Saturday, April 01, 2023  |



Leo Santa Cruz eager to unify titles following fight with Rafael Rivera

Sean Michael Ham/TGB Promotions
Fighters Network

LOS ANGELES — Leo Santa Cruz’s fight with Rafael Rivera isn’t likely to inspire any delusions of grandeur in the Mexico native’s mind.

Rivera (26-2-2, 17 knockouts) is a late-replacement for Miguel Flores, and even that matchup amounted to a routine title defense for The Ring’s No. 1 featherweight. But Saturday’s 126-pound title tilt at Microsoft Theater is the second installment of PBC on FOX in 2019, an audition for Santa Cruz to prove he’s deserving of a truly marquee showdown later in the year.

Sure, Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 KOs) has been party to plenty of high-profile bouts, but nothing that approached the pay-per-view level in a division that once featured the quartet of Marco Antonio Barrera, Manny Pacquiao, Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez waging war in the grandest events in the sport.

At 30 years old, Santa Cruz is still waiting for his opportunity to show he belongs in boxing lore. His fights with Carl Frampton and Abner Mares were memorable slugfests, but there’s one feat that’s eluded Santa Cruz: title unification.

“There’s going to be unifications — it could be maybe against Josh Warrington, Gary Russell,” Santa Cruz told The Ring. “It don’t matter. Whoever it is, I just want to unify. … A lot of people consider Gary Russell one of the best in the division, maybe the best, maybe even better than me. I think it could be the best fight that could happen.”

Santa Cruz and Russell have appeared to be on a collision course since 2018. All that appeared to stand in the way was one more victory from each man. Russell took care of business with a decision win over Joseph Diaz Jr. in May. Santa Cruz topped Mares in the rematch weeks later.

The industry expectation was that Santa Cruz and Russell would meet for the vacant Ring featherweight championship in late 2018/early 2019, but instead, we’re all left to wait for Russell’s next move, and so is Santa Cruz.

“I don’t know why he doesn’t want to fight more times a year,” Santa Cruz said. “For a fighter like me, if I could fight four times a year, I would be happy. The more I fight, the better for me because I’d be getting my record up, I’d be unifying, I’d be adding more belts and it’s more exposure.”

The last time Russell competed in multiple fights in a calendar year: 2014. The 30-year-old native of Washington D.C. is ultra-talented — he possesses elite hand speed and the amateur pedigree to boost — but inactivity has halted any momentum. There’s been talk Russell could soon climb to 130 pounds, a move Santa Cruz is considering himself if he can’t obtain a fight against a fellow titleholder.

A fight with Oscar Valdez appears unlikely due to boxing politics (he’s promoted by Top Rank; Santa Cruz is aligned with PBC). Josh Warrington, The Ring’s No. 2 featherweight, is an attractive option, but he could be headed toward a fight with Valdez himself. That could lead Santa Cruz to seek a title in a fourth weight class, a feat only accomplished by two other Mexican fighters.

“I want to move up to 130 and keep on growing my legacy,” said Santa Cruz, who also fancies a rubber match with Frampton. He hoped that bout would be for two titles, but Frampton was defeated by Warrington in December. “I want to be remembered as one of the best in boxing.

“(My father, Jose, has) 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.”

While a fight against Russell is appealing, maybe even one of the best that could be finalized in boxing, a matchup with “Tank” Davis is the sort of genuine marquee showdown Santa Cruz has been searching for.

Davis’ star continues to grow as evidenced by the A-list celebrities he pulled in for his first-round KO of Hugo Ruiz over the weekend. Drake was ringside, as were fellow heavyweight rappers Jeezy, Lil’ Wayne. So, too, were All-Pro wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown.

After Santa Cruz is through with Rivera, he can start dreaming of unification, and just maybe, a star-studded pay-per-view showdown against Davis in a bid to grab a title in a fourth weight class.

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