By Bob Velin
The three-division world champion seeks to join rare air when he challenges Miguel Flores for a world title in a fourth weight class this Saturday on FOX Sports PBC Pay-Per-View.
Outside of the ring, Leo Santa Cruz is living the American dream.
The 31-year-old champion boxer has earned millions doing what he loves. He and longtime spouse Maritza and their three children live in a mansion in Corona, California, and Leo drives a Lamborghini he bought from Floyd Mayweather. He has smartly invested in other real estate around the Los Angeles area, too.
It’s a far cry from his Mexican immigrant family’s meager beginnings in the USA, going back to Compton, a brutally tough time that Santa Cruz still thinks about every day.
Inside the ring, however, Santa Cruz remains Mexican to his very core. He transforms into “El Terremoto” (The Earthquake) when the bell rings. He is American-born but fights like a Mexican, leaving nothing in the ring, and reveres many of the great Mexican boxers who came before him.
Which brings us to Saturday’s title fight against Miguel Flores at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, on the undercard of Deontay Wilder’s highly anticipated heavyweight title rematch against Luis Ortiz. The Premier Boxing Champions card will be aired on FOX Sports pay-per-view at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT.
For Santa Cruz, this title fight carries a special meaning. If he wins the scheduled 12-round super featherweight (130 pounds) bout, it will be the fourth weight class in which he has won a title, and that would put him in select company.
Only four Mexican-born boxers have won titles in four weight classes: Erik Morales, Jorge Arce, Juan Manuel Marquez and most recently, Canelo Alvarez. Oscar De La Hoya, a Mexican born in the U.S., won titles in six weight classes. Not even the greatest Mexican fighter of all, Julio Cesar Chavez, accomplished the feat.
De La Hoya and Morales are already in the International Boxing Hall of Fame; the others are headed there.
“It would be a dream come true,” the humble Santa Cruz said of matching his heroes. “It would be like making history because not many fighters can say they won titles in four divisions. It would be an honor to me because most of us fighters, that’s what we’re fighting for – to become Hall of Famers, to know that after we retire people are still talking about us. It’s something I think every fighter dreams of.”
Santa Cruz (30-1-1, 19 KOs), one of boxing’s great volume punchers, got all the motivation he needed to move up a weight class from another fighter – his father and trainer Jose, who has been fighting advanced bone cancer that attacked his spine for nearly four years now but is now in remission.
“My dad wanted me to win a title in (four) different divisions,” Santa Cruz said. “He also said he thought I could go up to 135 pounds.”
Santa Cruz has no plans to stop at four weight classes if he gets by Flores, whom he was supposed to fight in February but who withdrew due to an injury. Santa Cruz fought Rafael Rivera instead and scored an easy unanimous decision.
“Yeah, I would like to unify the titles and go for a fifth world title,” Santa Cruz said matter-of-factly. “I think that would put me in with the best.”
Most certainly. Yet Santa Cruz faces criticism on social media and in boxing forums from those who feel he has avoided some of the top featherweights, from Gary Russell Jr. and Britain’s Josh Warrington, to 130-pound champions such as Miguel Berchelt and Jamel Herring.
“ It would be an honor to me because most of us fighters, that’s what we’re fighting for – to become Hall of Famers… ”Three-Division World Champion – Leo Santa Cruz
Does the criticism bother Santa Cruz?
“Yeah, of course it does. It bothers me because I want to fight them,” Santa Cruz said. “I asked for those fights, but they didn’t make them. I told my team, ‘make those fights, I want to fight those fighters.’ I don’t know why they didn’t make them. It wasn’t up to me no more.”
Santa Cruz has grown weary of hearing from and about Russell Jr. and puts him high on his wish list.
“Yeah, he’s talking too much and he would be a good name to beat,” Santa Cruz says of the featherweight champion from Maryland who has fought just once a year since 2014.
Undefeated former super lightweight champion and knockout artist Gervonta “Tank” Davis is also on Leo’s radar. And Leo is not interested in waiting to fight the 25-year-old from Baltimore, who is moving up to lightweight to fight Yuriorkis Gamboa on December 28.
“Yes, hopefully everything goes good (on Saturday) and we get this title, and then we would like to face Davis next,” says Santa Cruz.
As for a trilogy-completing rubber match with Northern Ireland’s Carl Frampton, Santa Cruz explains that that fight will be harder to make but says, “if we can make it, I’d love to.”
Despite being swamped with questions and critiques about who he hasn’t fought, Santa Cruz is old enough and wise enough to not look past Flores. He finished up a strong camp in which he employed eight different sparring partners, and has been highly motivated by his dad being in the gym with him, even if Jose is confined to a wheelchair.
“My Dad’s doing good,” says Santa Cruz, whose brothers Jose Armando and Antonio are also part of his team. “Thank God he’s here in the gym with us. He has a little bit of pain but not as much as before, and no matter what, he comes to the gym every day. Having him here motivates me and gives me more strength.”
Santa Cruz knows he’ll need that strength and motivation against Flores (24-2, 12 KOs), who will be anything but a pushover. And he’s doubly prepared to take on Flores, whose family came from the same Mexican state – Michoacan – as Santa Cruz’ family. “He’s a great fighter, he comes forward throwing a lot of punches. He has good power and he throws a lot of punches like I do,” Santa Cruz explains. “We’re going to be trading back and forth. The fans want to see a great fight and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Santa Cruz says he still has the fire in his belly and Mexican warrior mentality to continue giving his fans the exciting shows he has become known for. The next chapter of his 13-year professional career begins on Saturday against Flores, whose last four fights all ended in stoppages, two victories and his first two career losses. This is Flores’ first shot at a title belt.
“El Terremoto,” who has been involved in title fights for eight years, figures to start it off with a bang.
“If the knockout comes, it comes,” Santa Cruz says. “We’re going to try to stop him before the 12 rounds. But if not, we’re going to be focused, calm and just try to get the win . . .
“. . . And get that title.”