Los Angeles featherweight rivals Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares, both three-division world titleholders and among boxing's most exciting fighters, won their respective fights on Saturday, setting up the rematch of Santa Cruz's majority decision victory over Mares to claim a world title in August 2015 in one of that year's best fights.
The idea was to have the rematch now, but Santa Cruz, 29, insisted on having interim bouts first. Mares, 31, was ready to go and very much wanted the rematch for his next fight. In fact, he was already in camp with trainer Robert Garcia getting ready for it when the plans changed.
So instead Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 KOs), faced Chris Avalos in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card at the StubHub in Carson, California, on Saturday and dominated "The Hitman" to score a TKO victory. Referee Tom Taylor stopped the fight 1 minute, 33 seconds into the eighth round.
"At the beginning, I wasn't doing what my corner was telling me. I was trying to please the fans, but my father told me, 'Hey, you could stop him if you get your distance,'" Santa Cruz said. "I wanted to give [the fans] a brawl, a toe-to-toe, but then my dad said, 'What are you doing, you are not supposed to be in there, you are supposed to beat him from the outside' -- and that's what we did in the later rounds."
Avalos (27-6, 20 KOs), took a lot of punishment from Santa Cruz throughout the fight, but didn't seem hurt when Taylor stopped it after a flurry of punches from Santa Cruz.
"I'm very upset with the stoppage," said Avalos. "We were fighting the whole time. There was no reason to stop this fight. I wasn't hurt like the referee thought. I want to fight for the title again."
Santa Cruz had Avalos in trouble in the fourth round, when Santa Cruz connected on 52 percent of his punches (66-of-128) compared to 21 percent by Avalos (21-of-101), according to CompuBox.
"I thought I had him in the fourth round," said Santa Cruz. "I gassed out a little bit but I got my air back later. I thought the ref was going to jump in during that round but he let him continue."
Now it's all about the rematch with Mares.
"Like I said, if I won the fight and Abner Mares won his fight, let's get on with Mares and do the rematch at the beginning of the year," Santa Cruz said.
In the co-main event, Mares defeated Andres "El Jaguar" Gutierrez. Mares looked impressive in his second fight with Garcia in his corner, dominating Gutierrez from the start to score a technical unanimous decision victory after the referee, following a consultation with the ring doctor, stopped the fight at 2:40 of Round 10 due to a cut over Gutierrez's left eye that was suffered in the second round from an unintentional head-butt.
After nearly a year off of fighting, Abner Mares dominates Andres Gutierrez and halts the fight in the 10th round due a deep cut to Gutierrez.
All three judges scored the fight for Mares. Pat Russell had it 100-90, while judges Tim Cheatham and Zack Young scored the fight 99-91.
"I told everyone that I was here to make a statement," said Mares. "I had a tough opponent and he showed how good he is. It took a lot of punches and a lot of big punches. It was just a matter of time before I stopped him."
Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs) looked confident throughout the fight and landed his punches with ease, especially the right hand. He punished Gutierrez (35-2-1, 25 KOs) throughout the bout.
"I didn't feel like the fight should have been stopped," said Gutierrez. "I was hurting him as much as he was hurting me. My cuts did not bother me. I want to fight him again or have another shot at the title. I was prepared to fight to the final bell."
DeMarco upsets Ramirez
In one of the undercard fights, previously unbeaten rising contender Eddie Ramirez (17-1, 11 KOs) suffered the first loss of his career when veteran Antonio DeMarco (33-6-1, 24 KOs) stopped Ramirez in the first round of their junior welterweight bout.
"That stoppage was way too early," said Ramirez. "I was not hurt. I was fighting back and I felt like I was recovering. I want an immediate rematch if possible."
DeMarco (33-6-1, 24 KOs), briefly retired in 2015 after three consecutive losses by unanimous decision against Jessie Vargas, Rances Barthelemy and Omar Figueroa Jr., but returned a year later and has won two fights in a row since then.
"I'm very thankful to Ramirez for taking the fight," said DeMarco. "I think big things are coming for me. I'm going to talk to my team and see what is next. I think this performance will erase a lot of doubts about me.
"I'm an experienced fighter and I stayed patient. I had great preparation and waited for the right moment. I feel great right now."
Information from Dan Rafael was used in this report.