Santa Cruz shows toughness, smarts in win over Mares

Unbeaten featherweight Leo Santa Cruz weathered the storm of Abner Mares’ early assault on Saturday with the same calm he has demonstrated in swatting away critics of his matchmaking over the past year.

Then, in the second half of his most important fight to date, Santa Cruz let his performance speak volumes about who he truly is as a fighter.

As it turns out, he’s worthy of the hype.

Showing a remarkable level of patience and poise as Mares looked to make good on fans’ expectations for a fight of the year candidate, Santa Cruz (31-0-1, 17 KOs) never fell victim to the temptation of brawling for 12 rounds.

By doing so, and playing to his advantages as the taller, longer fighter, Santa Cruz scored a majority decision win (117-111 twice, 114-114) at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card on ESPN.

It was a showcase of maturity for Santa Cruz, who had built his name in recent years behind his unyielding style of straight-ahead fighting, often to the body. Yet despite living up to his name on Saturday as the busiest fighter in the sport statistically by attempting more than 1,000 punches, according to CompuBox, he proved there were many more wrinkles to his game.

Santa Cruz, 27, boxed well from the outside over the final six rounds and routinely made Mares (29-2-1, 15 KOs) pay for closing distance by stinging him with overhand rights. The more Mares began to gas following a frantic start to the fight, the more the slower pace played into Santa Cruz’s hands.

One should be able to forgive the critics for questioning the native of Mexico’s pedigree coming in. Not only had Santa Cruz looked one-dimensional in taking out a succession of softly matched opponents of late, he often forfeited his height advantage by squaring up and brawling at close range.

But Santa Cruz stayed true to the game plan of conservative boxing from his father and trainer, Jose Santa Cruz, and showed enough respect for the power and aggression of Mares, a former three-division titlist, not to play into his hands.

Sure, Santa Cruz was forced to dig in his heels and fight when it was most called for, and his chin more than held up in his first fight as a full-fledged featherweight. But along with proving his toughness, the more important characteristic he showed was his smarts.

Santa Cruz did well to conserve his energy despite pockets of action breaking out around him, and he not only controlled distance with his jab, he used it as a weapon. The result was Santa Cruz never appearing to be in a position where he was losing control of the fight. He also never appeared to be in any true danger.

Saturday night was all about how much Santa Cruz has improved inside the ring. And while the buzz surrounding his name had dissipated quite a bit amid criticism of whom he has and hasn’t fought, the quality of the fighter never diminished along with it.

Santa Cruz stood up to more than Mares’ pressure on Saturday; he stood up to his critics and announced himself as a truly elite threat in one of boxing’s most dangerous divisions.