Two things about Leo Santa Cruz that aren’t debatable: He’s a world-class fighter and a first-class guy.
Pick a positive adjective, any positive adjective—humble, genuine, polite, appreciative, easygoing, respectful—they all apply to the soft-spoken, three-time world champion from Los Angeles.
So when we recently sat down with Leo Santa Cruz ahead of Saturday’s 126-pound world title rematch with champion Carl Frampton in Las Vegas (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT), we knew the 28-year-old Mexican-American would give just as strong and compelling a performance as he does in the ring.
Here’s what we didn’t know, though: The only thing he loves more than throwing body punches is Chinese food. And the only thing he loves more than Chinese food is Jean-Claude Van Damme. Yes, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Read on to learn more …
One of the sparring partners who helped get you ready for your rematch with Carl Frampton was former 118-pound world champion Tomoki Kameda. How was Kameda beneficial to you?
Tomoki’s a really good boxer with quick hands, and he really helped with Frampton’s style. Tomoki’s faster than Frampton, so that’s really going to help me out a lot.
For your first fight with Frampton, your father and lifelong trainer, Jose, was in the midst of undergoing treatment for bone cancer and wasn’t a fixture at training camp. How much did your father’s illness affect your pre-fight preparations?
When I went to the gym, I wasn’t really focused on training. I wasn’t mentally there. For this fight, I am. When I’m at the gym now, and my dad is pushing me or my brother is pushing me, I’m going to push myself hard.
For the first fight, I was nothing like that. My dad wasn’t there in the gym, so I was thinking about him and how he was doing. My brother had other fighters to attend to. So when he wasn’t watching, I wasn’t always training at my best like I should have.
I was wondering if my dad was in pain, or if he would make it through the cancer and be with us. My mind wasn’t really there in the gym, but this time around, it’s much different. For the last camp, we really missed my dad.
Switching gears, if you could spend 20 minutes picking the brain of any fighter in history—living or dead—who would it be and what would you want to know?
Floyd Mayweather. Mayweather’s really smart with his money. And in the ring, fighters will try to move around and emulate his style and not get hit, but they get hit because they can’t do it.
Floyd was really smart with his defense, and he threw punches and you couldn’t hit him. I would like to pick Floyd’s brain and learn how to do it. I would like to have his movement.
“ Since I was really small, there was no movie of Jean-Claude Van Damme's that I wouldn’t try to watch. ... I’ve probably watched every single Jean-Claude Van Damme movie there is. ” Leo Santa Cruz
Who’s the one fighter in history you wish you could’ve fought, and how do you think such a fight would’ve played out?
That would be Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. I’ve watched him since I was a young fighter. I like how he came forward and worked the body and [how] he fought anybody. I would like to test myself against him to see how I would do.
The fight would be a toe-to-toe war, because Chavez would come forward and I would go forward and work the body, so it would be a battle. He might beat me, but I would like to see what I could do against him and how far I could go.
If you had the ability to change your body type, what’s the one weight class you wish you could compete in, and who in that division would you like to fight?
I would go up in weight and fight in the 147- or 154-pound divisions during the time when you had Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Fernando Vargas and all of those big fighters. I would like to fight all those guys, because during that time, they were the best, and I would like to be right there with them.
Finish this sentence: If not for boxing, I would …
… probably be a cop. Since I was young, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always say a police officer. I want to help people and catch criminals.
I don’t like to see all of the violence, so I would like to protect people and serve them and make sure that the world is a better place.
How old were you the first time you put on a pair of boxing gloves and stepped into the ring, and do you remember your emotions at that moment?
I was 8 years old, and it was my brother and my dad. My dad told me to put on a pair of gloves and spar with another kid. At first, I was scared and nervous, but at the same time I was excited, like, “Yeah, I wanna train.”
From the first round, I was ready and I loved it. I went out and I threw a lot of punches. I was just throwing and throwing against the other kid, who already had had about eight months of training. I did really well against him, and from that day on, I loved boxing.
But was it love at first punch, or did it take a while for the sport to grow on you?
It took a while to grow on me. Initially, I was excited, but I only did it because my brother was doing it and my dad wanted me to do it, so I went ahead and tried it out.
