Leo Santa Cruz wins, gains fans

Leo Santa Cruz didn't shine on Saturday, but managed to keep his title against Alberto Guevara. Jeff Gross/Getty Images

It's been said countless times that the best way to bridge the gap between the sport of boxing and the mainstream public is a return to the days of weekend afternoon fights on network television.

You've probably heard that plea more than once from so many former fans who fondly recall the glory days of their youth.

Well, CBS did just that on Saturday by televising its first live fight in more than 15 years as TV-friendly Leo Santa Cruz defended his bantamweight title against a gutsy Alberto Guevara at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.

And the final verdict has to be nothing short of a tremendous success.

Santa Cruz (23-0-1, 13 KOs) got off to a slow start against the tricky and game Guevara (16-1, 6 KOs) and was forced to persevere past the kind of nagging injuries to his right hand and nose that come with fighting five times in a calendar year and only 35 days removed from your last bout.

But what started as a tactical fight, quickly became the kind of exciting fight that Santa Cruz's relentless style typically creates, as the 24-year-old native of Mexico picked up the pace to outslug Guevara in a unanimous-decision win (116-112, 118-110, 119-109). ESPN.com scored the bout 117-111 for Santa Cruz.

The fight showcased an intriguing prospect to a national audience pre-programmed to expect Saturday afternoon excitement after a compelling college football season. It also served its role as a filling appetizer for boxing fans on a busy day that included competing evening cards on cable.

With the buzz growing from hard-core fans and experts about the upward trending health of the sport after what's been a memorable 2012, it can't be understated just how important getting exciting fights on network television truly is. It's an indispensable leap forward that is lost on those still writing columns about how Manny Pacquiao's stunning knockout loss marks -- one more time -- the death of boxing.

Shoving any random bout in front of a national audience doesn't automatically equal success. But choosing the right fighters to represent the sport in such a precious time slot has the potential for creating relationships between fans and fighters -- the kind of relationships that promoters hope will pay off down the road at the pay-per-view level.

Santa Cruz gave Saturday's viewers a sampling of what makes him so dynamic and fun to watch, despite not scoring the highlight-reel knockout that most fans were expecting to see. Still, getting to see the young champion make adjustments to overcome such a determined and difficult challenger was equally as fascinating, not to mention more important for his rise up the ranks.

And let's face it: How often do you ever see a winning fighter apologizing for his effort after a fight he in which he attempted 989 punches?

"I'm sorry I didn't do like I always do," said Santa Cruz. "I wasn't feeling like myself. Sorry I didn't give you guys a great show tonight, but I promise next time I will give you what you want."

The sport of boxing, in general, would be better off adopting Santa Cruz's sincere attitude of wanting so passionately to deliver what was promised. Let's hope Saturday's final product was just the beginning.