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Leo Santa Cruz: 'I want Mares'

Leo Santa Cruz is close to landing a fight with former three-division titlist Abner Mares. Esther Lin/Showtime

LAS VEGAS -- Junior featherweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz has taken much more of a beating in the court of public opinion in recent times than he ever has in the ring.

Santa Cruz has been lambasted by critics, especially on social media, about his recent opposition, which, frankly, has been poor.

In recent bouts he has faced, among others, a former sparring partner, journeymen, older fighters much smaller than him and one opponent, for a fight on the mega Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao undercard, wasn't even set until the week of the fight.

Naturally, Santa Cruz beat them all with ease in forgettable fights. What made the woeful opponent selection even harder to swallow is that his division is rich with talented potential opponents such as champion Guillermo Rigondeaux (15-0, 10 KOs) and titleholders Carl Frampton (20-0, 14 KOs) and Scott Quigg (30-0-2, 22 KOs).

Santa Cruz said he wanted those fights but the choice was out of his hands; it was left up to his team. But Santa Cruz has heard the criticism.

"It bothers me," Santa Cruz told ESPN.com during an interview in the media tent before the Shawn Porter-Adrien Broner fight last Saturday at the MGM Grand. "I want to make those fights. I want to fight guys like Frampton and Rigondeaux but it's not up to me. My whole team has to decide to do it. I'm working hard, training hard and I also want those fights the fans want."

"I asked for that fight. They told me that I'm going to fight in August or September and I would be ready. I want Mares. I talked to my team, I talked to my manager, and I said, 'I want that fight.' They are trying to make that fight happen."
Leo Santa Cruz

While those junior featherweight fights are out of the question for now, there is one fight that should please boxing fans and the legion of critics -- a showdown with Abner Mares, a former three-division titlist.

Santa Cruz, also a former bantamweight titlist like Mares, fought at featherweight in May in anticipation of the eventual fight. Although the deal has not been announced, they are on course to fight, perhaps as early as Aug. 29, possibly at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

The fight could be a Premier Boxing Champions bout on ESPN or on Showtime. Either way, the bout is almost surely going to happen, and Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs), 26, is happy about it.

"I asked for that fight," Santa Cruz said. "They told me that I'm going to fight in August or September and I would be ready. I want Mares. I talked to my team, I talked to my manager, and I said, 'I want that fight.' They are trying to make that fight happen. I talked to my dad, I talked to my manager and they said OK and they're working on it."

Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs), 29, has faced similar criticism about the caliber of his opponents -- three walkovers -- since he was starched in the first round and lost his featherweight world title to Jhonny Gonzalez (57-9, 48 KOs) in August 2013. Still, a Mares-Santa Cruz match figures to be an exciting fight that would have a lot of fan interest, especially from the Mexican fans in Southern California. Santa Cruz said he thinks the fight will get done.

"Hopefully we'll get the fight with Mares, get the win and then look for a title fight," Santa Cruz said. "The fight (against Mares) is a big fight. I wanted to move up in weight and fight Mares. He's a great fighter. He's a Mexican, he comes forward, has a great style, and I think the fans are gonna be the ones who win because the fans have been asking for a fight against Mares too. So I think that will be a great fight."

Santa Cruz, not surprisingly, said he believes he has the advantages and will win.

"I'm (three inches) taller and I'm better with my distance," Santa Cruz said. "I can box but I want to go forward because I think I'm stronger than him.

"We're Mexicans, we're from L.A. and if they make that fight right there I think we're gonna get a lot of fans, a big crowd, fill up the StubHub Center or the Staples Center, wherever they make it."

Santa Cruz said he does lament that the big unification fights were not made at junior featherweight but said he hasn't closed the door on landing at least one of those matches, even if they wouldn't be to unify belts.

"I wanted to fight them before I left (junior featherweight) but they told me I could fight Mares if I moved up in weight and that's what I did," he said. "It's only four pounds difference. I think Frampton, Quigg, Rigondeaux could move up in weight and we could make those fights happen at 126. Maybe if this doesn't work (at featherweight) I could go down and we could make the fights. I really don't have too much trouble with the weight. Maybe (I will) go back down and fight those guys."

If not, Santa Cruz said if he beats Mares he would look for a world title fight at featherweight, where his manager Al Haymon has potential opponents for him in titleholders Gary Russell (26-1, 15 KOs) and Jesus Cuellar (27-1, 21 KOs). Haymon also recently signed Frampton, which should grease the wheels to help eventually make that match.

"Right now I want a hard fight against Mares and, hopefully, I get the win and fight for a title," Santa Cruz said. "Maybe Rigondeaux and Frampton can move up and then fight me."