For Leo Santa Cruz, Life Begins at 30

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The Featherweight World Champion isn’t about to discard his all-action style, but is fine-tuning his game for his WBA 126-pound title defense versus Rafael Rivera tomorrow night on PBC on FOX.

Of all the things Leo Santa Cruz has learned during a highly successful boxing career, the art of self-preservation might top the list.

Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 KOs), the WBA featherweight champion and one of the great volume punchers the sport has seen, has been in some spectacular slugfests during his nearly 13-year career. Now the three-division champion intimates that his days of standing in front of his opponent and trading punches with bad intentions for 12 rounds are behind him.

Santa Cruz, from Rosemead, California, steps back into the ring this Saturday, February 16, against hard-punching Mexican Rafael “Big Bang” Rivera (26-2-2, 17 KOs), headlining a deep PBC on FOX card (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT) at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

Rivera was named as a replacement for Miguel Flores, who withdrew because of an ankle injury.

“Before I used to brawl and stay there (in front of my opponent). Throw punches and hit, but I also got hit,” he said. “Now we’re working more on throwing punches and then moving, don’t stay there and get caught. I have seen a lot of fighters get hurt, go into a coma and stuff like that. I imagine myself going in that place and I get scared sometimes. So, I try to punch more and not get hit a lot.”

At 30, Santa Cruz is still young for a boxer but has logged 238 rounds since his 2006 debut. He knows that Rivera, who KO’d journeyman Jose Ramos in the first round last October, is six years younger and anything but a pushover.

“He comes forward to fight, he’s always aggressive, and he’s young. He’s hungry and he’s going to take advantage of opportunities given to him, so I know he’s going to be a tough fighter,” Santa Cruz says. “He throws a lot of punches and he’s strong, but you know, we’re ready for anything, so he’s the fight we wanted. That way the fans, when they see him fight, they won’t say, ‘oh, the dude wasn’t tough.’ They will say he was a tough opponent and everybody’s going to be happy.”

Santa Cruz knows he will have to “be smart about (Rivera). We have a longer reach so we’ve been practicing that in the gym,” he says.

The late change of opponents won’t be a problem, he says, because his trainer-father Jose makes sure his son always trains for different styles, no matter which style he’s facing at the time.

“Because (my opponent) could have one style and maybe on fight night he changes it up,” the fighter says. “So, my dad always brings me different sparring partners that have different styles. Like one has the style of throwing punches and moving, one has the style of brawling. We’re ready for any kind of style so on fight night they can’t surprise us. It doesn’t really matter who they put us up against.”

One fight that is constantly on Santa Cruz’s mind is his father’s ongoing battle with cancer. Jose Santa Cruz was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in his spine nearly three years ago, and is often in deep pain, which has been a difficult distraction for Santa Cruz and his brothers, who are part of his team.

Before I used to brawl and stay there (in front of my opponent)...Now we’re working more on throwing punches and then moving. Four-time World Champion - Leo Santa Cruz

“It’s very hard to see my dad in pain,” said Santa Cruz, whose only loss came on a night when Jose was unable to be in his son’s corner. “Sometimes he comes to the gym, he’s in pain, he’s hurting. Sometimes he doesn’t even come because he’s in so much pain and he’s weak. Seeing him like that brings me down, it distracts me, and I can’t really concentrate on what I’m doing in the gym that day because I’m thinking about him.

“But you know, I try to motivate myself without him, because he knows if I’m training hard it’s going to motivate him. I try as much as I can to motivate my dad through myself.”

Richard Schaefer, founder and CEO of Ringstar Promotions, which is co-promoting the fight card, says Santa Cruz’ tight-knit family makes it that much harder.

“You look at Leo and you can see this is weighing heavily on him,” he says. “Leo is a big family man, father, husband and son, and it’s a very close-knit family, and I’m sure that puts some pressure on him as well.

“You look at all of these influences, what the father is going through, the change of opponent, that Leo is perceived as the big favorite, and there’s the risk of underestimating somebody. You take all these factors into consideration, and it’s going to be a very intriguing fight. A dangerous fight for Leo.”

It’s not the only dangerous fight Santa Cruz could be facing. He has taken some criticism on social media for not fighting WBC featherweight champion Gary Russell Jr. and some other big names to unify the featherweight titles. He’s says he’s ready and willing.

“I have seen those comments where they want me to fight Gary Russell or tougher opponents, and I’ve been pushing for those fights,” he says. “I’ve been saying I’m here to fight the best, I’ll fight anybody. And I want to unify. I want a fight against Gary Russell but the teams haven’t come to an agreement. But I’m just here in the gym training. When they come and they say, ‘are you going to fight this one,’ and I say, ‘hey I’m here to fight. Whoever you bring me, I’ll fight.’ If they come and say, ‘are you going to fight Gary Russell?’ I’ll have no problem with that. I’ll fight Gary Russell.”

Santa Cruz could even see a move up to 130 pounds, likely no earlier than 2020, but figures there’s some unfinished business at featherweight.

“I want to get this win, then I want to unify against Russell, Josh Warrington, or maybe get a third fight against Carl Frampton,” says Santa Cruz. “Even though he lost (to Warrington in December), he’s still a good fighter and the people would like to see the decider between me and him. Even that fight might happen. I’m up for any of those fights. If the fights can’t happen, then I want to look for another title at 130. But first I want to unify.”

By the age of 35, Santa Cruz envisions himself as a former boxer (and future Hall of Famer) and family man.

“When I know it’s time to retire, I’m going to because I want to retire healthy, I want to retire young. I want to spend time with my (three) kids, taking them places, and enjoy a good life with them.”

And, most important, he adds, “when my team tells me it’s time to retire, I want to retire as a champion.”

For a closer look at Santa Cruz vs Rivera, check out our fight page.

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