If you passed Leo Santa Cruz on the street, the last thing you’d probably think is, “There goes a three-time world champion and one of the best boxers on the planet.”
At 5-foot-7, less than 130 pounds and possessing an almost omnipresent child-like grin, Santa Cruz is mild-mannered and soft-spoken with a sneaky sense of humor. Out of the ring, that is.
Inside the squared circle, the 27-year-old Mexican-American who has held titles at 118, 122 and 126 pounds is ruthless, aggressive and punches with the same kind of ferocity as a man twice his size.
Just as important, Santa Cruz is as entertaining a fighter as you’ll find in the sport—the epitome of a guy who throws punches in bunches, even if it means taking the worst of an exchange from time to time.
Such was the case in his epic war with fellow Southern Californian Abner Mares 11 months ago, and such will likely be the case Saturday when Leo Santa Cruz (32-0-1, 18 KOs) defends his 126-pound crown for a second time against Northern Ireland’s Carl Frampton (22-0, 14 KOs) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
It will be the first fight for Santa Cruz on the East Coast. It will also be his first with his brother, Antonio, serving as his lead cornerman instead of his father and longtime trainer, Jose Santa Cruz, who is undergoing treatment for bone cancer, but expected to be ringside.
Before departing his native Los Angeles for New York, Santa Cruz sat down and discussed his father’s health concerns and what he expects when he squares off against Frampton, a former 122-pound champion who has jumped up a weight class for his second-ever fight in the United States.
Can you give us an update on your father?
Leo Santa Cruz: My dad has been to the gym the last few weeks because we changed the times of his chemotherapy [treatments]. Before, he was having them at around 11 a.m. or [noon], so he couldn’t really come to the gym.
But the last three weeks, they changed the times to, like, 2 p.m., so he always comes to the gym and sees my sparring, and pushes me like he used to. At around 1 p.m., he leaves the gym to go to his chemo.
What is it like having your father at the gym, emotionally and physically?
Santa Cruz: It feels a lot better. Not having him here, I thought that maybe I wasn’t getting enough pressure. Because when he’s here, he’s always pressuring me, like, “Do this” or “Keep your right hand up” or “Throw these punches like this.”
He is always on top of me, and he’s always making me work hard. When he wasn’t here, I didn’t have anybody doing that. My brother was here, but he doesn’t have the same attitude as my dad. Dad was pushing me hard and making me want to do it.
They tell you to have faith in God, and we did. We said hopefully God is going to help us, and he did. Not only God, but the prayers from the fans. We’ve received a lot of prayers from the fans wishing for him to recover and that everything is going to come out good.
You stopped Kiko Martinez in your last fight in the fifth round, while Frampton beat him by unanimous decision almost two years ago. Can you take anything away from those two contests?
Santa Cruz: The truth is that I gain a little confidence from that. Just because I finished Kiko faster than [Frampton] doesn’t mean that I’m going to beat him.
Styles make fights, and we’re in against Frampton, who is a great fighter who can make adjustments. But I’m going to go in there confident in my training and what I did here in the gym.
Do you expect to go right at Carl Frampton and back him up?
Leo Santa Cruz: That’s our plan. We want to make him go backward, get him tired and make him have no other choice but to fight with us. He’s going to want to throw punches and move, but we’re going to try to bang with him.
If he’s not hurting us with his punches or something, then we’re going to stay there. If that’s not working for us, then we want to get him on the outside and work from distance—using the jab, jab, right—and not let him get inside with those big shots.
Once we’re in the fight, we’ll know how to fight him. If the fighting inside is working, then we’re going to do that. If not, we’re going to box him. We have [the ability] to do both things.
Did Frampton show some weakness against Alejandro Gonzalez a year ago, when he was dropped twice in the first round in his U.S. debut?
Santa Cruz: He showed some weaknesses, but I’ve thought about it and maybe it was because it was his first time [fighting] in the U.S. and that maybe the time difference affected him. Like I’ve said, I never underestimate anybody and I never take anything for granted.
But, yeah, I saw some weaknesses. He got dropped with a jab, and it wasn’t even a strong jab. Then, with the right hand, he got dropped [and was] hurt, too. So we’re going to work that right hand a lot. Hopefully, I can catch him and drop him, and he can’t get up.
What about Frampton’s rise in weight—will it put him at a disadvantage? Or is it possible that he’ll be bigger than you?
Santa Cruz: Maybe he will have an advantage because he’s in a bigger body. He’s even said already that he had trouble making 122, and that at 126 he feels even stronger. But it’s just a four-pound difference.
I moved up to 126 because I wanted to go for another title, not because I was struggling to make the weight or anything. So I think the fight is going to be pretty even as far as weight.
Do you have a prediction?
Santa Cruz: If the knockout comes, it comes, [but] we’re not going to go out there and look for it. If you do that, you get more open or you get desperate or you get caught with good punches, and you’re the one who gets dropped.
We’re going to go in there, be smart, work on what we did in the gym, and if we catch him with good punches, we’re going to try to knock him out. If not, the more important thing is to get the victory. Because a victory over Carl Frampton will put me on the next level.
For full coverage of Santa Cruz vs Frampton, visit our fight page.