LOS ANGELES -- Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares both said in no uncertain terms that their featherweight showdown was the biggest fight of their careers, which is saying a lot considering both have won world titles in multiple weight classes.
So it was Santa Cruz who was overjoyed with the incredibly hard-fought majority decision victory and Mares who was bitterly disappointed following their ferocious battle -- a fight of the year candidate for sure -- before a passionate crowd of 13,109 Saturday night in ESPN's Premier Boxing Champions main event at the Staples Center.
Judges Steve Morrow and Jesse Reyes scored the fight 117-111 for Santa Cruz, and judge Max De Luca scored it 114-114. ESPN.com also had it for Santa Cruz 115-113 in a fight that will probably result in a rematch.
"I thought he might try to outbox me, but he came straight out and he wanted to knock me out like I thought he might. But we figured him out and we got the win," Santa Cruz said. "I'm very happy. This is a dream come true. For all my fans that supported me, this was for them."
Mares was understandably disappointed, believing he had won the fight.
"You know what? It was a close fight. I have to be honest, it was a close fight. But I honestly thought that I won the fight," Mares said. "It was a close fight, but I thought I pulled it off. What else can I say?"
With the win, Santa Cruz claimed a vacant featherweight world title. Initially there had been no belt on the line, but that was only added to the stakes a few days ago. The fight was promoted, appropriately so, as the battle for Los Angeles bragging rights, which both Southern California-based Mexican immigrants said was important to them.
Santa Cruz (31-0-1, 17 KOs) won a world title in his third weight class. He also won a title at bantamweight and is a reigning junior featherweight titleholder, although he has about a month to decide whether he wants to keep his 122- or 126-pound belt.
Santa Cruz and Mares (29-2-1, 15 KOs), who has also won world titles at bantamweight, junior featherweight and featherweight, let it all hang out for 12 explosive rounds that ignited immediately when they charged at each other at the opening bell in a scene reminiscent of the famed Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns classic slugfest.
As Santa Cruz and Mares -- both of whom earned career-high purses of $1.25 million -- blasted away, the crowd went wild, and it was an all-out brawl just seconds into the fight. Mares landed some shots behind the head and low blows that Santa Cruz complained about. But those fouls did nothing to slow the action.
"I think I made a mistake in my strategy," Mares said. "I came out strong and my corner was telling to slow down, and I wanted to go as fast I as I could and I think I should have stuck with my gut. Initially, my plan was to box him, but I started out really hard. Nothing surprised me about Leo. I knew what I was up against."
Santa Cruz, 27, landed a right hand to start the second round, and Mares, 29, responded. It was like that for the entire round, although Santa Cruz was looking for head shots and Mares was digging the body of his taller opponent and trying to get inside to smother him. There were several wild exchanges.
The action was similar in third round, although Santa Cruz, who landed a powerful right uppercut to open the round, cut Mares over the left eye when they had an accidental head butt. Santa Cruz was also cut, but not as badly.
They continued to trade back and forth in a very competitive fight. There were numerous fierce exchanges and both connected with big punches. When Santa Cruz had some success in the sixth round the crowd began to chant "Leo! Leo!"
For as much slugging as there was, Santa Cruz was also boxing better than Mares was. His jab was strong and he had success for long stretches keeping the shorter Mares at the end of his jab.
"When I was trying to jab, I hit him with the right and the jab. We knew we could take control," Santa Cruz said. "My dad taught how to beat him by boxing. It's what we did in the gym. We boxed. We like to give the fans great fights but we knew that we could outbox him so that's what we did."
Santa Cruz landed a hard right hand that sent Mares backward toward the ropes in the eighth round, but Mares came right back with an overhand right and a body shot as they continued to go toe-to-toe. During one crazy exchange in the final seconds of the round, Santa Cruz rocked Mares with a right hand.
They continued to trade with abandon early in the ninth round -- referee Jack Reiss had very little to do -- but it was Santa Cruz who buzzed Mares with a heavy left hook late and finally seemed to be taking control of the fight.
Mares' face was swelling and badly marked up in the 10th round, but he got in a left hook late that got Santa Cruz's attention.
Santa Cruz had a strong 11th round, finding a home for several combinations, even though Mares was still charging hard to him. In the 12th round they went all out with constant punching to close out what was a whale of show. The crowd rose to its feet for the final minute.
According to CompuBox punch statistics, they combined to throw 2,037 punches and land 600, huge totals. Santa Cruz, known for his massive punch output, landed 373 of 1,057 punches (35 percent), including 71 jabs. Mares connected on 227 of 980 shots (23 percent), only landing seven jabs.
Given the searing action, the competitive nature of most rounds and the wild crowd, a sequel is almost a guarantee. Before the fight both fighters talked about the prospect of an eventual trilogy.
"He's good, he's good. He's a great fighter," Mares said. "I knew it was going to be a tough fight. That's it. I will 100 percent take a rematch.
"I'd be more than willing to do a rematch. He knows it was a close fight. That's why he said that. Again, all my respect. I respect fighters. I knew he had never faced a level of fighter like me. He proved he's a great fighter, and that's that."
As much as Mares would like a rematch, Santa Cruz said he is all for it.
"If he wants the rematch, I'll give him the rematch. Whatever the fans want," Santa Cruz said. "I want to fight the big fights for the fans."
This was a big fight for the fans and for the fighters. A rematch? It can only be bigger. And maybe even better.