I remember a few years back (which is strange as I can barely remember what I was doing an hour ago) when Leo Santa Cruz was one of the most hyped and beloved young fighters in the sport.
Full of energy and bringing a high punch output, there was a overwhelming thought within the boxing community--fans and pundits alike--that Santa Cruz would be a new Mexican hero.
He worked his way through the bantam and super bantamweight divisions with victories over veterans such as Eric Morel, Alexander Munoz, Vusi Malinga and--his most stirring recent performance--Cristian Mijares. These are fighters that have held or fought for world titles in the lower weight classes and between them have been in the ring with a who's who of the past era of boxing.
Good contender types such as Stephane Jamoye, Alberto Guevara and Cesar Seda could do little to stem the strong youngsters work-rate, and Santa Cruz looked like a mini-Margarito against the very capable and skilled Victor Terrazas, then on the best run of his career and for my mind the best win of Santa Cruz's career thus far.
In that fight Santa Cruz looked sharp and although he'll never be mistaken for having a good defense his guard was high and tight and he picked his spots well before going in and bulldozing his compatriot.
So where did it all go wrong?
There's nothing wrong with Santa Cruz per se, other than an unwillingness to test himself. Is that even fair though? Does he have that much of a say in his career, or has he been made promises by boxing overlord Al Haymon?
We as boxing fans don't tend to look at the whole picture. We want our fighters to seek challenges and we want them to seek them in the next bout they have. Santa Cruz has undone all of his good work thus far in his career with his last few fights, which have come against uninspiring competition in 'keep busy' fights.
I made the point in 'The 13th Round' post-fight analysis video with Bad Left Hook head honcho Scott Christ and technical expert Connor Ruebusch that a so-called 'elite' level fighter should be dispatching the likes of Jose Cayetano and Jesus Ruiz without much of a problem. Santa Cruz hasn't struggled with these fighters, and no has he failed to put a beating on them.
But he has also failed to look wholly impressive against them. Even a fast first brawler (which Santa Cruz isn't) shouldn't be getting hit with the regularity he is against fighters levels below them, and it begs the question whether Santa Cruz is merely fighting to the level of his opponent or whether he is avoiding the bigger names in his division for a reason.
Bearing all that in mind, I will take a look at who I want Santa Cruz to fight next, as well as what match-up we are more likely to see next.
I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want
I'll also tell you that is the only time you will ever see a Spice Girls reference from me.
First off, Santa Cruz fought at featherweight last night, and while I'm not so sure that it's a great long term fit for him (like the aforementioned 'Tijuana Tornado' I think Santa Cruz will struggle when he's not able to bully his opponents) there is clearly a purpose to this move.
More on that later, as I am as selfish a boxing fan as you are.
Super bantamweight is a top heavy division, but the top bracket of current contenders all look to be able to make for great fights--or at the least intriguing stylistic clashes--with each other and with Santa Cruz in the mix that is even more true.
The long-mooted matchup with defensive savant Guillermo Rigondeaux is dead in the water unless he can get out of the managerial and promotional contracts the Cuban legend has with Gary Hyde and Caribe Promotions respectively, and he has hinted that he is looking for a change in management recently so maybe he could get some 'advice' from Al Haymon and find himself well positioned to finally get the fight with Santa Cruz--or anyone world class--that he yearns for.
As I said before, I do worry that as Santa Cruz is so hittable against lower-level opposition that it will prove his undoing against higher-level fighters. For that reason, I don't see him doing much better than Kiko Martinez did against Carl Frampton and although it'd be an important fight for the division I'd much prefer to see Frampton fight Rigondeaux.
If you're looking for someone who has the strength and forward motion to be a good fit with Santa Cruz it's the other lad who gets a lot of stick for fighting sub-par opposition. If Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Boxing want to try and one-up Carl Frampton and Barry McGuigan, they could do no worse than work with Al Haymon to either get Scott Quigg a fight with Santa Cruz on a PBC card or even strike a deal where they can get Santa Cruz over to the UK.
Neither Santa Cruz or Quigg have a chance of legitimising their title claims while Frampton and Rigondeaux are around. The best they can do is fight legitimate opponents.
What will happen
While I don't know this to be a fact, there have been rumblings for a while that Santa Cruz and former three-weight titlist Abner Mares are on a collision course. Mares himself recently got big bucks from Haymon to fight a solid journeymen, so you can be rest assured that the Mexican angle will be played up and that these two will be even well compensated to fight each other on a PBC card sometime later this year.
Santa Cruz mentioned it after the fight (which suggests he will stay at featherweight rather than returning to 122lbs) and Mares doesn't seem to have anything concrete lined up himself and I actually think it's a really solid fight. There is a perception that Mares is already past his best following the shellacking he took at the hands of Jhonny Gonzalez in 2013, and Santa Cruz is still a young fighter who needs to prove he's still worth looking out for. It's essentially a crossroads fight between two fighters who were once as adored and highly-touted as anyone in the game other than established legends such as those two blokes who headlined the pay-per-view last night (forgotten their names already, sorry).
Perhaps I was a little harsh on Santa Cruz this morning. But he needs to turn things around fairly quickly in my opinion, to justify the popularity he had once achieved as well as to make the most off his talent.
My advice to Leo Santa Cruz? Spice up your life.