Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares both publicly agreed that with wins on Saturday evening, the next logical step was a rematch of their August 2015 classic slugfest.
An unspoken agreement came of their respective performances, both turning in near-perfect performances in separate legs of a Premier Boxing Champions on Fox telecast Saturday evening from the StubHub Center in Carson, California.
Santa Cruz made the first defense of his second tour as featherweight champion with a one-sided 8th round stoppage of Chris Avalos in the evening’s main event. The win was every bit as dominant as Mares’ technical unanimous decision victory over Mexico’s Andres Gutierrez in the co-main event, pitching a near-shutout to register the first defense of his featherweight belt.
By the time he entered the ring for his own title defense, Santa Cruz was already able to take in the masterpiece turned in by Mares, whom he outpointed more than two years ago to begin his first featherweight title run. Having since lost and regained his title in a pair of thrillers with Carl Frampton, the free-swinging pressure fighter from California by way of Mexico sought to make a statement on the heels of a career-long nine-month layoff, wasting no time in immediately taking the fight to Avalos.
The opening three minutes set the tone for how much of the main event would play out. Avalos refused to back down, but was miserably outgunned in what served as his second career title fight. A high octane opening round for Santa Cruz was punctuated with a pair of right hands that briefly shook his challenger.
Avalos did his best to stand his ground, showing a willingness to trade with the defending champion in rounds two and three but paying a heavy price. Santa Cruz ended round three with another booming right hand and had the Lancaster, Calif. product in serious trouble in round four. When a stoppage didn’t present itself, he made sure to heed the advice of his father and trainer, Jose Santa Cruz in between rounds.
“I had a long layoff, I was trying to go in there and please the fans, brawl and go toe-to-toe,” Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 KOs) admitted after the win. “I wasn't doing what my corner was telling me I was trying too hard to please the crowd. Then my dad told me, “What are you doing in there, you need to box.”
Just as he listened to his father in making an optional defense before heading into a Mares rematch, Santa Cruz decided to slow down just enough to make it a boxing match in the middle rounds. It was still target practice for the defending champion, who landed 42% of his punches over the course of the evening, but none bigger than the volley of shots to end the contest.
Santa Cruz had Avalos in trouble late in round seven, and decided the night had lasted long enough. Round eight saw the four-time champion in three weight divisions pour on a power-punching assault, connecting on a staggering 70% of his power punches in prompting referee Thomas Taylor to stop the contest with Avalos still on his feet.
The official time was 1:34 of round eight.
With the rust-shaking optional defense out of the way, the defending champion can go back to focusing on bigger game.
“I said before tonight, if I won this fight and Abner Mares won his fight, let’s get it on for the first fight [of 2018],” insists Santa Cruz. “I wanted to take this fight first to see how my body feels. Now we’re ready for Mares.”
“ I said before tonight, if I won this fight and Abner Mares won his fight, let’s get it on for the first fight [of 2018]. ” Leo Santa Cruz, following his defeat of Chris Avalos
It seems Mares is equally as ready for such an event, though having to settle for a technical decision win over Gutierrez.
The initial reaction suggested that the 2004 Mexican Olympian and three-division world champion had produced a stoppage win. The bout was halted due to a cut over Gutierrez’ left eye that gushed from round two onward, a testament to the level of commitment put forth by Mares, who knew when to slug and when to box over the course of their featherweight title fight.
“I’m 31 and looked 27 years old in there tonight,” quipped Mares (31-2-1 15KOs), though an odd statement to make considering what took place in his career when he was in fact 27 years old. It was a year that produced his first career loss, a stunning 1st round knockout at the hands of Jhonny Gonzalez in this very venue on a night designed to lead to a showdown with Santa Cruz while both were still unbeaten.
Mares has since won five of his past six starts, the lone loss coming at the hands of Santa Cruz in Aug. ’15. He rebounded with a title-lifting points win over Jesus Cuellar last December, and battered Gutierrez in his first defense. A stoppage victory appeared imminent the moment Mares sliced a cut over his challenger’s left eye in round two, which in fact came from a punch.
The wound served as a bullseye and only worsened over the course of the contest. Gutierrez did his best to make a fight of it, but would only earn points for his bravery and durability as he never hit the deck.
He did, however, hit a wall as referee Jack Reiss decided in round ten that the cut was severe enough to require medical attention. The ringside physician offered a brief examination before deciding the 24-year old from Mexico was no longer fit to continue. Because it was determined the cut worsened from a clash of heads, though, the bout went to the scorecards.
Mares was denied a stoppage victory, but scores of 99-91 (twice) and 100-90 declared him winner and still champion.
“I thought they could have stopped it earlier,” said Mares. “He's a young guy who was too brave for his own good.
“I was happy with the decision. I deserved the stoppage but I'm happy I got the win.”
It may not have been the finish he preferred, but still enough of a statement sent to the opponent he really wanted on this evening.
“Leo…we gotta do this (again), baby,” Mares noted after the fight. “I’m thinking March, April… I’m ready to go.”
Opening the telecast, former lightweight champion Antonio DeMarco turned in an entry for Upset of the Year with a stunning 1st round stoppage of previously unbeaten super lightweight prospect Eduardo Ramirez.