LAS VEGAS -- When Leo Santa Cruz began as a professional boxer, his goal was to win a world title. But once he accomplished that, he wanted to win one in another division. And when he accomplished that, he went for one in a third weight class.
When the opportunity to win a title in a fourth division was presented to him, Santa Cruz happily accepted the challenge and cruised to a unanimous decision over fellow Mexico native Miguel Flores to claim a vacant junior lightweight belt in the Deontay Wilder-Luis Ortiz II co-feature on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The judges scored the fight 117-110, 117-110 and 115-112. ESPN had it 119-109 for Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz (37-1-1, 19 KOs), 31, of Rosemead, California, who has also won world titles at bantamweight, junior featherweight and featherweight, became the fifth Mexican boxer to win a world title in four weight classes. He joined Hall of Famer Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez and Jorge Arce, both of whom are on this year's ballot for the first time, and Canelo Alvarez, who accomplished it on Nov. 2 when he knocked out Sergey Kovalev to win a light heavyweight title.
"Winning this title means the world to me. This is all for the fans who support me," Santa Cruz said. "I didn't feel myself today and didn't perform the way I wanted to. I'm going to get back in the gym and get a big fight in 2020. I'm glad I got the victory. Miguel is a good fighter, he gave me a tough fight and he proved he's not a pushover."
Santa Cruz was supposed to defend his featherweight belt against Flores on Feb. 16 in Los Angeles, but Flores suffered an ankle injury and withdrew, and Santa Cruz instead outpointed Rafael Rivera in a one-sided fight. But then the fight was made again at the heavier weight.
Santa Cruz was a bit less active than he usually is, but he landed a nice right hand that stunned Flores in the third round and steadily put his punches together. He maintained control throughout the fight against Flores (24-3, 12 KOs), 27, of Houston, who was a heavy underdog.
Santa Cruz forced Flores back with long left hands and also mixed in some body shots in the lackluster fight. They had promised to steal the show but instead made for an entirely forgettable match whose biggest cheers came when Mike Tyson entered the arena during the eighth round.
Later in the eighth round, referee Tony Weeks penalized Flores one point for holding.
"I just went 12 rounds with Leo Santa Cruz. It's not an accomplishment in itself, but I slowed down his pace," Flores said. "It was a close fight and I didn't think he was landing too much. He was busy, but he wasn't landing too many shots. I landed cleaner harder shots. I want to go back down to 126 pounds."
Santa Cruz still holds a featherweight title but said he planned to stay at junior lightweight and called out big names.
"I want to stay at 130. We want the big fights in 2020," he said. "I want Gervonta Davis or Gary Russell Jr. I want to show the world I'm not scared of anybody."
Figueroa and Ceja battle to draw
In a very grueling and action-packed fight, secondary junior featherweight world titlist Brandon Figueroa and Julio Ceja battled to a split decision draw. One judge had it 115-113 for Figueroa, one had it 116-112 for Ceja and one had it 114-114. ESPN also had it 114-114.
Figueroa (20-0-1, 15 KOs), 22, of Weslaco, Texas, retained his 122-pound belt for the first time but even had he lost the fight he would have kept the title. Figueroa was on the division limit of 122 pounds at Friday's weigh-in but former world titleholder Ceja (32-4-1, 28 KOs) was dramatically overweight, coming in at 126¼ pounds, well over the division limit, so he was not eligible to win the belt.
"I think I did win the fight," Figueroa said. "He put on a lot of pressure, but I fought better in the early rounds and I finished strong. I feel like he won maybe four rounds out of the whole fight. I thought I won the first four and closed out the last few rounds of the fight strong.
"His body weight was a factor. I couldn't really move him when I hit him. He didn't have to drain himself, but we took the fight and we won't make excuses."
Figueroa, whose seven-fight knockout streak ended, started fast and had a big first round. He strafed Ceja with numerous clean shots to the head and body, particularly over the second half of the round. But Ceja got into the fight in the second round, and in the third round they mostly stood chest to chest, banging away at each other. They continued to slug at close range round after round as each landed many shots to the head and hooks to the body.
Ceja did damage in the 10th round with his left hook, including one late in the round to the head that really rocked Figueroa, who closed strong in the 12th round.
"He was a man about it and he gave me the fight. I think I won, but I respect the judges' decision. I'll definitely run it back in a rematch," Ceja said through an interpreter.
Ceja, 26, of Mexico, ended a two-fight losing skid in which he was knocked out both times, by Franklin Manzanilla in May 2018 and by former world champion Guillermo Rigondeaux on June 23.
Ramirez stops Barthelemy in rematch
Featherweight Eduardo Ramirez (23-2-3, 10 KOs) knocked out fellow southpaw Leduan Barthelemy (15-1-1, 7 KOs) in the fourth round of a rematch. They fought to a 10-round draw in September 2017.
