This Saturday night on ESPN, Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares do battle in a non-title fight at 126 pounds, a main event that at one point was an in-demand fight, but has cooled as both fighters have taken some hits to their buzz in the last couple of years.
For Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KO), the hits have come from his opposition. His three most recent opponents have all been substandard given the level he's at -- or at least the level he's been presented -- and that has taken him down a peg in the eyes of the public. Santa Cruz acknowledges this readily, saying that he's wanted tougher fights, but that he leaves that part of his career entirely up to his team, trusting them to know when the time is right.
Mares (29-1-1, 15 KO) has taken a more traditional hit to his buzz. When he was knocked out in the first round by Jhonny Gonzalez in 2013, it was a stunning loss. Gonzalez is a good fighter and a hell of a puncher, and he caught Mares cold. It happens. But Abner has been a little scattershot since his return to action, winning three straight fights, but not looking particularly good in two of them outside of getting clear victories against the sort of opponents he would have been expected to thrash just a few years back.
Is Mares shopworn? He's 29, but one might suggest he's an old 29, as he was neck and neck with Carl Froch for keeping the absolute hardest schedule in boxing between 2010 and 2013, when he faced Jhonny Perez, Vic Darchinyan, Joseph Agbeko (twice), Anselmo Moreno, Daniel Ponce De Leon, and Gonzalez, and did all that with great success, rising to become a titleholder at 118, 122, and 126 pounds.
There's also the idea that Mares has just hit a bit of a slump following the loss to Gonzalez, after which he took an 11-month break from action, which wasn't unreasonable or anything. There was an attempt at making a style shift under a new trainer in Virgil Hunter, but the consensus was that Mares was trying to change too much in his comeback win over Jonathan Oquendo, and the two parted ways after that fight, with Abner going back to his old team.
Perhaps more concerning is his March win over Arturo Santos. It was certainly a fight that Mares deservedly won, but on a third fight back, you expect (or at least hope) to see the rust totally shaken. That may not have been the case against Santos, who gave Mares spots of trouble and hung in for the 10-round distance.
So while Santa Cruz has been wiping out his overmatched foes, Mares has more recently been simply defeating his.
This fight, however, is different for both of them, and carries a lot more meaning. Santa Cruz will want to look good and prove that he's everything that has been said about him, at least on the positive side. Mares will want to look good to show he's still a serious player in the featherweight division.
Will the "old" Abner Mares show up? And even if he does, will Leo Santa Cruz step up to the plate and beat him anyway? Is there a chance Santa Cruz has been lulled into stagnation by fights that have been too easy for him? Who wins on Saturday?