Abner Mares has encountered many tough battles in the ring throughout his 10-year professional career. But in his mind, no challenge he’s faced can match the one Belen Martinez stared down more than 20 years ago, when—in search of a better life for her family—she made the treacherous journey with her children from their native Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, to Los Angeles.
A 7-year-old Mares was among those children.
“She immigrated with seven of us to the United States. She worked three jobs to support us. She did so much for my brothers, my sisters and myself,” Mares says. “I tell everybody that I get my strength, my character—all of that—from my mom. She’s my superhero.”
But that superhero won’t be ringside August 29 when Abner Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs) faces former two-division champion Leo Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs) in a 126-pound clash at Staples Center in Los Angeles (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT, ESPN).
It’s not because Martinez can’t be there. It’s because watching her son in the ring is the one thing that makes her flinch.
“Every mom gets nervous about watching their son fight,” says Mares, a former three-division champion. “In my mom’s case, her last time seeing me fight live was Jhonny Gonzalez at the StubHub Center, and we all know what happened there.”
In that August 2013 fight, Gonzalez stunned Mares with a first-round knockout, costing Mares his 126-pound championship in his very first title defense. The only one in the building who hurt more than Mares that night was Martinez.
“We were just talking about it, and she said, ‘Son, I’m sorry; I’m not going to be able to go to your fight,’” Mares says. “She said, ‘I might not even watch it on TV,’ so she’ll just wait for the result.”
Against Santa Cruz, Mares, 29, will be after his fourth straight victory since the Gonzalez loss. The two Mexican-born, L.A.-based fighters not only will be fighting for Mares’ 126-pound title, but also for local bragging rights.
“We’re both representing L.A., and we’re both feeling that it’s our town,” says Mares, who grew up in the Hawaiian Gardens section of Los Angeles. “But I feel that I’ve accomplished more than he has for the right to say this is my town. I’m going to prove it on August 29.”
Although his mother won’t be there to see it, Mares says he’ll definitely feel her presence, having long been inspired by her courage and toughness—character traits Martinez displayed when she brought the family to America after separating from Mares’ father, Ismael Mares.
“My mom suffered in her marriage. She didn’t have an easy life in Mexico,” Mares says. “I still remember taking the three-day bus ride from Guadalajara to Tijuana, and then getting there, and my mom not having a single cent.”
So his mother improvised.
“My dad at the time was still in Mexico,” Mares says. “He sold watches, so my mom brought a lot of his merchandise with us and would have my older brother start selling it at the bus station so we could get enough money to get to the U.S.”
Three years after Martinez settled her family in L.A., Ismael Mares crossed the border himself, and the two eventually reconciled.
“To this day, they live together,” Mares says. “And I’m happy that they do.”
For complete coverage of Santa Cruz vs Mares, visit our fight page.