It’s a good rematch but have Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares changed?
Three years is an eternity in boxing, especially in terms of a rematch recapturing the magic of its first encounter. In 2015, Leo Santa Cruz, 34-1-1 (19), played Rock’em Sock’em Robots with Abner Mares, 31-2-1 (15); the duo threw a combined 2,000 punches in a bloody fight that made most long lists for “Fight of the Year.” The fight validated the WBA featherweight champion’s action star status, at the expense of Mares. The impact of those punches took a lot out of both boxers as well. Santa Cruz has only fought four times since, while Mares entered the ring even less, appearing just twice. In this second battle of Los Angeles, the fight is staged at Staples Center again (Showtime 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT) and the well-matched pair have a good chance of recreating the excitement but the winner will probably remain the same.
A lot of faith is being bestowed upon Mares for this rematch. While Mares’ first performance against Santa Cruz was undoubtedly exciting, few debated the result (two judges called it well at 117-111, while Max DeLuca turned in a hard-to-justify 114-114 verdict) or whom the better boxer was over 12 rounds. I am all for a second fight after an exciting opener but would like to believe more in the possibility of the result being reversed. This fight seems, to me at least, boxing’s version of the NBA Finals, in which Cleveland made for a fun opponent but few doubted a Golden State victory.
Perhaps I am giving Mares short shrift. Both men are champions at multiple weights and employ fantastic skill sets but Mares is on the wrong side of 30 and has had to overcome surgery for a detached retina. Mares does have a previously missing bonus of trainer Robert Garcia in his corner (more on that later), who may find an antidote for Santa Cruz’s length and terrific jab that dominated the first fight. There were two pretty bad cuts as well, in the third and 10th rounds, over both eyes, which may have affected Mares’ vision. Either is a valid storyline to explore and lend Mares confidence heading into the rematch.
A great reason for a rematch is that the first drew excellent television ratings (1.641 million viewers on ESPN, which was their best boxing event since 1998), and there is optimism by all for another positive number. The live gate shows similar promise. The duo brings their own set of devotees; a 50/50 house is a good possibility that will create a great atmosphere for TV viewers. It was a determining factor for senior Showtime Manager of Sports Chris DeBlasio wanting the fight staged locally, “The fight crowd in Southern California is knowledgeable, excitable, usually star-studded, as well. It always makes for a great experience in the arena and that translates onto television.”
Promoter Richard Schaefer maintains that the time between fights was necessary for Mares to have a credible chance to avenge his loss, “He regrouped, he hired a new trainer with Robert Garcia, one of the best trainers in the world, and I think Robert has instilled a lot of confidence in him.” That teamwork is key in Schaefer’s mind, “They mesh extremely well. Robert has come up with perfect game plans for Abner in his last two fights, and the chemistry is just something which I really have seen very rarely in the sport. I know as a fact, because I’ve been there with Abner Mares, that he is maybe the best Abner Mares we have seen.”
Though pushing Mares’ redemption factor, Richard Schaefer recognizes a great story when he sees one and pointed out an equally compelling argument for Santa Cruz and his trainer, “I was, of course, impressed with Leo Santa Cruz. He looked spectacular. He looked fast. He looked strong. But what I was made 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. Now to see Leo’s father in full strength! You can just see how that weight has been lifted off Leo’s shoulders.”
Perfection is unattainable in boxing, and, at the opening press conference, Mares addressed how his mindset can overcome a superior skill set, “You think, in boxing, a perfect record is everything? It isn’t. When you lose, you know what makes you a better champion? Getting up, and becoming a champion again. Getting up every time and not quitting. That’s what makes a true champion. I feel great right now. I’m strong and in really good spirits. I feel like I’m going to be peaking at the right time.” Mares said he worked on mistakes, “I can’t go in with the same exact mentality as last time and try to knock Leo’s head off. I have power but I’m not a one-punch knockout artist. I have to be poised and relaxed.”
Like Schaefer, Mares is upbeat about rematch because of the addition of Robert Garcia. “I’m confident because I have such an experienced trainer in my corner. I’m just trying to be the student to his master teachings and absorb everything he tells me. I’m always asking him to push me and tell me when he needs more from me. The difference between our fight in 2015 and now is that I’m a more mature and seasoned fighter. He’s really helped my mental game and given me great guidance. This fight won’t be about physical strength; it’s going to be about the mental tools we have and the ability that we both have to adjust during the fight.”
Luckily for Santa Cruz, he will only have to avoid Abner Mares’ punches, and Santa Cruz wants everyone to know he has not stagnated as a boxer since their first encounter, “He’s shown some improvements but I feel I’ve gotten much better as well. I think Abner has looked better in recent fights but not so much that he looks unbeatable or anything. He says he’s going to box me more this time but it’s easier to say that than to do it.” Santa Cruz noted that fans will urge the boxers into places where Mares may not want to go, “When you get in the ring and hear the fans, they make you want to brawl. Once you hear the crowd, you want to entertain them. You love to hear the people scream.”
A firefight, or direct duel, is what Santa Cruz seeks and contends plays into his strength, as a volume puncher. “I’m going to try to go out there and give the fans a great fight like I always do. I feel like I’m in great condition right now. I feel a lot stronger and even my dad has told me this is as good as he’s seen me look. I’ve learned a lot since the first Mares fight. I’ve learned how to adjust during a fight better. I’m a more complete fighter and it’s going to help me look even better this time.”
Standing still is anathema to Santa Cruz’s entire being, “I’m still as motivated as ever. I have the same hunger as if this fight was for my first title. I never underestimate anyone and always give it my all in the gym. It’s no different heading into this one.” The motivation is to do an even better job this time, “We’re going to try to win bigger this time; I’d definitely love to stop him. If the knockout comes, it comes and if I see an opening, I’m going to take advantage.” Santa Cruz has another advantage which he lacked in the first meeting, “The two fights with (Carl) Frampton definitely made me a better fighter. They gave me a lot of experience and I learned a lot from those fights. I know I’m going to be a better fighter for this fight.”
The next challenge is never far from Santa Cruz’s thoughts and he is already staking out a claim for the future, “I am ready to unify with any of the featherweight champions. Me and (WBC titlist) Gary Russell Jr. fought in the amateurs. He beat me but it was a good fight and I believe I can beat him. I know the tactics I’d use. Hopefully I can get my rematch.” However, Santa Cruz’s father Jose quickly refocused on Mares, “The first fight with Mares was a bit rough and even dirty at times. After four rounds, I felt like they were stealing the fight from us, so I told Leo to tire him out and show that he’s the better boxer.”
Jose also addressed the new brain trust controlling Mares, “I definitely think that Mares will come with new skills to this fight and have a different approach, with his new trainer, now that he’s with Robert Garcia. I think he’ll try to box more and look to get us on the counterpunch.”
Putting this fight together and promoting it has been more of a joy than most for Richard Schaefer. “It’s really a 50/50 fight, I know that it’s going to bring out the best in both fighters. I can give you a lot of reasons why both guys are going to win. Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares are never going to be in a boring fight. They create special action and drama in the ring. The winners are going to be the fight fans every time.” This is boxing at its best, according to Schaefer, “This is the kind of fight that transcends boxing. These are two fighters who are just incapable of being in a boring fight. They put people on their feet.”