Thursday, August 27, 2015

Santa Cruz-Mares: Keys to the Fight

A rare, high-profile, late-summer clash unfolds at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Saturday as undefeated Leo Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs) meets former three-division champion Abner Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs) in a featherweight showdown. Both boxers enter the ring with a lot riding on the fight. For Santa Cruz, Mares represents the opportunity to put his career back on an upward trajectory. Fighting lower-level opponents over the last 18 months, Santa Cruz has seen his star dim; a definitive win will remind the boxing community that he was once one of the hottest boxers in the sport. For Mares, he needs to demonstrate that he can still compete at the top level of the sport. Since his loss to Jhonny Gonzalez two years ago, he has fought ineffectually in his three return bouts, far removed from the talent who was once a top-ten fighter in the world. Saturday is his chance to revive his career prospects. 

The matchup has a number of intriguing aspects to consider. Santa Cruz has yet to experience a true ring war, whereas Mares has been seasoned by the toughest combat. However, this difference could favor either fighter. It could be that Santa Cruz isn't psychologically prepared for Mares' roughhouse tactics and punishing body shots over 12 rounds. However, facing tough customers earlier in his career like Vic Darchinyan, Yonnhy Perez, Joseph Agbeko and Daniel Ponce de Leon, Mares might no longer have the legs and punch resistance that he once did. Santa Cruz could be the fresher fighter on Saturday.   

How all this plays out is anyone's guess. Stylistically, the fight should please, with a pressure fighter (Santa Cruz) against a boxer-puncher (Mares). Excellent arguments could be made in favor of either boxer. But you didn't come here for waffling! Below are my keys to the fight and my prediction follows.

1. Intangibles.

I wanted to start where I often finish: the intangibles. For this fight in particular, the technical, physical and strategic aspects of the bout might be less important than the psychological mindsets of the respective boxers. Mares has spoken about trying to regain his former ring pedigree and he has admitted that he had a hard time overcoming his loss to Gonzalez. Santa Cruz hasn't faced a "real" opponent in almost 18 months, and didn't seem particularly fazed by his prime being wasted in marking-time bouts against no-hopers. This begs the question: does his fire still burn? Does he still have the hunger to become an elite fighter?

This fight might very well turn on how each boxer reacts to duress at this point in his career. Santa Cruz has often looked like a whirlwind in the ring, but against lower-level fighters. Does he have another gear against better opponent? Has complacency taken over? When considering Mares, do his impressive wins earlier in his career still matter? Is he even the same guy? More than a good hook or a flashy combination, the fighter who can psychologically rise to the moment will most likely prevail in this matchup.  

2. Santa Cruz should blitz Mares immediately. 

In Mares' three comeback fights since his knockout loss to Gonzalez, he has often boxed dispassionately. It's certainly possible that he still feels gun shy. Santa Cruz can't let Mares ease his way into the fight. Santa Cruz must impress his will upon Mares from the opening bell with pressure and high punch volumes – let Mares decide if he still wants a bruising fight at this point in his career. Santa Cruz can't allow Mares to develop confidence; he needs to make it a war from the outset. With a good early showing by Santa Cruz, Mares could fold, either physically or mentally.  

3. Mares needs to go to the body early, and hard. 

To this point of his career, Santa Cruz has resembled a classic pressure fighter. He keeps coming forward and his solid chin allows him to maintain his aggression despite incoming return fire. Mares doesn't want to be in a 12-round war. He needs to find ways to keep Santa Cruz off him. The best way to get Santa Cruz's respect in the ring is going to the body with power shots (he walks through shots to his head). Mares throws a tremendous left hook and solid right hand downstairs. These shots can thwart Santa Cruz's aggression. As the fight progresses, Mares can incorporate his jab but early, his power shots to the body are critical in dictating the terms of the fight.

In addition, it should be noted that Mares has an earned reputation as a fouler, specifically with low blows (watch the Anselmo Moreno and first Joseph Agbeko fights for the particulars). Although I don't advocate illegal blows, Santa Cruz is a perfect opponent for a strategically placed shot south of the equator. Mares might very well be in a dogfight on Saturday and he needs all his tools to help keep Santa Cruz at bay.  

4. Santa Cruz has to avoid throwing lazy punches. 

As Santa Cruz tires in fights, he gets into bad habits. He reaches with punches and even more damningly, he starts throwing lazy shots that can be easily countered. Mares has the boxing pedigree and power to capitalize on these mistakes. He could counter with sharp right hands over a lazy jab or with left hooks to the body.

Santa Cruz needs to apply pressure in the fight but he's facing an opponent who will make him pay for mistakes. He must be in appropriate range to throw shots. Furthermore, Santa Cruz can't resort to arm punches when he's tired. He has to keep Mares focused on defense. The answer for Santa Cruz in this fight might not be 90 punches a round, many of which have little steam on them, but 65 or 70 solid ones. Even at that reduced pace, Mares won't match that volume over 12 rounds. Santa Cruz's shots need to count. 

5. Mares must find times to box and move.

Mares has the edge in traditional boxing skills. He has the superior technique, jab and movement. Yes, he'll have to stand his ground at points in the fight but he should avoid making the bout a phone booth war. Moving around the ring, he has the advantage, but when he's flat-footed and trading, he becomes more susceptible to Santa Cruz's attack.  

Movement will also reduce Santa Cruz's punch volume in the fight, a crucial component to beating him. Even an undersized guy like Cesar Seda won several rounds against Santa Cruz by using movement and craftiness. On the run, Mares can pick spots to potshot and engage in quick flurries. This approach may be his best chance for victory.


I've gone back and forth picking a winner in recent weeks. Although my indecisiveness could, in part, be attributed to the quality of the matchup, my real challenge here is assessing how the intangibles I mentioned earlier will play out in the ring. When the bout was first announced, I immediately thought that Mares would win. He is the better-schooled boxer of the two and his versatility should be a major plus in his favor. However, he may be far removed from his best days. If a boxer isn't in his physical prime or no longer has a passion for the sport, it doesn't matter how good he once was.  

As the fight has gotten closer, I have found myself siding with Santa Cruz. Unlike Mares, Santa Cruz has yet to have his moment of glory against a top opponent; he should be highly motivated (again, should). Ultimately, I think that his desire, energy and aggression will be enough to take a decision. I do believe that Mares will have several moments where he will look good but I think that Santa Cruz's more consistent effort over 12 rounds will be enough to take the decision.

I am picking Santa Cruz here although a Mares win wouldn't surprise me in the least. As I said, this really is a great matchup. 

Leo Santa Cruz defeats Abner Mares 116-112.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter, SN Boxing on Facebook

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