12 Rounds With … Abner Mares

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Featherweight world champion talks about his big rematch with Leo Santa Cruz this Saturday on Showtime, fighting in front of his family, and why he has dedicated his life to giving back.

Featherweight champion Abner Mares saw first-hand the sacrifices his mother made for her 11 children when he was growing up. Belen Martinez made a treacherous journey with seven of her children from Guadalajara, Mexico to Los Angeles when Mares was seven years old. She worked three jobs to support them.

Now that Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs) has become a three-division world champion, he honors his mother’s sacrifice by giving back to others.

Mares, who grew up in Hawaiian Gardens, counsels teenagers from rough areas such as South Central and Compton, trains them at his Del Mares Gym in East Los Angeles, and financially provides equipment for the Century Boxing Gym’s amateur program in partnership with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

The Century’s Youth Activity League hosts Mares’ annual back-to-school drive highlighted by the donation of backpacks and other supplies, the champion sponsors a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway, and, in September, he joined a pair of local businesses in loading donations onto trucks headed for earthquake-ravaged Mexico.

Mares meets Leo Santa Cruz this Saturday night in a rematch of their exciting 2015 bout at Staples Center in Los Angeles (Showtime 10 p.m. ET/PT). He talks about fighting in front of his family in his hometown, giving back and the state of the featherweight division.

What does it mean to be fighting with your wife and daughter ringside?

For me, my daughters have never been to one of my fights. Anyone who knows me knows that the women in my life are my strength. From my mother to my wife to my girls, they are my life. Nathalie has been the one at my fights, my mother has not gone and the girls come to the weigh in.

On fight night, my mother or my mother-in-law babysits the girls. But right when this camp started, my daughter Emily, my oldest, told me she wanted to be at the fight to be there for me. I hadn’t felt she was old enough to watch me fight—it’s a lot for your children to watch you give and take punches.

What convinced you to change your mind?

Emily’s words and her request meant so much to me. She’s grown up with me in boxing and has seen the victories and defeats. So I said “Yes,” and I am dedicating this fight, my fifth for a world title, to her. She is such a beautiful, strong and smart young lady.

I know that having her strength and love ringside next to my beautiful wife Nathalie will be more than enough inspiration to bring home a victory. Amber will be home with family that night, but on Sunday, the day after the fight, that will be our time.

How different will this fight be as a result of you working with Robert Garcia?

The motivation was already there, and I’ve always been a fierce fighter, but I’m working with more strength, speed and power now. It’s going to come down to strategy, because, like me, Leo’s motivated, having his father [and trainer Jose Santa Cruz back from cancer] in his corner once again.

That’s major inspiration for Leo to push harder. My motivation is to prove something by winning a championship for the fifth time, and with Robert Garcia, the game plan is going to be a key factor. We’re going to have to execute it perfectly, and with Robert, I’ve got a great voice to listen to.

Would you give Santa Cruz a return bout for a potential trilogy in victory?

It’s beyond critical that I perform at a high level in winning this fight, and, yes, a win might get us that trilogy or else another one of those really big fights or a unification that’s out there.

On the other hand, losing would take me out of any of those big fights. There’s no doubt that I have to go out there and really perform and get this one for the sake of my career.

Is there any added pressure given the recent activity of 126-pounders like Oscar Valdez, Gary Russell Jr., Josh Warrington, Carl Frampton and Tug Nayambayar?

I know where we are in the food chain, and I know what other fights are out there, and I know what this will mean for my career, but I’m really focused only on getting this win against Leo.

If I don’t to that, then, for me, there’s no Russell, there’s no Frampton, there’s no Valdez or anyone else unless I beat Leo Santa Cruz.

How has your past contributed to your charitable efforts?

With my Mom getting us here, and us living in the ghetto, and my Mom working three jobs, there was very little food on our table and I had it tough.

But it’s for those same reasons that I’m a dedicated fighter giving back to the communities I came from. It’s important to financially support the kids.

But what they really want, need and what’s the most important to give them is time out of your life. For example, two weeks ago at a press conference for the fight, there were over 100 kids asking questions.

Can you recall the scene and some interactions?

The kids saw a world champion from their neighborhood being interviewed by a well-known [Showtime analyst] Jim Gray and they saw [Ringstar Sports Promoter] Richard Schaefer in South Central Los Angeles.

Some of the funnier questions they were asking were, “How much was this car you’re driving?” and, “How much money do you make?” and “How big is your house?”

But I understand them, because, for them, that’s going to have great potential for being a life-changing, unforgettable moment to inspire them.

Why are you specifically qualified to quell adverse tension in this growing climate between police and inner city youth?

As a kid growing up in the violence of those communities, I hated cops and thought they were out to get us. They’re out to get the bad guys, but you’re brainwashed into thinking they’re out there to harass you and to make life difficult for you. I used to hate them so much as a teenager.

I actually spit on one of them and paid dearly for it. I remember they busted my ribs and I got beat up pretty badly. I considered pressing charges. So it’s understandable from my standpoint that you can grow up believing that police are you enemies.

Obviously, there is good and bad in everything. But the majority of policemen are out there to help the community and make it better. It’s great seeing the officers spending time with the kids, building trust as they interacting with them. It’s showing kids you can respect police and their duties.

How do you know you’re making a difference?

One thing that left its mark on me was at the press conference, when this 14-year-old kid went out there and spoke, saying, “Abner, I’m really inspired by you. I’m still in the ghetto, and I’m growing up around gang members, and I’ve got it tough.”

His question was, “How did you do it? How do you say no to all of the negativity and the people who are trying to bring you down?” That was a shock, and it’s a very tough question to answer. But I realized that he was me as a kid—someone who really wanted out and really needed help.

I took him aside and said, ‘I know it’s hard, bro, but you just have to want it. You have to really want to make it for yourself.’ He’s one of those kids I’m in the community continuing to fight for in and out of the ring. I have to fight for my people.

Will you remain involved in philanthropy and boxing in retirement?

I’ve always said that you have to use your popularity as a platform to educate and motivate everyone who is watching you. That’s why I do everything I do. Even after retirement, I’m truly going to take advantage of it, going out there and really speaking my mind.

If you want to talk about managing, well, I’m managing fighters right now, and I want to continue to do that as well as to be involved in commentating or anything else to get the word out there. I want to be a spokesman, motivating and empowering.

It’s one thing to be a boxing champion, but I’m not taking my titles or anything with me from this world. What I will be taking is my legacy as far as making a difference and having an effect on someone’s life in and beyond the sport of boxing.

For a closer look at Abner Mares, check out his fighter page. 

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