23-year-old bantamweight Leo Santa Cruz will get his first chance to impress a larger audience of American fight fans on June 2, and also will be receiving his first world title shot, when he opens Showtime's four-fight card from the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., facing Vusi Malinga for the vacant IBF title.
Santa Cruz, the younger brother of former lightweight contender Jose Armando Santa Cruz, has thus far demolished his opposition, running up a record of 19-0-1 (11 KO), and has a couple of solid, quality wins along the way, too, including victories over tough veteran Jose Lopez and Stephane Jamoye.
His success has, by all accounts, not yet gone to his head. Though he's become an easy favorite of those who have seen him do his work thus far, he's still an unknown to the majority of U.S. fight fans. This will be his first time featured on a major card on American TV, and he's prepared for Malinga (20-3-1, 12 KO) to be a serious challenge.
"This is a great opportunity to become a world champion," said Santa Cruz in his training camp. "It will be the toughest fight of my career because I know Malinga will come very well prepared, but am very optimistic that I will win.''
The 32-year-old Malinga has some advantages for sure. A 5'8" southpaw with a rather huge 74-inch reach, he's a big southpaw and has been around the game a while. Most worrisome for the South African veteran, though, is his self-imposed exile from the sport. Malinga hasn't fought since October 2010, when he defeated Michael Domingo in an IBF eliminator via 12-round unanimous decision.
After winning the right to fight for the title, Malinga sat out and waited, which turned into more sitting than waiting. As the IBF title was held at the time by Yonnhy Perez, the belt became a prize goal for many of the division's top fighters, and found its way into Showtime's four-man bantamweight tournament with Perez, Joseph Agbeko (who won the title next), Vic Darchinyan, and Abner Mares (who left the tournament with the belt and recently vacated it to move up to super bantamweight).
With the title shot not available, Malinga chose to sit out rather than even take easy tune-up fights. Now, it's been one year and seven months since he's been in the ring. In that time, Santa Cruz has been getting better, honing his vicious body punching into something of an art. And Santa Cruz says he's absolutely good to go on June 2, with a strong training camp behind him.
"It's been a great camp. I've been training for almost two months and have had something like 95 rounds of sparring. I'm in great shape thanks to [father and trainer] Jose Santa Cruz and [conditioning coach] Daniel Garcia."
On paper, it's a fight where we're here to see a prospect make good and become a true contender. He has a ton of promise. Now it's time for him to put that all together and make it happen on the big stage.