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New Wrinkles in the Ring: Leo Santa Cruz's tactical adjustments

Bad Left Hook's technique analyst Connor Ruebusch breaks down the multi-faceted strategy that led Leo Santa Cruz to his impressive victory over Abner Mares.

Harry How/Getty Images

Leo Santa Cruz has garnered a reputation as a can-crusher in recent years. With a mile-high stack of expectations on his head ever since his dominant victory over Victor Terrazas back in 2013, Santa Cruz has managed to disappoint fans by facing a long string of worn-out or under-seasoned opponents. His wins have continued to look dominant, but they've felt increasingly less meaningful.

Saturday's bout with Abner Mares was a welcome break in that pattern. Mares certainly isn't the best boxer on the planet, but he represented a definite step up in competition to match Santa Cruz's move up to featherweight. What's more, he came in with what seemed like a watertight strategy: knowing that Santa Cruz likes to push his opponents around the ring, keeping them on the end of his long jabs and crosses, Mares charged Leo like a bull out of the gate from the opening bell, looking to pressure the pressure fighter. It's a gameplan that has worked many times for many other fighters in the past, but this time it didn't.

As it turns out, Leo Santa Cruz can box a little.

STIFLING THE SWARM

At the start of the fight, Santa Cruz had a great deal of trouble just keeping Mares off. Mares was willing to walk through punches to get inside, and not hesitant to fight dirty once he got there.

In this GIF, Mares goads Santa Cruz into closing the distance, and then jumps on him with an overhand right, crashing into the clinch before Santa Cruz can get off a counter. Once there, Mares bullies Santa Cruz into the ropes, driving his shoulder into Leo's chest and using his lower center of gravity to push him around. Santa Cruz, still coming to terms with the frothing wolverine sharing the ring with him, resorts to covering up with both hands and letting Mares take the initiative. Mares lands a few body shots and works the up-down threat of his overhand right and left uppercut to keep Santa Cruz in his shell.

Essentially, what Mares got in round one is what every part-time pressure fighter in the history of boxing has wanted. He turned Santa Cruz, usually the aggressor, into a meek, defensively minded fighter; so defensively-minded, in fact, that Mares was able to walk in on him at will, rarely even setting up his attacks with jabs or feints.

But Santa Cruz and his corner were already making mental adjustments. In the very next round, Mares tried for more of the same, and this is how Santa Cruz responded.

Here you can see Santa Cruz utilizing a series of what wrestlers sometimes call a "throw-by." Placing his hand under Mares' armpit, shoulder, or the back of his neck, Santa Cruz steps to the side while shoving Mares in the opposite direction. It works because Mares is wholly focused on pinning Santa Cruz in place in the clinch, driving all of his weight into his taller opponent and leaning past his own feet. When Santa Cruz steps off-line and uses the throw-by, Mares has to fight not to simply fall over into the space vacated by Santa Cruz.

And already in this sequence, you can see Santa Cruz not merely looking to nullify Mares' roughhouse tactics, but aiming to punish him as well, throwing uppercuts and short hooks to catch Mares as he struggles to readjust to his lateral movement.

Now that he'd worked out a way to keep Mares off-balance on the inside, Santa Cruz focused next on making him pay for trying to get there. You can see the next layer of this impromptu gameplan in this GIF.

Notice that by the 3rd round, Santa Cruz has already convinced Mares to hang around on the outside longer than necessary--no doubt helped by the contradictory advice of Mares' corner, half of whom tried to back out of their pressure-fighting gambit when it became clear that Santa Cruz wasn't going to be overwhelmed so easily. With some welcome space between himself and his opponent, Santa Cruz also rediscovered his jab, the staple of his boxing game. Here, he flashes that jab in Mares' face and Mares seizes on it as an opportunity to close the distance, countering with another wide overhand right. Thanks to the open distance, however, Santa Cruz is able to capitalize, trying for a left hook inside Mares' right hand and then finding a home for a perfectly timed right uppercut that snaps Mares' head back as he tries to weave his way in.

Mares does manage to close the gap, but now he's no longer the boss in the clinch, and Santa Cruz immediately fights back, keeping his arms inside those of Mares and shooting short uppercuts up the center, followed by a few cracking hooks over the top. The throw-by makes an appearance too, preventing Mares from finding sure footing and limiting him to rapid-fire flurries of "shoeshine" punches, most of which land on Santa Cruz's guarding elbows.

Just four rounds into the bout, and Santa Cruz had effectively solved everything that Mares was going to throw at him for the remainder of the fight. Up to this point, Santa Cruz had been compelled to exchange with Mares at certain times, trading blow for blow in order to prove that aggression alone couldn't make him back down. Now, with Mares hesitant to close the distance as he had before, and less effective when he did manage to get there, Santa Cruz was able to start declining the exchanges altogether.

Here, Santa Cruz has Mares on the end of his jab. He steps in to land that jab, but misjudges the distance, and Mares lets go one of his hair-trigger flurries. But instead of standing his ground, Santa Cruz cuts a nice little pivot, turning to his left and taking his head just out of the path of Mares' right hand, while lining him up for a right hand of his own. Using his jab to measure the distance and keep Mares blind, he fires a straight right hand just as Mares begins adjusting his feet, setting him back on his heels and leaving him even more hesitant to engage.

Ultimately, Mares' gameplan fell apart because it lacked subtlety, while Santa Cruz's round-by-round adjustments were the very picture of subtlety. If both fighters were trying to teach a lesson to their opponent, then Mares' lesson-plan just wasn't convincing. He seemed to say, "I know you like to come forward, but I'm not going to let you." Not at all a bad starting point, but a starting point only.

Meanwhile, Santa Cruz was teaching a lesson with layers,"You want to get inside? I can make you uncomfortable there. Oh, and while you're worrying about what to do in close, I'm going to hit you coming in. And then once you're feeling lost and desperate at long range, I'm going to do what I always do, and keep you there." Santa Cruz's strategy gradually built to the irrefutable conclusion that Mares simply couldn't beat him, and with an inconsistent corner to help him out, Mares was quickly convinced.

I'm hesitant to hope for a bright future for Leo Santa Cruz, considering the kind of opposition he's been facing for the bulk of his career, but I was more than happy to see him step up and take on a tough opponent like Abner Mares. And having seen how deftly he handled this first serious test, I can only say that it will be a real disappointment if Leo goes back to his old ways, because any division would be lucky to have a fighter with his skill and talent at the top.