Whoever came up with that old saying “less is more” never blasted dudes in the rib cage for a living. Take it from Leo Santa Cruz, the definition of a volume puncher.
Seriously, if boxers were shaggy-haired stars of ’80s faux metal documentaries, Santa Cruz would be Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap fame, cranking everything up a notch, but with fists in places of Marshall stacks.
As Leo Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs) prepares for the biggest fight of his life, against fellow Mexican-American fan favorite Abner Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs) at Los Angeles' Staples Center on Saturday night (ESPN, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT), he took some time to count down his Greatest Hits.
3 vs Vusi Malinga, June 2, 2012, at Home Depot Center in Carson, California
Santa Cruz started boxing when he was 8 years old, back when boys that age are more preoccupied with finding dad’s Playboy stash than finding their way to the gym for the rigors of training.
It was enough to make the kid want to give up the sport and, well, just be a kid for a change.
“There were times that I wanted to quit because it was too hard. I didn’t want to struggle. I didn’t want to go on the bus to the gym,” Santa Cruz remembers. “Sometimes when I got home from school and I was tired, my head hurt, I wanted to stay and play with my friends.
“I told my dad that I didn’t want to fight anymore,” he continues, “but he said, ‘Hey, if you want to become a champion, you’ve got to try, don’t give up.’ And that’s what I did. I stayed focused. I was determined to become a world champion.”
In June 2012, he’d get his first shot at becoming just that.
It wouldn’t be easy against rugged South African Vusi Malinga, but Santa Cruz overwhelmed his opponent, hurling 1,350 punches, the fourth most ever thrown in a 118-pound fight according to CompuBox, while landing 853 power shots, second all time in the division.
Malinga would manage to hang in there despite getting abused like porta-johns at a chili cook-off, but Santa Cruz would hammer his way to a decision victory, becoming a world champ at long last.
“It was something that I couldn’t believe,” Santa Cruz says. “When I got the belt, I gave it to my dad. I said that the belt was his because it was his dream to have a son who was a world champion.”
2 vs Victor Terrazas, August 24, 2013, at the StubHub Center in Carson, California
Victor Terrazas’ fists are like Brian Fontana’s Sex Panther cologne: Really, really, really, eye-wateringly strong and capable of sending just about anyone fleeing in the opposite direction.
“His punches were stronger than any other fighter I had fought before,” Santa Cruz says of the former 122-pound champion. “So I was like, ‘I have to get him out of here quickly.’”
Like eating but one Lay's potato chip or not shedding a tear at last call, though, that task is easier said than done.
Terrazas was riding an 11-fight winning streak heading into his showdown with Santa Cruz, which included victories over formidable former champs such as Fernando Montiel and Cristian Mijares, and he hadn’t been stopped in more than three years.
That changed when he ran into Santa Cruz.
“I went hard at him, working uppercuts to the body,” Santa Cruz says. “I said, ‘I’m going to try and knock him out.’ And I did. I dropped him in the third and from there I finished him.”
Terrazas’ reign as 122-pound champ was over. Santa Cruz’s had just begun.
1 vs Alexander Munoz, April 5, 2013, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas
Plenty of fighters pay lip service to their supposed willingness to die in the ring as a way of inflating their manhood like a zeppelin of machismo, but prior to his scrum with explosive Venezuelan power puncher Alexander Munoz, Santa Cruz confronted a real life-and-death situation.
One of his older brothers, Roberto, was in the hospital on his death bed battling lupus, a potentially fatal disease where the immune system essentially cannibalizes itself.
“Right before we left for Vegas for the fight, we went to the hospital to see him because the doctor said that they didn’t know if he was going to make it,” Santa Cruz recalls. “He could barely talk. It was really bad. We were thinking of not even going to the fight, but my dad said that we had to, that it was our job. Then we could come back.”
His father’s words, though, didn’t make it any easier for Santa Cruz to leave his brother’s side, especially when Roberto confided in Leo that he didn’t know if he wanted to keep battling on.
“He said that he was tired, that he didn’t want to live anymore,” Santa Cruz says. “I remember telling him not to give up, that I was going to go out and win the fight for him. He looked at me and said ‘OK,’ that he was going to continue to fight for his life and for me to go and win the fight for him. And that’s what I did.”
Leo kept his word, stopping Munoz in the fifth round.
And so did Roberto, who lives on.
For full coverage of Santa Cruz vs Mares, visit our fight page.