- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps the last two years of Leo Santa Cruz's career weren't a waste after all.
That was a common headline leading up to his featherweight title fight against Abner Mares on Saturday inside Staples Center on a PBC on ESPN card. Santa Cruz (31-0-1, 17 KOs) won via majority decision.
The matchup was essentially a no-brainer. A pair of Mexican action fighters who each call Southern California home. Not only was it a barn-burner on paper -- it was a friendly turf war.
If there was a knock on the fight, which (predictably) produced a candidate for fight of the year, it was that it didn't happen quick enough. Both fighters wasted time with soft schedules in the last two years, particularly Santa Cruz, a junior featherweight titlist who should have stepped in the ring to unify belts with division champion Guillermo Rigondeaux by this point.
On Saturday, however, Santa Cruz showed he had markedly improved in recent years despite the low level of talent he faced. And while a fight against Mares (29-2-1, 15 KOs) perhaps could have happened sooner, it still produced a raucous crowd of 13,109, and demand will be high for a potential rematch, which Santa Cruz said he would grant.
"[The last two years] were something we needed," Santa Cruz told ESPN.com. "We needed those fights to learn new things. Little by little, we knew we'd get the big fights. We can't just fight hard fights all the time. But now, it's time to get those big fights. Those are what I want."
Santa Cruz, 27, was non-committal on whether he'd stay at the 126-pound weight limit but said he "thinks" he'll remain at featherweight.
There are certainly no shortage of big fights for Santa Cruz in that division. Now a three-division world champion, he made it clear on Saturday he intends to continue fighting top competition, which should include titleholders Gary Russell Jr., United Kingdom's Lee Selby (who attended Saturday's fight) and Jesus Cuellar, who also owns a featherweight title.
When asked if he would like a rematch against Santa Cruz, who was out-struck in the fight 373-to-227, Mares was all for it.
"I’d be more than willing to do a rematch. He knows it was a close fight, that’s why he said that," said Mares. "Again, all my respect. I respect fighters. I knew he had never faced a level of fighter like me. He proved he’s a great fighter and that’s that.
Santa Cruz deferred to fan reaction.
"The fans are the ones that have to choose that," Santa Cruz said. I'm here to fight the best. I was going to prove it by beating Mares tonight. I was ready for him and [I'm ready] for anybody else. I look better. I know how to box. If the fans want [a rematch], I'm willing. Like I said in the beginning, I knew if I had lost, I would have wanted a rematch and if he lost, he would want it. Whatever happens, happens."
30dBrian Campbell, ESPN staff writer