Abner Mares knows there are questions concerning whether or not he’s damaged goods—not physically, but mentally.
Some wonder if the three-division champion’s psyche is still fragile some two years removed from his first-round knockout loss to Jhonny Gonzalez in August 2013—a defeat that cost him a championship.
Mares has ripped off three straight victories since that loss, and yet the whispers continue: Is Mares shot mentally?
Abner Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs) plans to silence those whispers once and for all Saturday night when he faces Leo Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs) in a 126-pound clash of Mexican-born Angelenos at Staples Center in Los Angeles (ESPN, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).
“In his mind, [Santa Cruz believes] it’s the right time to fight me,” Mares says. “I got knocked out two years ago. I’m done. I'm vulnerable. But if he thinks that, he’s made a mistake by taking this fight.”
Mares is miffed that the loss to Gonzalez has caused many to dismiss—if not completely forget—his four-fight run between August 2011 and May 2013, during which he earned world championships at 118, 122 and 126 pounds.
“Does Abner have a chip on his shoulder? The answer is, yes, I definitely do see a chip on his shoulder for this particular fight,” says Luis Garcia, a four-year assistant to head trainer Clemente Medina and someone who has known Mares for 10 years. “It’s like, ‘I’ve had some great wars, and people still don’t respect me.’”
Mares, 29, is known as a strategic, crowd-pleasing, boxer-puncher with calculated power and infighting ability. But he admits that his post-Gonzalez winning streak has come against lesser opponents, which might explain why some question his mental state.
“My last three opponents have not been top-level guys,” he says. “So I’m motivated for Leo and a challenge to bring out the best in me.”
Mares returned to Medina, his longtime trainer, after one fight under veteran cornerman Virgil Hunter: a win by unanimous decision over Jonathan Oquendo in July 2014. Some thought Mares fought tentatively against Oquendo when he suffered a cut over his left eye in a fight that ended an 11-month ring absence after his loss to Gonzalez.
“People said he was mentally affected after Gonzalez, but Abner fought the way Virgil Hunter asked him to fight,” Garcia says. “Maybe that wasn’t the crowd-pleasing style that people are used to seeing from Abner, but it wasn’t that he was mentally defeated. He’s taken more criticism than he should.”
In Mares' last fight, in March, he dropped Arturo Santos Reyes in the second round, but had to settle for a unanimous-decision victory that hardly resembled his past dominance.
That somewhat passive effort against Reyes is the reason some are backing Santa Cruz in this fight, believing Mares won’t be able to deal with the 27-year-old’s hard-charging style. Mares scoffs at such a notion, insisting he’ll be more than willing to trade with Santa Cruz.
In fact, he thinks his doubters should go view tape of his opponent. If they did, he says they’d be asking some different questions.
“I can be aggressive at times, and if the opportunity presents itself, why not?” Mares says. “Can [Santa Cruz] box? Well, I haven't seen in it the past. But I can expect the best version of Leo in the ring."
Likewise, Garcia says Santa Cruz better be ready for a peak performance from his fighter.
“As far as balance, strength, conditioning and mental focus, Abner’s on another level, and feels that Leo isn’t on that level,” Garcia says. “Abner doesn’t talk too much about it, but … we’re kind of on the B-side [of this matchup], and I know he doesn’t like it.
"Where Abner’s from, it’s about respect, and he doesn’t feel like he’s getting that. I think he has something personal he wants to get off his chest, like, ‘I’m going to get it back. I’m going to take what’s mine.’ If Abner fights exactly as he should, this is an easy fight.”
For complete coverage of Santa Cruz vs Mares, visit our fight page.