Leo Santa Cruz staying grounded as his career rockets upward

His life has been no vacation, and so after 27 years, Leo Santa Cruz is finally getting around to taking one.

Leo Santa Cruz

Leo Santa Cruz earned a fifth-round TKO of Kiko Martinez on Saturday in the first defense of his 126-pound world title. (Stephanie Trapp/Showtime)

A few days after Leo Santa Cruz’s five-round destruction of gutty Kiko Martinez, the 126-pound champ is talking about doing something he says he’s never done before: taking a little bit of a break from boxing and getting away with his family.

It’s a luxury that a man who grew up taking the bus to the gym and not always having enough to eat come dinnertime can appreciate on a deep level.

Granted, learning about a boxer’s post-fight travel plans is normally about as interesting as hearing him discuss, in exacting detail, the precise arrangement of his sock drawer—only far less exciting.

But in Santa Cruz’s case, it’s more than a trivial aside: Now a bona fide headlining attraction in the sport, his career is entering a new phase, and this is another example of how his life is changing outside of the ring due to the success he’s earned within it.

About that success, the genial, soft-spoken Santa Cruz is still getting used to it—he doesn't shy from the spotlight even if he is a bit shy.

“To me, it’s a little weird,” he says, reflecting on the increased media demands on his time. “I still get nervous. It’s hard to get used to. But I’m always going to be the same guy, like if I still had nothing. I still go to the same places that I used to go and everything.”

He may be the same guy, but he’s clearly evolving as a fighter.

Against Martinez, Santa Cruz reverted back to the all-guns-blazing, kamikaze style that made him a fighter to watch to begin with, an approach he tweaked in defeating Abner Mares last August, when he outboxed the hard-charging fellow Angeleno to win a world championship in his third weight division.

How dominant was Santa Cruz’s performance?

After the fight, he moved up to second place on CompuBox’s list of boxers who throw the most punches per round with an average of 84.6. He also climbed to the same spot in CompuBox’s punch differential rankings, averaging 15.8 more shots than his opponents per round.

Santa Cruz is satisfied with his performance—just don’t ask him to sit down and analyze it after the fact.

“I don’t really like watching my fight videos,” he acknowledges. “I let my dad [and trainer, Jose Santa Cruz] take care of that. And then when I go back in the gym, they tell me what I did wrong, the things I can correct, everything to work on.”

So what did Pops think of the way his son acquitted himself Saturday?

“What he didn’t like was that I stayed in there with him and exchanged punches,” Santa Cruz says. “I was receiving punches that I didn’t have to. I could have boxed him.”

Eventually Santa Cruz did just that, utilizing his jab to set up a barrage of combos that ultimately did Martinez in.

It was a crowd-pleasing performance in front of nearly 8,000 fans at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.

Santa Cruz was close to home, and yet miles removed from where he ever imagined he would be.

“I never expected to get where I am right now,” he says. “I never thought it would be like this. I thought maybe that I was going to be known, but not like I am now.

“I thought it was hard, impossible, like winning the lottery,” Santa Cruz adds. “But I got here.”

For a complete look back at Santa Cruz vs Martinez, visit our fight page.

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