LOS ANGELES -- Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares have already both accomplished much in their careers, but they have also taken their share of criticism over the past couple of years for fighting a slate of opponents softer than a good pillow.
That is finally going to change in a big way, however, as the Southern California fighters, both from Mexico and among boxing's most crowd-pleasing combatants, prepare to face each other in a much-anticipated 12-round non-title featherweight fight that headlines a Premier Boxing Champions card on Saturday night (ESPN, 10 ET) at the Staples Center.
"This is definitely the biggest fight of my career," Mares said.
Santa Cruz said it is also his biggest fight.
"It's the first time I'm the main event, and then also because it's the first time I'm going to fight a fighter that's on a big level," Santa Cruz said. "Like the fans said, they wanted me to fight a fighter that is at the elite level, and I think Mares right now is the hardest opponent I ever faced."
"No one wants to lose. We're going to leave everything in the ring. When two Mexicans fight each other, it's always bloody. We both have everything to lose."Leo Santa Cruz
Although there is no world title at stake, there are L.A. bragging rights up for grabs, and the match is perhaps the highest-profile fight that could be made in the 126-pound division. It also shapes up as an action-packed battle, one fans and media have clamored for.
It took a while for Al Haymon, who manages them both, to finally set up the fight that both fighters say they have longed for.
"I've been looking forward to this fight for many years; many years fans have been excited," Mares said. "I've been wanting to fight. I've been calling out Leo this whole year, called him out on radio shows, in person. And it's finally here. I'm really, really excited to fight."
Santa Cruz, who sparred around 30 rounds with Mares a few years ago, said this is a fight he has also had his eye on.
"I've wanted to fight him for a long time," Santa Cruz said. "I wanted this fight three years ago and they said I wasn't on Mares' level. I said I was going to work hard to get on that level so one day we can make it happen, and here we are.
"I started my career and I saw Mares in my weight class and he has been really good throughout his career. I think I had like four, five fights at the time and I knew that maybe in the future we're going to have to face each other and I never doubted that we were going to face each other. So, yes, it was always in my mind that sooner or later we're going to face each other."
While the 27-year-old Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs), a highly entertaining volume puncher, has won world titles in the bantamweight and junior featherweight divisions -- he still owns a junior featherweight crown but will be fighting as a featherweight for the second bout in a row -- he has fought mostly no-names and club fighters in recent years as his team sought to shield him while he amassed high six-figure purses.
"I wanted to listen to the fans and the criticism, and then I wished I could choose and say I'm going to fight this fighter, and just go on ahead and fight him. But I had to leave it to my team," Santa Cruz said. "They're here to protect me. They know what's right. So that's why I listen to [Haymon, and to Santa Cruz's father/trainer Jose Santa Cruz] and they know what's best. But sooner or later, I'm going to fight the fight that the fans want.
"I need this win for my legacy and to get to that next level. I'm here to fight the best."
Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs), 29, had a meteoric rise, winning world titles in three weight classes -- bantamweight, junior featherweight and featherweight -- over a 22-month period from 2011 to 2013. He has faced a gantlet of top-notch opponents in his career, including Jhonny Gonzalez, Daniel Ponce De Leon, Anselmo Moreno, Joseph Agbeko (twice), Vic Darchinyan and Yonnhy Perez.
But since losing his featherweight crown by stunning first-round knockout to Gonzalez in a big upset in August 2013, Mares has faced three soft touches in a row. All the while, fans and media howled about the lack of quality matchups featuring Mares or Santa Cruz and beat the drum for the pair to face each other.
Although Mares has faced the much better overall opposition, he is the betting underdog, undoubtedly because of the KO loss to Gonzalez and the decision to pull out of the rematch and not reschedule it.
"I've definitely faced tougher opponents than he has," Mares said of Santa Cruz. "I've been in against legitimate champions. I'm taking him to deep waters. My loss is completely forgotten. In life you have obstacles, especially in this sport. I'm over it. I'm back. This is where I want to be. When I fight guys the level of Leo Santa Cruz, it brings the best out of me.
"I'm going up against a young, undefeated, talented and strong Leo Santa Cruz. He's never tasted defeat. All of that motivates me to go in there and be the first one to take him down."
"I've been looking forward to this fight for many years; many years fans have been excited. I've been wanting to fight. I've been calling out Leo this whole year, called him out on radio shows, in person. And it's finally here."Abner Mares
Mares said he understands that many wanted to see this fight a bit sooner, but he believes this is the right time.
"It could have [been sooner] but you know, things happen for a reason and fights get made at weird times for business issues," Mares said. "But I think it's the perfect time for both. Leo [now] has more experience, he's been fighting great, and myself, after my defeat, I've fought three times and my mindset is there. So I think it's a perfect time for both."
In the co-feature, Mexican countrymen Hugo Ruiz (35-2, 31 KOs) and Julio Cesar Ceja (29-1, 26 KOs) square off for an interim junior featherweight title. The winner will become the full titleholder should Santa Cruz remain at featherweight. If Santa Cruz returns to junior featherweight, the Ruiz-Ceja winner will get a mandatory fight against him.
Santa Cruz and Mares have both been a staple of the Southern California boxing scene and are popular among the fans. Both figure to have large cheering sections on Saturday night.
But who will be the fan favorite?
"I'm not worried about the crowd and who they're rooting for. I'm there to make everybody a believer," Mares said. "It's going to be an amazing atmosphere, and I can't wait."
Said Santa Cruz, "I think the crowd will be 50-50. We're both from here, so it's going to be crazy. At the end of the fight it's going to be rowdy. We're excited that they're showing love and we'll give them a great fight."
That is the expectation -- a great fight. Mares and Santa Cruz both have a penchant for being in action fights. Both have good boxing skills, but their nature is to engage.
And that is why so many are expecting a fight of the year candidate, including both participants.
"I think we are going to make it a fight of the year," Mares said. "I have no question in my mind that that will be it."
Said Santa Cruz, "In my mind this is a fight of the year because we're both Mexican street fighters. We come forward trying to please the fans and I think this is going to be a great fight. I think he's a great fighter and everything, and I see this fight like almost a 50-50 [fight]. It could go either way because he's a good fighter, I'm a good fighter, so I think it's going to be great."
"No one wants to lose. We're going to leave everything in the ring. When two Mexicans fight each other, it's always bloody. We both have everything to lose."