Five Fights That Helped Define Leo Santa Cruz

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A closer look at the future Hall of Famer's greatest moments ahead of his ring return versus Keenan Carbajal in what promises to be another war Saturday night on FOX Sports PBC pay-per-view.

It’s one of the hardest lessons sports can teach. Boxing does it with a violence few other endeavors provide.

Sometimes, the other guy is just better.

Four-division champion Leo Santa Cruz gave it everything he had the last time boxing fans saw him in the ring in October 2020. Down only one round on all cards after five, Santa Cruz was off to a good start against unbeaten boxing superstar Gervonta “Tank” Davis in a dual title clash between WBA champions at junior lightweight and lightweight. 

After some losing frames, Santa Cruz was having a solid sixth round until he wasn’t. A single left uppercut with less than thirty second to go handed Santa Cruz his first knockout loss.

Now 33 and still the reigning WBA Featherweight World Champion, “El Terremoto” returns after more than a year away from the ring, rested and ready to resume one of the most accomplished lighter weight careers of his generation. Davis might have been better. No one else has been. 

Santa Cruz (37-2-1, 19 KOs) returns in a non-title affair this Saturday against Keenan Carbajal (23-2-1, 15 KO) in what promises to be another war on the undercard of the FOX Sports PBC Pay-Per-View (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) headlined by the welterweight clash between Keith Thurman and Mario Barrios

In anticipation of his return, let’s take a look back at the biggest statements Santa Cruz has made to date with his five best wins as a professional.    


Date: September 15, 2012

Location: MGM Grand, Las Vegas

At stake: Santa Cruz’s IBF Bantamweight World Title

Records: Leo Santa Cruz (20-0-1, 11 KOs), Morel (46-3, 23 KOs)

Result: Santa Cruz RTD 5  

Summary: Three months after winning his first major title, a 24-year old Santa Cruz faced a veteran stalwart of the lower weights in his first title defense. Eric Morel, a member of the 1996 US Olympic team that featured Floyd Mayweather, Antonio Tarver, and Fernando Vargas among others, was years past his reign as a flyweight titlist but had only lost to world class battlers Lorenzo Parra, Martin Castillo, and Abner Mares. In fifty professional fights, Morel had never been stopped. Santa Cruz stayed on top of Morel from the start with a vicious, echoing body attack. Morel tried to stand his ground but was drowning in the tide of Santa Cruz’s trademark relentless volume offense. After five bruising rounds, Morel retired in the corner and ultimately retired altogether. Morel wasn’t the last man to end his career at the hands of Santa Cruz.    


Date: June 09, 2018

Location: Staples Center, Los Angeles

At stake: Santa Cruz’ WBA Featherweight World Title

Records: Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 KOs), Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs)

Result: Santa Cruz UD 12

Summary: An exciting first encounter often gets a sequel in boxing. Santa Cruz won three of four contests between battles with Mares. Mares, a former world champion in three weight classes, managed to win two straight to set up their return. Fans were rewarded with a display of roughly 2,000 punches launched between the two men. Santa Cruz showed maturity under fire when a nasty cut opened over his left eye in the eighth round which was ruled caused by a punch. With the fight still close enough to slip away, Santa Cruz won three of the last four rounds on two of the official scorecards in what turned out to be the final fight for Mares. 


Date: August 24, 2013

Location: Stub Hub Center, Carson

At stake: Terrazas’ WBC Super Bantamweight World Title

Records: Santa Cruz (24-0-1, 15 KOs), Terrazas (37-2-1, 21 KOs)

Result: Santa Cruz KO 3 

Summary: Santa Cruz won a title in his second weight class and cooled one of the hottest hands at super bantamweight at the time to do it. Terrazas entered the bout with eleven straight wins that included upsets of Fernando Montiel and Cristian Mijares. Santa Cruz worked like a surgeon behind a stinging left jab, closing the right eye of Terrazas with a gross swelling by the third. Battering Terrazas to the head and body, Santa Cruz dropped his man twice and while Terrazas beat both counts, referee Lou Moret saw enough and halted the beating. 


Date: August 29, 2015

Location: Staples Center, Los Angeles

At stake: Santa Cruz’s WBA Featherweight World Title

Records: Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs), Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs)

Result: Santa Cruz MD 12

Summary: By then 27, Santa Cruz was already 9-0 in title fights across two weight classes when he faced Mares for a vacant WBA belt at featherweight. Mares, a 2004 Olympian for Mexico, came in with higher regard than any of those opponents. Mares was an established veteran with titles at bantamweight, super bantam and featherweight before a single, shocking first round loss to big punching Jhonny Gonzalez. Mares won three in a row to rebuild, arriving at the first Santa Cruz bout with something to prove. In one of the most exciting fights of 2015, Santa Cruz and Mares combined to throw over 2,000 punches but it was Santa Cruz who threw more, landed more, and never let what was then his biggest moment as a professional slip away. Santa Cruz won nine rounds on two of three official cards (the other was even) to prove once and for all he was one of the world’s elite battlers.


Date: January 28, 2017

Location: MGM Grand, Las Vegas

At stake: Frampton’s WBA Featherweight World Title 

Records: Santa Cruz (32-1-1, 18 KOs), Frampton (23-0, 14 KOs)

Result: Santa Cruz MD 12

Summary: At the top level of the sport, every fight can feel like a must win scenario. The pressure goes up in an immediate rematch after a defeat. They say to the victor goes the spoils and Santa Cruz saw it from the losing end in July 2016. A showdown with undefeated former unified super bantamweight champion Carl Frampton ended with a majority decision victory for the Irishman. Frampton rode the victory into pound for pound consideration in some corners and near universal praise as the Fighter of the Year. Six months later, hostilities resumed. 

It would be Santa Cruz’s finest hour. 

Changing his game plan from the first fight, Santa Cruz utilized his advantages in height and reach. Santa Cruz employed his jab with more authority, countered intelligently, and slowed down the pace. Throwing more than 100 fewer punches than he had the first time around, Santa Cruz won four of the first six rounds and held Frampton to an even split in the last six on two of the judge’s cards while, according to CompuBox, outthrowing and outlanding Frampton in every stanza. It was Frampton’s first defeat and Santa Cruz’s greatest victory.

For a closer look at Leo Santa Cruz, check out his fighter page.

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