I was maybe 13 or 14 years old when I realized that this was what I truly wanted and that I could really make something out of it.
Not including yourself, who is the best fighter in your division right now?
Right now, I think it’s Carl Frampton, because he beat Scott Quigg and then he beat me—two undefeated fighters—and he’s really great. So right now, it has to be Carl Frampton.
Describe what it feels like to land the perfect punch.
It feels unbelievable to land the perfect punch, and for me, that’s the body shot. When you land it and you can feel the reaction from the other fighter, it’s something that is hard to explain.
When you land that perfect body punch and your opponent goes down, it’s what you work hardest for and you love to see those results in a fight. When I land the body shot to the right spot, my opponent is going down, no matter what.
So is it safe to say your favorite punch to throw is to the body?
Yes, body shots with either hand. I landed that punch a lot against Eric Morel [in a 118-pound title defense in September 2012]. I kept throwing them and throwing them until Morel decided that he couldn’t come out anymore, and he quit for the first time in his career.
What’s the one meal or cuisine that’s the toughest to give up while training for a fight?
There is this place nearby in Lincoln Heights, [California], called Boda Restaurant, and they make great Chinese food—great fried rice and kung pao chicken. There’s not a week that I don’t eat there at least once. But when it gets close to training, I can’t go there.
But one week while training, I had people bring it to my hotel, I was craving it so much. I waited until after the weigh-in, and I ate it. If I don’t go once or twice a week, I feel like I’m missing something.
What’s the one thing about the life of a pro boxer that most fight fans don’t understand?
Sometimes fans think that the fighters don’t want to take pictures with them or sign autographs, but sometimes, the [public relations] people don’t let us because we’re in the middle of getting ready for interviews or for fights and things like that.
I love to sign autographs and take pictures, but sometimes the [fight organizers] get upset with us if we stop for fans because we have to go to press conferences and they’re telling us we have to leave.
The fans, they don’t always see that. They think that it’s the fighters [turning down the requests], but it’s not the fighters; it’s the people who are waiting for us and pulling us in a different direction.
What is the first boxing match you recall watching, and what effect did it have on you?
It was Chavez against Oscar De La Hoya. Chavez was my idol and a champion I wanted to grow up to be like. He threw big punches. I watched the fans that he had and the screams and support that he received, and I wanted to be a champion like he was.
Who is your favorite comedian and why?
I like Adam Sandler, and I like Jackie Chan for his action movies. Kevin Hart is also really funny. So those are probably the three.
Who is your favorite actor?
Jean-Claude Van Damme. Since I was really small, there was no movie of his that I wouldn’t try to watch. The ones I couldn’t go and watch, I would rent them or look them up. I’ve probably watched every single Jean-Claude Van Damme movie there is.
What is your favorite movie of all time?
Kickboxer starring Van Damme. He gets hurt by another fighter, trains really hard like never before and comes back for revenge. That’s a motivational movie for me, and I’ve watched it over and over again.
If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would you want to portray you?
Jean-Claude Van Damme. [Laughs.] I don’t think he speaks Spanish, but I think he would do a good job because he’s a great fighter and actor. Not sure if he could learn Spanish, but other than that, he’d be great.
Which animal in the wild best describes your personality?
A lion. They say lions are really calm, but once you get them angry, they’re dominant, and that’s how I think I am.
Finish this sentence: People would be surprised to learn that I …
… love Freddie Mercury’s music from Queen. I’m probably going to come out to one of his songs before my next fight, “We Will Rock You.” It’s going to be that one and some Mexican music.
If you could have dinner with four people in the history of the world, who would be on your guest list?
That’s tough, because there are a lot of people. I’ve met Julio Cesar Chavez, but he would be one of them. The others would be Jean-Claude Van Damme, Muhammad Ali and [Lionel] Messi, the professional soccer player.
If you could change one thing in the world, what is it?
For people not to die. I would like people to live forever.
What’s on your bucket list?
I want to travel all over the world with my family when I retire. I want to get to know my fans and just people in general all around the world.
“12 Rounds With ...” is published weekly at PremierBoxingChampions.com. Coming tomorrow: 126-pound world champion Carl Frampton.