"I said before the fight I wasn't going to let it go to the judges and that's what I did tonight," Ramirez said through an interpreter. "The first fight wasn't a draw. I worked very hard for this and it turned out how I wanted today. I felt his punching power. He's a good fighter but I came here to fight. Viva Mexico."
Mexico's Ramirez, 26, a former world title challenger, landed a clean left hand to the head that stunned Barthelemy in the third round. He continued to land clean shots in the fourth round and Barthelemy had no answers. Finally, Ramirez landed a hard left hand to the face that dropped Las Vegas-based Cuban defector Barthelemy, 30, the younger brother of two-division titlist Rances Barthelemy. He got up quickly but was very unsteady and referee Russell Mora stopped the fight at 2 minutes, 59 seconds.
"I've got no excuses," Barthelemy said. "The better man won tonight. I had a great camp and I was feeling good. But when I got out there I wasn't really feeling my best."
On Friday, the fight was moved up the card to open the pay-per-view telecast because the bantamweight title elimination fight between former world titleholders Luis Nery and Emmanuel Rodriguez was canceled at the weigh-in when Nery was 119 pounds, one over the limit, and Rodriguez declined to make a financial deal for the fight to go ahead.
Juarez dominates Shacks
Junior welterweight prospect Omar Juarez (6-0, 3 KOs), 20, of Brownsville, Texas, knocked out Kevin Shacks (3-5-3, 3 KOs), 29, of Lansing, Michigan, in the sixth round of a one-sided fight.
Juarez nearly ended the fight in the first round in which he scored two knockdowns and landed several thunderous punches. He dropped Shacks with a left hook to the body and later with a left to the head. In the sixth round, he dropped Shacks to all fours with a right hand, and referee Vic Drakulich counted him out at 1 minute, 59 seconds.
Mielnicki stops Bailey in second round
Welterweight Vito Mielnicki Jr. (3-0, 3 KOs), a 17-year-old from Roseland, New Jersey, who had to get a special permit to box in Nevada because of his age, knocked out Marklin Bailey (6-6, 4 KOs), 25, of Durham, North Carolina, in the second round.
Mielnicki rocked him with a left hook-right hand combination and followed with a series of punches that again hurt Bailey, who is trained by former women's boxing star Christy Martin. A right hand then sent Bailey into the ropes, and referee Russell Mora stopped it at 2 minutes, 31 seconds.
Long drills M. Wilder
Cruiserweight Dustin Long (3-1-2, 3 KOs) scored a sensational one-punch, fourth-round knockout against Marsellos Wilder (5-2, 2 KOs) offrom Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who is Deontay Wilder's 30-year-old younger brother.
There was very little action in the fight through the first three rounds, but it ended explosively when Long, 37, of Johnson City, Tennessee, crushed Wilder with a left hand square on the chin that dropped him hard, flat on his back. Wilder hit his head on the canvas and referee Jay Nady immediately stopped the fight without a count at 1 minute, 51 seconds.
Slavinskyi outpoints Hermosillo
Los Angeles-based Ukrainian junior lightweight Viktor Slavinskyi (11-0-1, 6 KOs), who is trained by Jose Santa Cruz (Leo Santa Cruz's father), outfought Rigoberto Hermosillo (11-2-1, 8 KOs), 27, of Mexico, to win a unanimous decision. The judges had it 60-54, 59-55 and 58-56.
It was a rough, physical fight in which the fighters exchanged various fouls. Slavinskyi suffered a cut over his right eye in the fourth round. It appeared to be from an accidental head butt. Hermosillo lost his second decision in a row.
Alejandro outpoints Yap
Featherweight Angel Alejandro (8-0 4 KOs), 19, of Dallas, won a unanimous decision against Mark John Yap (30-15, 15 KOs), 30, of the Philippines, who gave a him a solid test. In the end, Alejandro, whose older brother Arnold lost his undefeated record in the previous fight, was 58-56 on two scorecards and 59-55 on the third. Both Alejandro brothers are part of Mikey Garcia's promotional company.
Gemino flattens Alejandro
Lightweight Jhon Gemino (21-12-1, 11 KOs), 27, of the Philippines, scored an upset as he knocked out Arnold Alejandro (11-1, 10 KOs), 23, of Dallas in highlight-reel fashion in the third round.
Gemino, who was coming off a second-round, knockout loss in July, dropped Alejandro with a left hand and nearly stopped him in the first round. In the fifth round of their scheduled eight-rounder, Gemino dropped Alejandro flat on his back with a right hand on the chin, and referee Robert Byrd waved it off at 1 minute, 45 seconds.
Gomez drops Placeres three times
Junior lightweight Jose Manuel Gomez (12-0, 5 KOs), 23, of Huntington Park, California, easily disposed of Daniel Placeres (8-3-1, 7 KOs), 31, of Miami, stopping him at the end of the third round of their scheduled eight-round fight.
Gomez knocked down Placeres three times, once in each round, before Placeres' corner threw in the towel at the end of third round.