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Santa Cruz enjoys proving critics wrong

Leo Santa Cruz expects to remain at featherweight for the next two years before moving up to junior lightweight. Harry How/Getty Images

These days it’s pretty darn good to be unbeaten featherweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz.

Less than a month removed from the biggest victory of his career -- a majority decision over Abner Mares at the Staples Center in Los Angeles -- Santa Cruz (31-0-1) is in a position to call his own shots in one of boxing’s deepest divisions.

His win over Mares not only garnered consideration for fight of the year but also gave Santa Cruz a chance to essentially reverse his reputation in one night. Criticized over the previous two years for relying on what fans and experts decreed as soft matchmaking, Santa Cruz says he can already feel the difference the victory has made.

“This one brought me to the next level,” Santa Cruz told ESPN.com. “When I go out, people notice me a lot more, and then they say it was a great fight and they loved it.”

Santa Cruz, 27, admitted that before the fight his social media accounts were flooded with cherry emojis and comments from fans telling him to fight bigger names. Now he says he has received nothing but praise, with those same detractors telling him he’s a great fighter and to keep it up.

The native of Mexico was perceived as being protected, to the point that many began to question his true stock as a fighter. Santa Cruz admits that proving them wrong was his sole mission against Mares.

“That’s what I wanted to do -- to prove everybody wrong,” Santa Cruz said. “A lot of people didn’t believe in me or that I had the ability to [win]. So I started training really hard in the gym with my dad. We really trained hard for it.”

Known for his aggressive style in which he targets the body -- often forfeiting his height and reach advantages in the process -- Santa Cruz switched gears in the Mares fight by boxing from the outside behind his jab.

It wasn’t easy, however. With the Staples Center rocking in anticipation of a brawl, Santa Cruz nearly gave in to the itch of providing them with just that. Not to mention, Mares rushed him off the opening bell, doing his best to make it a toe-to-toe fight.

“It was really hard because you know I wanted to stay there and bang to make it more exciting,” Santa Cruz said. “But I did what I had to do, which is be smart and get the win. At times we were boxing, then we would bang and throw six-punch combinations so people could get wild and stuff, but we were always smart.”

Santa Cruz admits he was caught off guard by Mares’ early aggression, but leaned on the advice of his trainer and father Jose as the rounds progressed.

“[Mares] came out straight up to try and knock me out,” Santa Cruz said. “But after that my dad told me he’s not going to be able to last a lot of rounds like that, so just be patient and be smart. After the third or fourth round, he wasn’t long in no more because he felt like he was going to get really tired.

“He knew that if he got tired, I could go there and knock him out. So he was patient and was backing off more.”

Santa Cruz expects to remain at featherweight for the next two years before moving up to junior lightweight. In the meantime, he says his team, which includes powerful adviser Al Haymon, has given him the green light to face any big name who is willing to step in the ring with him.

“There are a lot of fighters [I want],” Santa Cruz said. “There’s [secondary titlist Jesus] Cuellar, Carl Frampton if he moves up in weight to 126, [Vasyl] Lomachenko, Gary Russell Jr., Lee [Selby] from England.”

Santa Cruz still hasn’t ruled out the chance that he might face mercurial junior featherweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux, although Santa Cruz admits the fight would be difficult to make. Rigondeaux brings with him the pound-for-pound credentials and unbeaten record, but he has had tremendous difficulty drawing big names on the business side.

“The fans have always said that I have to fight and beat him if I want to prove that I am the king,” Santa Cruz said. “So that’s what I want to do to prove to them. I want to go out there and show him that I could beat him.

“But my team is telling me that right now is not the moment and that for [Rigondeaux], it’s going to be a boring fight because he’s going to be running the whole fight. You know the fans like to see entertainment and a brawl that goes toe-to-toe. That’s what I like to see, too, so maybe in the future. Later on, I think I’m going to push for that fight, and hopefully it happens.”

Regardless of whom he fights next, the victory over Mares, in the main event of a packed house at the Staples Center, was another step toward Santa Cruz realizing his dreams.

“When I saw the Staples Center really packed with people all the way to the top, I never thought I was going to be able to fill a place like that,” Santa Cruz said. “But if you work hard for it and you want to accomplish your dreams, you just have to work hard and be dedicated.”