When Fox held a news conference last year to announce its partnership with the Premier Boxing Champions, many of the PBC’s biggest stars made the trek to Los Angeles.
Leo Santa Cruz had a short trip across town to announce his fight with Miguel Flores, though Santa Cruz kind of played second fiddle to bigger name peers such as Errol Spence Jr., Mikey Garcia, Keith Thurman, Shawn Porter and Jermell and Jermall Charlo.
None of those fighters, though, produces as consistently entertaining bouts as Santa Cruz.
And even though Flores had to pull out with an injury, that’s not expected to change on Saturday when Santa Cruz takes on Rafael Rivera in the main event of a Fox-televised show from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles in a defense of his WBA featherweight title.
“We were getting ready for Miguel Flores, but in the gym you have to always be ready for any kind of style,” Santa Cruz said. “We had been already been working with sparring partners who brawl, and that’s what we expect from Rafael Rivera.
“I knew immediately that Rivera was a good opponent. He’s young and hungry and that makes him dangerous. He can take punches, so we’re ready for 12 rounds. We’re going to be smart in this fight because we know what Rivera can do.”
Rivera isn’t expected to do much, as oddsmakers have made Santa Cruz an overwhelming minus-7000 favorite. Rivera is 26-2-1 and has lost two of his last three. He scored a first-round knockout of Jose Ramos in October in his most recent bout, though Ramos entered that match with a poor 10-14-1 record.
But Rivera has been in with some good opposition and his two losses were decisions to Joet Gonzalez and ex-U.S. Olympian JoJo Diaz.
Santa Cruz is on an entirely different level, though. He’s 35-1-1 and could, without straining much, be 37-0 and getting a lot of attention as an unbeaten world champion.
His only loss came in a magnificent battle with Carl Frampton on July 30, 2016, in which Frampton won a majority decision. Santa Cruz returned the favor in the Jan. 28, 2017, rematch by winning his own majority decision in another entertaining scrap.
His only other blemish was a split-draw in his second pro bout more than 12 years ago. He’s 14-1 with seven KOs in title bouts and 9-1 with five KOs in bouts against ex-champions.
He doesn’t get the notoriety that Spence and Garcia do, but there is little doubt he’s in that class of fighter. Santa Cruz is tall for his division at nearly 5-foot-8 with a 69-inch reach, and he’s equally comfortable boxing or slugging it out in the center of the ring.
Santa Cruz has an impressive roster of victims, with two over Abner Mares and one over Frampton topping the list. Rivera hopes to lure Santa Cruz into a brawl and then catch him with a counter shot.
It’s easier said than done because for all of the punches he throws, Santa Cruz has a tight defense, but Rivera is confident.
“I’m prepared for anything Leo brings into the ring,” Rivera said. “Everyone knows he’s very tough and throws a lot of punches, but I believe I am the faster fighter and I can hurt him with counters.”
The odds, and Santa Cruz’s skill level, suggest that is nothing more than a pipe dream.
Santa Cruz figures to waltz before taking on a bigger challenge the next time out.
“If I can get this win, we want to unify the belts or make the third fight against Carl Frampton,” Santa Cruz said. “If not, we will go to 130 pounds and seek a title in a new weight class.”
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