LOS ANGELES – The bell rang and they beelined for each other, fighter and trainer, father and son.
Decades earlier Jose Santa Cruz, in between working two jobs, took his son, Leo, to the boxing gym and pushed him to become a world champion. He did, and years later it was Leo, one of boxing’s most entertaining fighters, a rising star, reaching into his pocket for the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for his father, his mentor, to fight the cancer that ravaged his spine.
Jose is healthier now, his cancer in remission, and look at what father and son can accomplish: In a rematch of a 2015 slugfest, Santa Cruz outpointed Abner Mares, punctuating the rivalry between the two Mexican stars. For 12 rounds they brawled, with Santa Cruz hammering Mares with power shots (261 in all) and peppering him with a jab that over his last few fights has emerged as a dangerous weapon.
These are good days for boxing, with networks investing heavily in the sport and a new crop of stars taking hold. Featherweight fighters (126-pounds) don’t get the traction of some of the heavier classes, but Santa Cruz has become impossible to ignore. He followed up his ’15 fight with Mares with two unforgettable clashes with Carl Frampton, and he can now turn his sights to Gary Russell Jr., the undefeated former U.S. Olympian who is waiting for a fight with him in the fall.
“Without a doubt,” Mares said after the fight, “Leo is the No. 1 featherweight in the world.”
Mares didn’t go quietly. His pairing with famed trainer Robert Garcia helped him reclaim a featherweight title, and Mares entered Saturday’s showdown believing a more tactical approach against Santa Cruz would help him even the score. Early, it did, with Mares having success in the first few rounds.
But Santa Cruz is relentless. Jose Santa Cruz likes to tell Leo: Whatever style someone brings, you will have a response. Santa Cruz stalked Mares, peppering him with five- and six-punch combinations, throwing 1,061 punches in all. The jab — a limited weapon for Santa Cruz in the first fight — kept Mares on the outside, while Mares’ jab connected just 11 percent of the time.
“It’s always a problem getting on the inside,” Mares said. “I fought a hard, close fight. I fought my heart out, but at the end of the day I’m pleased with my performance.”
All fighters feel pressure, but few more than Santa Cruz, who supports his father, his family in a career he knows won’t last much longer. Fighters like Santa Cruz have a shelf life; when they decline, it’s usually sharply. Santa Cruz made $1 million to face Mares, and he could be in line for a bigger payday against Russell. But in-ring wars take their toll, and Santa Cruz, 29, is approaching the age when you have to think twice about it.
For now, he celebrates. There is mutual respect between Mares and Santa Cruz. The two embraced after the fight, and both Garcia and Jose Santa Cruz bounded into the ring with broad smiles on their faces. Santa Cruz and Mares could fight 20 times — Mares is already calling for a third — and each would be entertaining. Styles make fights, and Santa Cruz and Mares are a perfect fit.
Said promoter Richard Schaefer, “They have created a new definition of ‘toe-to-toe.’ ”
Late Saturday night, Santa Cruz walked the bowels of Staples Center, Jose alongside, pushed by family members in a wheelchair, a dark cowboy hat on his head. The cancer is gone, but the pain remains, with the metal plate doctor’s inserted in Jose’s back causing daily discomfort. On Friday, the pain was so bad, he nearly skipped the weigh-in. Leo told him: Dad, you don’t have to work the corner. Dad’s response: I’m going.
“I knew there was something wrong with him,” Santa Cruz said. “He’s a hard man, a tough man, and he wanted to be there, to be in my corner.”
And he will continue to be. If boxing provides the family with financial stability, the daily training feeds its soul.
“Every time he sees me do good, I know it makes him feel better,” Santa Cruz said.
Soon, Santa Cruz will be back in camp, preparing for his next big showdown. There’s little doubt Jose will be there with him.
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