Featherweight world titlist Leo Santa Cruz came into his defense against late replacement Rafael Rivera on Saturday night as a massive favorite and talking about possible major fights he has his eyes on.
But Santa Cruz also insisted he would not overlook Rivera, and that showed in his dominant performance. He put on a clinic in a one-sided unanimous decision victory in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card on Fox before 5,137 at the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live in Los Angeles.
All three judges scored the bout 119-109 for Santa Cruz, a three-division titleholder, who retained his 126-pound belt for the third time. ESPN scored it a 120-108 shutout for Santa Cruz, whose father and trainer, Jose Santa Cruz, was in his corner but continues to fight bone cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2016.
"My father means the world to me. When I step in the ring I don't want to let my dad down," Santa Cruz said. "I want to win so he could be happy and can keep fighting cancer."
Santa Cruz, the bigger man, targeted Rivera's body and also landed many solid right uppercuts that snapped Rivera's head back. But Rivera came to fight and gave an impressive effort despite being outgunned and having a hard time getting inside on the taller Santa Cruz.
Rivera's nickname is "Big Bang," but he never came close to landing that kind of big punch.
Rivera (26-3-2, 17 KOs), 24, of Mexico, happily took the fight on three weeks' notice when original challenger Miguel Flores suffered an ankle injury and withdrew, but he could not do much except to give an admirable effort. His best moment came in the final seconds of the ninth round when he landed a couple of right hands that got Santa Cruz's attention. Rivera also went for broke in the final seconds of the fight, and Santa Cruz obliged him as they traded toe-to-toe until the bell.
"I'm very happy with my performance and I thought I gave everyone a great fight," Rivera said. "I was in there with one of the best fighters in the world and throwing punches and exchanging with him. More than anything, I'm very proud to have fought 12 rounds with a great world champion like Leo Santa Cruz.
"People will know me better now, and it was a great experience. I want to continue to push towards another world title opportunity. I want to be a world champion, but it didn't happen tonight. I will continue to fight and show everyone what I can do."
The 30-year-old Santa Cruz (36-1-1, 19 KOs), of Los Angeles, whose official purse was $1 million to Rivera's $20,000, came in tip-top shape, appeared focused and did what he usually does, which is let his hands go with abandon and outwork his opponent in entertaining fashion. According to CompuBox statistics, Santa Cruz landed 334 of a whopping 1,273 punches (26 percent) while Rivera connected with 151-of-805 (19 percent).
Santa Cruz, who is known for his epic punch output, threw the second-most punches of his 12-plus-year career. The most was 1,350 against Vusi Malinga when he won a vacant bantamweight world title in 2012.
"I gave my best. I did what I could. I would love to give a lot better, but Rafael is a tough opponent," said Santa Cruz, who moved to 15-1 in world title fights. "He's really tough. I got him to the body really good; he didn't go down. I got him to the head. He's a tough fighter."
Santa Cruz now is looking forward to what he hopes will be a big fight next. He wants a unification fight and also has said he would move up to junior lightweight to look for a title in a fourth weight class if a unification bout eludes him at featherweight.
"I want to unify the belts against anybody, the champions Oscar Valdez, Gary Russell, Josh Warrington, even a third fight against (former titlist) Carl Frampton," Santa Cruz said. "Any of those fights, I want them."
Valdez is an unlikely foe because he fights for Top Rank and on ESPN, but Warrington is possible and Russell, who is also a PBC fighter, is even more so. Santa Cruz and Frampton have split two bouts, and a rubber match is also possible. But Santa Cruz has said repeatedly he most wants Russell, who defeated him in the amateur ranks.
Whomever he fights, he plans to be more active after fighting only once in 2018.
"[I will be back in] June or July," Santa Cruz said. "I want to be back and hopefully fight three times this year against the best in the division."
Figueroa outpoints Molina
Former lightweight world titlist Omar Figueroa Jr. promised to stop John Molina Jr. before the halfway point of their welterweight bout, and while he didn't come close to the knockout, he did win a surprisingly lopsided unanimous decision.
The judges had it 99-91, 98-92 and 97-93 in Figueroa's favor in a fight that appeared much closer. ESPN had Molina winning 96-94, as did Fox unofficial judge Larry Hazzard Sr.
The expected action fight was an entertaining affair with little feeling-out period as each landed plenty of hard, clean shots.
"I thought it was a good fight. We came out and did what we wanted to do," Figueroa said. "Unfortunately, I hurt my hand, so I started to slow down a little bit after the third round. I know I could have hurt him if I really pressed the action, but I didn't want to make the hand any worse."
Figueroa has had numerous hand injuries in his career.
"I thought I won comfortably and aside from some middle rounds, I felt like I was in control," Figueroa said. "He caught me with a wake-up punch in the third round. I wanted to test his power because I had heard so much about it. He's definitely strong and durable, and when I hit him with hard shots, he withstood them."
Figueroa, whose purse was $225,000 to Molina's $200,000, landed a clean overhand right to the head that wobbled Molina in the fourth round and made him take a step back. But Molina (30-8, 24 KOs), 36, a former world title challenger from Covina, California, came back as they kept trading shots. He rocked Figueroa (28-0-1, 19 KOs), 29, of Weslaco, Texas, with a right hand to the ear in the fifth round.
With the fight seemingly up for grabs entering the final round, both trainers implored them to win the 10th, but it was another nip-and-tuck fight with neither doing anything overwhelming.
"I take my hat off to him. He is a former world champion. I have been in there with a bunch of guys and he has a decent punch," Molina said.
According to CompuBox, Figueroa landed 241 of 668 punches (31 percent), and Molina, who appeared to be the more powerful puncher, connected with 159-of-751 (21 percent).
Neither boxed in 2018. Figueroa came off a 19-month layoff due to injuries and a DUI arrest. Molina hadn't fought since December 2017, although he had a September fight canceled because opponent Victor Ortiz was arrested on a rape charge.
Fundora blasts Marshall
In the opener of the tripleheader, junior middleweight prospect Sebastian Fundora (12-0, 8 KOs), 21, of Coachella, California, dominated Donnie Marshall (10-1, 6 KOs), 30, of Raleigh, North Carolina, en route to a third-round knockout.
Fundora, a southpaw known as "The Towering Inferno" because at 6-foot-6 he is notably tall for a 154-pound fighter, overwhelmed Marshall with his punch output. He finally floored Marshall with a long left uppercut early in the third round that sent him to his rear end. Marshall was badly hurt by the punch and had very little when the fight resumed.
Fundora was all over him and unloaded numerous unanswered punches until referee Jerry Cantu stepped in and stopped the fight at 1 minute, 8 seconds.
"I expected him to go inside. He was trying to box, but once I figured he didn't want to bring the fight I had to bring the fight to him," Fundora said.
Fundora is still a raw prospect but hopes to fight for a world title, perhaps by the end of the year.
Unified titleholder Jarrett Hurd and titlist Tony Harrison are also with PBC.
"This division has a lot of excellent fighters; 154 is packed division, especially at PBC," Fundora said. "We have champions, so whoever has the title at the time I'm ready."
According to CompuBox, Fundora landed 106 of 274 punches (39 percent), and Marshall landed only 38-of-147 (26 percent).
"He was stronger than I thought he was. He's a good boxer," Marshall said. "I thought when I let my hands go I was doing pretty good. But he caught me with a couple good shots. His height wasn't a problem because I was able to get inside and land. But he was able to land more than me."