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Leo Santa Cruz could unify with Gary Russell Jr. or meet Carl Frampton again in 2019

Does a trilogy loom between Frampton (left and Santa Cruz (right) Photo by Esther Lin/ Showtime

LOS ANGELES — Leo Santa Cruz isn’t happy with the way his upcoming opponent is being portrayed.

The featherweight titleholder is a decided favorite in his February 16 FOX main event with MIguel Flores at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Flores, after all, has lost two of his last three fights. Those defeats didn’t come against elite opponents like Santa Cruz. Rather, he was defeated by Chris Avalos and Dat Nguyen, boxers who fit in the journeymen category.

Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 knockouts) says he’s honored that the media and fans alike think so highly of him, but he’s not going to dismiss Flores as a threat. Still, Santa Cruz has his designs on far bigger challenges ahead in 2019.

“A lot of people consider Gary Russell one of the best in the division, maybe the best, maybe even better than me,” Santa Cruz, 30, told The Ring. “I think it could be the best fight that could happen.”

It’s a tantalizing matchup, one that could crown a new Ring champion at 126 pounds. Sources told The Ring that the unification fight is a real possibility for later this year. Both titleholders fight under the Premier Boxing Champions umbrella. Another option for Santa Cruz, according to sources: a rubber match with Carl Frampton.

Santa Cruz and Frampton engaged in two fight of the year candidates. The Belfast native won the first encounter in July 2016 via razor-thin decision. Santa Cruz exacted revenge six months later in another fight that was decided via majority decision.

Frampton challenged Josh Warrington for a featherweight title last month and came away empty-handed. It wouldn’t be a unification fight, but a trilogy is still viable given the action-packed nature of the first two fights.

Santa Cruz, The Ring’s top-rated featherweight, plans to fight three times in 2019, a level of activity he hasn’t realized since 2015. That third fight this year, if it happens, could take place at 130 pounds.

“I want to be a four-division champion,” said Santa Cruz, a native of Mexico based in Southern California. “I’ve been a three-division world champion. Hopefully unify the 126 division and then I want to move up to 130 and keep on growing my legacy. I want to be remembered as one of the best in boxing.

“(My father’s) been telling me, you can unify at 126 but if the fights can’t get made, move up to 130. Look for another title, and he says a fight against Gervonta Davis is going to be really big and I see the same thing.”

Tank Davis has his hands full with a title defense against Abner Mares on February 9 in Carson, California (Showtime). If Mares springs the upset, there could be another trilogy waiting for Santa Cruz.

Mike Coppinger is the Senior Writer for Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCoppinger