Leo Santa Cruz brings the pain to Kiko Martinez in blistering title defense

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It was a vintage look, the Leo Santa Cruz equivalent of bellbottom jeans, ghastly pink leg warmers or some crusty old concert tee that hipsters pay too much for at second-hand shops.

Leo Santa Cruz

In an offensive explosion, Leo Santa Cruz threw 140 punches in Round 1 alone and close to 600 overall in his ravaging fifth-round TKO win over Kiko Martinez on Saturday. (Stephanie Trapp/Showtime)

On Saturday, Leo Santa Cruz (32-0-1, 18 KOs) defended his 126-pound title for the first time by turning in the kind of frenetic, defense-be-damned performance that made him must-see TV as a rising young fighter fond of blasting forth at a breakneck pace, as though his heart pumped Red Bull.

From the opening bell at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, Santa Cruz overwhelmed iron-willed Kiko Martinez (35-7, 26 KOs), a former 122-pound champion who came to fight until he had no more fight left in him.

Referee Raul Caiz Sr. finally saved Martinez from himself in Round 5, stopping the bout and giving Santa Cruz a TKO victory.

Last time out, against former multi-division champ Abner Mares in August, Santa Cruz won the biggest fight of his career by displaying a different side of himself in the ring.

Normally a dogged pressure fighter and high-volume puncher, Santa Cruz slugged it out with Mares early on before adjusting his strategy by relying on his height and reach advantages to box from the outside.

It was something Santa Cruz had seldom, if ever, done before, but it paid off, as the 27-year-old skillfully employed his jab to diffuse his bomb-throwing opponent.

Against Martinez, however, Santa Cruz returned to his old, breathless self, throwing a staggering 140 punches in Round 1 alone (and close to 600 total), willfully fighting on the inside against the shorter Martinez, seemingly intent on delivering a crowd-pleasing performance.

“When two guys go toe-to-toe and they go back and forth, the crowd gets crazy. They love it. I saw that, and I wanted to please the fans a little bit,” Santa Cruz said. “When they start screaming, that’s when you get motivated. You want to go out there and throw more punches.”

Santa Cruz jumped on Martinez early, flooring him twice in Round 1 with a straight right hand and a head-snapping right uppercut, respectively.

It looked like the fight might be akin to the act of losing one’s virginity: over before it started.

“After the second knockdown, I thought his legs were kind of wobbly, so I said, ‘I don’t think he’s going to be able to survive,’” Santa Cruz recalled. “But I couldn’t catch him cleanly after that. He survived. He came out stronger.”

Indeed, Martinez, who got hit like a human heavy bag on this night, was willing to take the punishment in order to mete out some of his own.

And the 29-year-old native of Argentina who fights out of Spain successfully pressured Santa Cruz throughout the night, bullying him into the ropes, charging at him relentlessly and forcing the champ to often fought on his heels.

The game, gritty Martinez worked well behind his jab and landed some nice uppercuts of his own, getting inside time and time again, and even bloodying Santa Cruz’s nose.

But Santa Cruz was simply too much for his smaller, outgunned opponent, landing at will with just about every kind of shot imaginable—uppercuts, hooks, jabs, body shots, oh my!

At one point in Round 3, the three-division champion rocked Martinez with 12 unanswered blows.

Still, Santa Cruz was there to be hit as well—he got dropped after getting tagged by a left hook in Round 2, but the ref ruled it a slip.

Early on, Santa Cruz—much to the chagrin of his father and trainer Jose Santa Cruz—fought Martinez’s game. He just beat him at it.

“My dad was mad, because I wasn’t doing what I had to do,” Santa Cruz says. “He was telling me, ‘At a distance, you can beat him easily; don’t let him get those shots in.’ That’s when I started boxing him.”

And so beginning in Round 4, Santa Cruz started pumping his jab more effectively and controlling the range in the fight, leaving the aggressive Martinez with little alternative other than to eat punch after punch, gorging on violence, whenever he attempted to engage.

By Round 5, after Santa Cruz cornered Martinez and ravaged him with a cloudburst of fists, Caiz had seen enough, stopping the scheduled 12-round bout. 

Martinez didn’t protest the stoppage.

He came up empty, but not before valiantly emptying his tank in the process.

“I expected him to come forward with everything he’s got, and that’s what he did,” Santa Cruz said. “He’s a tough fighter.”

Earlier on Saturday, 122-pound champ Carl Frampton collected yet another title when he earned a split decision over Scott Quigg in front of a raucous crowd in Manchester, England.

Frampton has hinted that he might be ready to move up in weight, and has mentioned Santa Cruz as a desired oppoonent. Consider Santa Cruz ready and willing for such a showdown.

“Frampton I think would be a great fight,” Santa Cruz said, before turning his attention to a pair of current 126-pound titleholders. “Lee Selby. [Jesus] Cuellar. I’m up for any of them. I want the bigger fights.”

For full coverage of Santa Cruz vs Martinez, visit our fight page.

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