How seeing his big brother get robbed in the ring turned Leo Santa Cruz into a better fighter

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It was a loss that wasn’t, a would-be win that dissipated as quickly as the smoke that must have been clouding the judges’ eyes.

Leo Santa Cruz

Jose Armando Santa Cruz helps his brother Leo train in the gym.

In telling the story of Leo Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs), a chapter has to be dedicated to a big robbery in the ring that helped begat an even bigger career in the sport.

In December 2007, Santa Cruz’s oldest brother, Jose Armando Santa Cruz, the firstborn in a family of fighters, took on wily, world-class technician Joel Casamayor for an interim 135-pound title. Much more than that was on the line at the time: The winner would be poised for a lucrative fight in the then-loaded division, including whispers of a possible clash with Manny Pacquiao, who was looking to move up from 130 pounds after his rematch with Juan Manuel Marquez the following spring.

From the opening bell, Jose Santa Cruz straight honey badger-ed his opponent, dropping him in the first round, burying him in an avalanche of punches.

Casamayor, normally as slippery in the ring as sweat-slicked canvas, couldn’t keep Santa Cruz off of him: The latter was like lint on Velcro, sticking with Casamayor wherever he went, a human storm cloud raining fists.

It was a one-sided wipeout, Santa Cruz’s finest hour, his performance positioning him for the kind of fights that lead to higher tax brackets. scored the fight 119-108 for Santa Cruz. HBO’s Harold Lederman favored Santa Cruz by a similarly wide margin: 118-109.

And then the judges’ scores were read: One had it 114-113 for Santa Cruz, still a head-scratchingly close call, but at least it was in favor of Santa Cruz. The other two judges, though, incredulously had it 114-113 for Casamayor.

As the fighters hit the showers, the rightfully displeased crowd in New York’s Madison Square Garden showered the decision in boos.

“It was hard to believe,” Jose says. “I thought I won at least eight rounds, easy.”

It was arguably the worst decision of the past decade, rivaled only perhaps by Paul Williams’ July 2011 gift over Erislandy Lara. But in that instance, the judges were at least suspended afterward.

After Santa Cruz was robbed, no one was held accountable.

Casamayor would subsequently go on to fight undefeated Aussie Michael Katsidis and take his interim title.

But things were never the same for Jose Santa Cruz, whose next bout was against Miguel Angel Munguia, a club fighter who would end his career with more losses than wins. Hardly the stuff of which six-figure paydays are made.

Though Santa Cruz continued on for a time, he’d never get another title shot that he clearly deserved. A couple of years later, Santa Cruz had a mandatory pre-fight CT scan, which revealed swelling in his brain. Just like that, his career was over.

“They told me, ‘That’s it. You can’t fight anymore,'” Santa Cruz recalls doctors telling him.

Leo Santa Cruz, who takes on Abner Mares in a 126-pound clash in Los Angeles on August 29, was 19 when his older brother fought Casamayor, and watching the scores being announced was an especially sour experience.

“It was upsetting,” he says. “I remember I was at another brother’s house, watching the fight and we were happy, ‘He won.’ His next fight was probably going to be for a title. And then we heard the decision. It was frustrating, because we couldn’t do anything.”

But in a way, Leo did do something: He turned Jose’s setback into a lesson that he wouldn't forget.

“It taught me to train hard and to always try to win really convincingly or by knockout,” Leo says. “Be tough and throw a lot of punches—that’s what I learned.”

While Jose was a pressure fighter, Leo took high-volume punching to another level, defining himself by his indefatigable work rate. And he’s done so with Jose at his side.

“I’m here every day with him in the gym, pushing him to work harder in all his fights," Jose says. "He’s learned pretty good from my decisions, my experiences, my negatives. He learned a lot of things from me."

Namely, how to learn from his brother's tough luck and become tougher still.

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

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