Count Leo Santa Cruz among those who absolutely believe that father knows best.
Last summer, as he prepared to defend his 126-pound world title against former 122-pound champion Carl Frampton, Santa Cruz didn’t have his father and trainer, Jose Santa Cruz, by his side for much of training camp. That’s because the elder Santa Cruz was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for bone cancer.
Jose Santa Cruz would intermittently show up at Who’s Next Boxing Academy in La Puente, California, where Leo Santa Cruz trains. But the visits were infrequent, leaving most of the training duties to the three-division champion’s older brother, Antonio.
As much as Leo Santa Cruz tried to hear the inspiring voice of his father in that of his sibling, there was no escaping reality: Training camp for this bout was distinctly different than the 33 that preceded it.
“From the beginning of my career, my dad has known how to push me [when] training me for my fights,” says Santa Cruz, 28. “I tried to hear him because he’s intense, like ‘You’re dropping your hands’ or ‘You have to throw punches, keeping your hands up for three minutes of every round.’
“My brother was there, but he works with some other fighters. So I wasn’t getting pressure like, ‘Move your head after a punch,’ or, ‘Throw these punches like this.’”
In addition to not having his father in his ear for many of his workouts, Leo Santa Cruz had to deal with the emotional burden that comes with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Preparing for a world-class fighter such as Frampton is tough enough; trying to do so while your father is fighting for his life is monumentally challenging for even the most mentally focused boxer.
And while Santa Cruz is reluctant to use his father’s illness as an excuse for his majority-decision loss to Frampton on July 30 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, he acknowledges that concern for his dad negatively impacted everything—from sparring to gym work to roadwork to pre-fight strategy.
So even though Jose Santa Cruz was well enough to travel to New York and assist in his son’s corner on fight night, his absence in training camp was crucial.
“I missed hearing my dad correcting my mistakes,” Santa Cruz says. “If Antonio wasn’t on top of me, I’d get lazy, work in the gym for a little bit and then leave. I couldn’t focus mentally. I was too worried about my dad.”
“ I think [my health] was the major difference in his last fight. Leo wasn’t defending the way he should have. He threw sluggish, slow punches without blocking. I’m getting him back on point. ” Jose Santa Cruz, father and trainer of Leo Santa Cruz
The good news is Jose Santa Cruz’s cancer is in remission, and father and son have been reunited full time for a shot at redemption January 28, when Santa Cruz (32-1-1, 18 KOs) looks to regain his title against Frampton (23-0, 14 KOs) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).
Having been fully involved in training camp from the start, Jose Santa Cruz believes Frampton will see a version of his son that was absent in the first meeting.
“I’m happy to be in Leo’s training camp again,” Jose Santa Cruz says. “My cancer is dormant right now, and I feel like I’m recuperating and getting back to my normal self. I’m making sure that everything is fine and doing well with the doctors.
“I think [my health] was the major difference in his last fight. Leo wasn’t defending the way he should have. He threw sluggish, slow punches without blocking. I’m getting him back on point, making sure he doesn’t let up. I’m back pressuring him again and making sure he keeps the pressure on his opponent.”
A 29-year-old native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Frampton is the second Irishman to win two world titles—joining former 160- and 168-pound champion Steve Collins—and the first Northern Irishman to accomplish the feat in his second-ever fight on U.S. soil.
Frampton has admitted that Jose Santa Cruz’s cancer likely affected his opponent’s mindset leading into their first meeting. That said, the 5-foot-5, granite-chinned champion believes he won the fight fair and square, and he’s confident he’ll once again prove he’s the superior fighter.
Conversely, Leo Santa Cruz is eager to turn the tables and avenge his only professional defeat.
“I let myself down,” Santa Cruz says of the first fight with Frampton. “I made a lot of mistakes. But my dad’s pushing me harder, my brother’s pushing me and I’m pushing myself. I’m energized to do the things we didn’t do the first time—throw more combinations, more head movement.
“I’m stronger in sparring, my lateral movement and power are great. I’m going to be on top of Frampton, not give him chances to counterpunch. We’re going to try to break Frampton down to the body and look for the knockout. If not, we want a clear decision to regain my title and prove I’m better than him.”
For complete coverage of Frampton vs. Santa Cruz, visit our fight page.