to fight anymore, I wouldn’t know what to do. For somebody to tell us we’re not gonna be able to fight no more, it’s heartbreaking and it’s sad. But we’re gonna send best wishes to him and pray that he recovers, and hopefully he could fight again.”
The 33-year-old Mares acknowledged during the aforementioned interview with FOX’s Kate Abdo that he isn’t sure whether doctors will permit him to return to the ring from this devastating injury.
Mares (31-3-1, 15 KOs) suffered a detached retina in his left eye in 2008. He overcame that setback to win world titles in the bantamweight, super bantamweight and featherweight divisions.
As much success as he had since recovering from his first detached retina, the New York State Athletic Commission wouldn’t allow Mares to fight Cuellar on a June 2016 card at Barclays Center in Brooklyn because its doctors were concerned about an undisclosed medical condition – his right eye, according to several published reports. The California State Athletic Commission thoroughly examined Mares and approved him for a license later that year, which enabled the Downey, California, resident to defeat Cuellar by split decision to win a portion of the WBA’s featherweight title at USC’s Galen Center in Los Angeles.
That December 2016 victory over Cuellar led Mares toward his rematch with Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 KOs), who won their 12-round rematch by unanimous decision June 9 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Santa Cruz previously beat Mares by majority decision in their 12-round, 126-pound championship match in August 2015, also at Staples Center.
Three fights and 2½ years after the NYSAC wouldn’t allow him to fight in New York, the 2004 Mexican Olympian’s career is in jeopardy.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m here, that I’m letting people know what’s going on, what’s happening,” Mares told Abdo. “Yes, I do have a detached retina. But let me remind you people – a lot of people don’t know – in 2008, I suffered a detached retina in my left eye. Eleven years later, I’ve been a four-time world champion. I became a four-time world champion, with a detached retina. Unfortunately, I’m suffering another one in my right eye. It doesn’t mean an ended career for myself. I feel strong. I know that I’m gonna come back after this.
“It’s just a matter of healing, resting and doing what the doctors say. My doctor, he’s one of the best. And if he says, ‘Abner, you’re good to go,’ I’m gonna go up there and continue to become a world champion once again. And if he says no, I’m ready for retirement. But I honestly feel that I’m gonna come back and I’m gonna conquer that, become a world champion once again.”
The 30-year-old Santa Cruz, of Rosemead, California, hopes his friendly rival indeed can come back from this detached retina. If it were him, however, Santa Cruz would take this second serious eye injury as a sign that it’s time to retire from this extremely dangerous game.
“If I had that happen to me, you know, I would just quit because life is more important than anything,” Santa Cruz said. “If anything happens, it risks you being with your family and everything. Me, I would like to be with my family and see them grow up. Your life is more important than boxing.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.