Abner Mares raced from his corner and met Leo Santa Cruz at center ring, bent on destruction from the opening bell.
Within 20 seconds, Mares’ swarming, two-fisted attack forced Santa Cruz to the ropes in a dramatic bid for an early knockout before 13,109 howling fans at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
But Santa Cruz, who is used to being the aggressor, weathered a three-minute firestorm during which he was outslugged, 28-22.
Upon returning to his stool, Santa Cruz’s father and trainer, Jose, stressed patience, insisting that Mares would “get tired and not be able to last many rounds” at such a torrid pace.
“My dad said, ‘He’s throwing everything to try to knock you out, but don’t worry. Wait for a chance to get outside and work the jab from distance,’” said Santa Cruz, who is nicknamed “El Terremoto” (The Earthquake). “By the fourth round, he was fading, backing up. I started pressuring more, toe-to-toe, but also using my space and range.”
Santa Cruz’s composure paid off with The Moment at the 1:48 mark of the sixth round. That’s when the unbeaten champ cleanly bounced one of his many jolting right hands off Mares’ nose and mouth after briefly blinding him with a laser jab.
“I started getting the right hand in after the jab,” said Santa Cruz, whose brother Antonio assists their father in the corner. “My dad and my brother knew I'd catch him with those.”
From there, sharpshooting Leo Santa Cruz (31-0-1, 17 KOs) ripped Abner Mares (29-2-1, 15 KOs) with overhand rights, straight rights and right crosses, along with left hooks and uppercuts evenly distributed to the head and body.
Santa Cruz won nine of the last 10 rounds on one of the judges’ scorecards and nine of 11 on another en route to a victory by majority decision in their 126-pound world title fight (two judges had it 117-111; the third had it 114-114).
The ESPN-televised fight was thrilling enough to be dubbed an "instant classic” by the network, and it will be replayed tonight on ESPN2 (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
“[Mares] already knew that I was going to work the body, so he trained really good to cover up on the inside,” said Santa Cruz, who rarely targeted a cut above Mares’ right eye that resulted from an accidental clash of heads in the third round.
“I wanted to knock him out with a right hand or a hook off the jab, but he wasn’t opening up, so I finished my combinations with uppercuts. He got in some good punches, maybe hooks, but never hurt me.”
ESPN ringside analyst Teddy Atlas noted an increasing “recklessness” from a sporadic Mares, who circled mostly in retreat for the remainder of the sixth, in which Santa Cruz had a 2-to-1 edge (32-16) in total punches landed, including 8-0 in jabs. Overall, Santa Cruz outlanded Mares 327-226, including 302-219 in power shots.
“Mares did Santa Cruz a favor by forcing things, coming in and leaving himself open in a desperate sort of way, and Santa Cruz took advantage,” Atlas said. “He did that by using his length and his height from the outside. From that point on, Mares was kind of lost in limbo, no longer effective in any one area.”
As the 27-year-old Santa Cruz took control of the fight, he was able to repeatedly blunt the frenetic Mares behind a rapier-like jab.
“As I started boxing, I let Leo back in,” said Mares, 29, the shorter man by three inches. “He started doing what he wanted to, measuring me.”
Late in the sixth, Santa Cruz cornered Mares and caught him with a glancing right to the nose as the bell sounded, but couldn’t land the finishing blow.
“By the end of that round, I knew he was feeling my punches,” said Santa Cruz, who has now won world titles in three different weight divisions. “I never landed any shots that made him stumble or anything, but I wanted that shot on his chin to knock him out once the jab was working.”
For a complete look at Santa Cruz vs Mares, visit our fight page.