Grace under pressure: How Leo Santa Cruz is handling the hype heading into his showdown with Abner Mares

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The pressure fighter points to his temple when asked how he’s coping with all the pressure suddenly directed his way.

Leo Santa Cruz

Leo Santa Cruz is training for the biggest fight of his career against Abner Mares.

Leo Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs) smiles as he does so, because, well, smiling is kind of his thing, his sheepish grin brightening his features with the frequency of a strobe light’s near-constant flash.

“I think of my goals, the future, how I see my family if I get the win,” he says of navigating the great expectations currently avalanching toward his August 29 showdown with Abner Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs). “I think of the fans, their reaction. I just think of that and relax.”

In person, Santa Cruz seems to be in a permanent statement of relaxation, an affable, obliging presence so easygoing, it’s as if he spends his downtime huffing scented candles.

In the ring, though, Santa Cruz is the opposite: a ball of fire, singeing opponents with a heart-palpitating work rate.

Basically, he overwhelms. The numbers highlight as much.

In 2012, Santa Cruz’s best and busiest year when he fought and won five times, he threw more power punches than any other fighter in the sport (853), averaged 99 punches thrown per round and became just the 30th fighter in the history of punch-tabulating system CompuBox to land more than 400 blows in a title fight.

Santa Cruz threw a whopping 1,350 punches—landing 410—against Vusi Malinga in June 2012 and landed 65 power shots in a single round against Eric Morel that September, both a staggering amount.

Since then, momentum has been building for Santa Cruz to be tested against a marquee opponent. In Mares, a former three-division champion and fellow Mexican-American Angeleno, Santa Cruz will finally get to measure himself against the caliber of fighter that he sees himself as.

“I know the last opponents that I’ve fought haven’t been as big as him, so for me to fight Mares, I’ve got to prove a lot,” Santa Cruz says. “I’ve got to show that I’m not only here to fight lower-class fighters, I’m here to fight the best.”

Santa Cruz’s showdown with Mares is unquestionably the biggest fight of his career and with that comes all the added trappings—and potential distractions—of a bout of this magnitude. For instance, he’ll have around 100 family members in attendance at Los Angeles’ Staples Center for the bout.

That’s a lot on Santa Cruz’s shoulders as the fight nears.

“This is the future for my family,” he says. “It all depends on this fight. If we get the win, we go to the next level.

“It’s a lot of pressure because a lot of people are putting everything on me,” he adds. “So I’ve got to go out there and make that worth it to them.”

As he speaks, Santa Cruz betrays few nerves. He seldom does.

He’s an even-keeled dude—until he enters the ring. And then the smile fades.

For complete coverage of Santa Cruz vs Mares, visit our fight page.

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