It’s a running joke that has legs built for a marathon: Does Leo Santa Cruz get mad, like, ever?
The guy’s disposition is so impossibly even-keeled, you could balance a bowling ball on it. He seems so damn nice, if he stubbed his toe on the way to the john in the middle of the night, he’d apologize to the furniture for the contact.
So, Leo, seriously, do you ever get at least a little cheesed off?
Santa Cruz responds—with a grin, of course—saying that he does, in fact, get kind of testy from time to time in the gym, but offers nothing specific.
Even in the ring, he doesn’t fight angry: His temperament remains cool even when the action gets heated.
But while Leo Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs) isn’t exactly seething with rage these days, he does acknowledge that Abner Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs) has gotten under his skin just a tad—which is about as riled up as Santa Cruz ever seems to get—leading up to their fight tonight at Staples Center in Los Angeles (ESPN, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).
“At first, it wasn’t that personal. I take this fight like a business,” Santa Cruz says. “But then he started talking that I’ve been fighting C-level fighters. And once when I wanted to fight him, he said he didn’t want to take a step backward. The things that he said, it just makes me want to work harder and go out there and show him that I deserve to be up there, that I’m better than him.”
To this end, Santa Cruz has tweaked the makeup of his camp in preparation for Mares, recruiting a new strength and conditioning coach, Andy Aguilar, at his father’s behest.
“My dad thought I needed a different strength and conditioning coach because he thought I was getting kind of stiff,” Santa Cruz says. “We decided to move toward speed, so I wouldn’t be as tense as my last fight. He wanted me faster and stronger.”
Despite landing more than 400 punches in his previous outing, against Jose Cayetano in May on the undercard of the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao clash, Santa Cruz wants to throw even more, and feels like his new training routine is enabling him to do so.
“I feel a little bit more loose. My arms don’t feel as a tight as before,” he says. “I can let my arms go a little bit more.”
That will be key against Mares, as Santa Cruz intends to press the action, as he always does, but marshal his aggression more efficiently.
“We need really good conditioning for this fight, because we have to stay on top of Mares, pressure him so we can break him down, not let him breathe,” Santa Cruz says. “If that’s not working, we’ve been practicing how to move, how to fight at a distance, because I’m taller than him, I have a longer reach, so I can box him. I can beat him like that.”
Mares is a skilled technician, so Santa Cruz has to be prepared for more than a slugfest. To this end, he’s been focusing on coming at Mares at different angles as opposed to merely walking his opponent down, which Mares will most certainly be anticipating.
“He's learning lateral movement,” says his oldest brother, Jose Armando Santa Cruz, a former boxer who now helps train his younger sibling. “He’s not just going straightforward.”
Against Mares, Santa Cruz will be fighting at 126 pounds for just the second time after having won world titles at 118 and 122 pounds.
Though still new to this higher weight division, he says his goal is to continue to move up in weight and eventually vie for titles at 130 and 135 pounds—and at 5 feet 7 inches, he has the frame to do so.
Santa Cruz grew up watching legends such as Julio Cesar Chavez and Oscar De La Hoya become champs at multiple weights, the former earning titles in three divisions, the latter a whopping six.
“My dream was to one day become like them,” he says. “Now, the time has come.”
For complete coverage of Santa Cruz vs Mares, visit our fight page.