Familiarity breeds success for featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz

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While a lot has changed since Leo Santa Cruz's early days in boxing, a close team comprised of his family members has propelled the three-division titleholder to the top of the sport and once again into the spotlight this Saturday night when he rematches fellow 126-pound champ Abner Mares on Showtime.

When Leo Santa Cruz looks across the ring Saturday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles, he’ll see two familiar faces.

One is Abner Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs), who Santa Cruz defeated by majority decision in 2015. It was a grueling, Fight of the Year-type struggle, where they threw a combined 2,037 punches. The rematch, which headlines a doubleheader on Showtime (10 p.m. ET/PT), promises much of the same.

The other familiar face is Mares’ trainer Robert Garcia.

“I was Leo’s manager when he first turned pro,” Garcia says. “I co-trained him with his father Jose for probably his first 15 fights. In fact, he and my brother Mikey [Garcia] signed their first promotional contract, with Top Rank, the same day.”

Much has changed for Leo (34-1-1, 19 KOs) since then. Most of the faces around him haven’t, Robert Garcia notwithstanding. In the Santa Cruz home, the smell of soiled hand wraps is as common as the aroma from a plate of chilaquiles. But no one thought that Leo, the youngest of four boys, would become a world champion.

Oddly, Leo’s father Jose became a fight fan relatively late in life, at least by Mexican standards. Still, when the family migrated to California, he vowed one of his boys would become a world champion.

Oldest son, Antonio, tried his hand but didn’t stick with it. Second-born Jose Armando became a lightweight contender. He retired in 2010 when doctors discovered swelling in his brain. Third-born Roberto was also forced to retire after being diagnosed with lupus in 2005.

That left Leo, who didn’t take to the gym at first.

“I wanted to be a policeman,” he said. “I wanted to serve out justice and get the bad guys. But then, when I was 8 years old, I was at the gym one day with my dad and my brother and I had never been in the ring. They told me to get in and I did—and I did really good.”

By 12, he was winning state tournaments.

“That’s when I knew I wanted to become a professional boxer,” he said. “My role models were Oscar de la Hoya, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. and Floyd Mayweather.”

Santa Cruz concluded his amateur career with a record of 148-7, turning pro in 2006 at 18.

I think Abner has looked better in recent fights, but not so much that he looks unbeatable or anything. I feel I’ve gotten much better as well. I’m a more complete fighter and it’s going to help me look even better this time. Featherweight World Champ Leo Santa Cruz

Six years later, he won his first world title, the vacant IBF 118-pound belt, via unanimous decision over Vusi Malinga. He’s since won titles at 122 and 126 pounds.

“A lot of times when a trainer or manager ends a business relationship with a fighter, they hate them or never want to talk to them again,” Garcia says. “But I’m happy for Leo. He’s accomplished so much for himself, for his dad, and his brothers.”

Santa Cruz suffered his first defeat in July 2016, when Carl Frampton beat him by majority decision. In the rematch, he stunned experts—and Frampton—by eschewing his high-volume, pressure-cooker style in favor of a more technical one. Santa Cruz worked behind his jab, using angles and counterpunches to reclaim his strap.

Today, Leo, 29, is the WBA’s “super” featherweight world champion. The gym is full of the same voices he’s heard his whole life. Father Jose, 58, is the head trainer. Brother Antonio is his co-trainer. Two years ago, Jose was sidelined with myeloma. The cancer is now in remission, but the insertion of a metal plate in his back causes him pain on a near-daily basis.

“Before, I really couldn’t concentrate in my training,” Leo says. “I was thinking about if he’s going to be with me in the camp or if he’s going to be with me in the fight or if he’s going to wake up today or tomorrow.

“Now, I could focus, and I could relax, and I don’t have to worry about dad. So, this has been a great camp and I’m glad my dad’s there. That way, I can concentrate and put 100 percent into my boxing.”

After falling short in their first encounter, Mares enlisted the help of Garcia four months later. He’s shown improvement in subsequent bouts versus Jesus Cuellar and Andres Gutierrez.

“I was at the first fight and I thought that Abner looked for big single punches too much and fought too rough of a fight,” Garcia says. “He made it harder on himself. It was still a very close fight despite that. With a little more speed and by fighting smart going in and out, Abner could make a huge leap in his performance this time out.”

Santa Cruz says Mares isn’t the only one who evolved.

“I think Abner has looked better in recent fights, but not so much that he looks unbeatable or anything,” he said. “I feel I’ve gotten much better as well. I’m a more complete fighter and it’s going to help me look even better this time.”

As with the Frampton rematch, when Santa Cruz unexpectedly outboxed him, this sequel might be more technical than brutal. Or maybe their familiarity breeds an old-fashioned Mexican war.

For a closer look at Santa Cruz vs Mares, check out our fight page.

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