Leo Santa Cruz is taking what is on paper the toughest fight of his career this Saturday night, when he faces former three-division titleholder Abner Mares. But Santa Cruz doesn't believe that Mares is the same fighter he was before being knocked out by Jhonny Gonzalez in 2013.
Speaking with ESPN.com, Santa Cruz said, "To tell you the truth, in the fights that I have watched, I haven't seen him look the same as years before. But he knows that this is a very important fight and he has a lot to lose, so I think that he is going to come really prepared mentally and physically and is going to come the same as he was before. Because he knows that he has to win this fight and look great so that's what he is going to try to do."
Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KO) has been criticized heavily the last couple of years for his level of opposition, particularly in his last three fights against Manuel Roman, Jesus Ruiz, and Jose Cayetano. Roman and Ruiz were world title fights at 122 pounds, while Cayetano was Santa Cruz testing the waters at 126, where he'll be facing Mares (29-1-1, 15 KO).
But even this fight hasn't escaped at least a little criticism, as some do believe that Mares, 29, is not the fighter he was. While it's a little early and Mares is a little young to be called shot, there's no question that Mares has looked a bit sluggish at points of his recent fights. Against both Jonathan Oquendo and Arturo Santos, Mares looked a little pedestrian. On the other hand, he smashed Jose Ramirez between those fights, looking more like the Mares of "old."
It's entirely possible that years of running one of the toughest schedules in boxing may have taken their toll, but Mares is certainly young enough to rebound from a rough patch, too. Santa Cruz, 27, may believe Mares has slipped recently, but it also doesn't sound like he's taking his opponent lightly, which is certainly smart.