The WBA 126-pound World Champion has his sights set on potential unification bouts but can’t overlook the dangerous Rivera Saturday Night on FOX.
Last year at this time, the featherweight division was brimming with high-end matchup possibilities. Now, through the process of elimination, only WBA world featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz and WBC counterpart Gary Russell Jr. remain as elite-level players.
All roads lead to a high-stakes unification bout in the immediate future, unless something or someone comes along to turn the boxing world upside down.
This Saturday, February 16, from Microsoft Theater at L.A. in Los Angeles, Premier Boxing Champions presents an important all-Mexican world featherweight title clash between Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 KOs) and the tough Rafael “Big Bang” Rivera (26-2-2, 17 KOs).
Televised coverage on FOX and FOX Deportes begins at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT and includes an all-action welterweight battle between Omar Figueroa Jr. and John Molina Jr.
Santa Cruz, 30, is no stranger to the world stage. The three-division world champion is 14-1 in world title fights. This upcoming challenge will be the third defense of the belt he recaptured from Carl Frampton back in January 2017.
The native of Huetamo, Michoacan, Mexico has been one of the most consistent main stage talents in boxing over the last seven years, delivering an entertaining mix of come-forward Mexican bravado alongside an underappreciated technical skill set.
Santa Cruz is a tall, rangy pressure fighter by nature, overwhelming opposition with volume and varied offensive output. He sometimes merely touches a foe to help set distance and timing, then turns over on power shots to the body or head. At his best, Santa Cruz’s constantly moving hands put opponents out of position and keeps them in a permanent state of reaction.
Over the years, though, Santa Cruz has matured, adding some skilled nuance to his weaponry. To nullify the inside game and keep everything at a long arm’s length, the thirteen-year pro will side-step, pivot, and tie up bull-rushing opposition, firing off uppercuts and tight, short hooks to further discourage up-close brawling. And once a foe has become discouraged, Santa Cruz will keep him on the outside with long, hard shots and a poke from the periphery at the first signs of any move forward.
Matched against Rivera, who is a replacement for original opponent Miguel Flores, Santa Cruz might find a groove and control the bout. Or he could also find himself in a tougher-than-expected battle against a fighter skilled enough to not be outboxed and tough enough to stand his ground offensively.
Rivera, a 24-year-old Rivera of Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, is a game warrior, throwing everything with bad intent—and a bit of skill thrown in for good measure.
However, he can be beaten to the punch and controlled by a good boxer, sometimes to the point of having his own punch output cut significantly. Nevertheless, Rivera has yet to be stopped as a pro. He’s savvy enough to keep himself safe from sustained punishment and spirited enough to stymie efforts to steamroll him.
When hit with anything substantial, Rivera always answers back and, up until now, that has been enough to keep him afloat against some of the better opposition he has faced.
In seven years as a pro, Rivera’s high-water mark wins came against former world champion Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. and undefeated prospect Ruben Hernandez, both in 2015. Most recently, he was competitive in losses to prospects Joseph Diaz Jr. and Joet Gonzalez, showcasing enough skill and will to make the favored fighters work for their wins.
“This isn’t going to be an easy fight,” Santa Cruz acknowledged. “Rivera is tougher than people have given him credit for in the past. It motivates me to try to be the first to knock him out. If I have the opportunity for it, I’m going for it. Most important though, is to come out of there with the victory.”
Rivera’s susceptibility to the uppercut and tendency to fall in when on offense may be his ultimate undoing in this bout, if the defending champ isn’t content on simply outboxing his challenger.
And while “Big Bang,” as a naturally tough, still-developing fighter, could very well offer up a surprisingly competitive effort, the big story coming from Saturday’s featherweight title fight will revolve around what’s next for Santa Cruz.
It’s hard to argue with the kind of success he has had in his career, but, for an elite-level pro, there’s always going to be that next obstacle, that next challenge. In Santa Cruz’s case, the next move is either a unification bout with Gary Russell Jr. or a move up to the 130 lb. division.
There’s big money and big intrigue if matched against Russell, so the fight world is especially interested in that one—and, apparently, so is Santa Cruz, himself.
“Gary Russell Jr. is the fight that I want,” Santa Cruz said. “He beat me in the amateurs, but in the pros I get 12 rounds. I think that I can beat him.”
But first things first. The road to Russell begins through Rivera.
For a closer look at Santa Cruz vs Rivera, check out our fight page.