- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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After Golden Boy Promotions signed bantamweight titleholder Anselmo Moreno in late 2011, the exceptionally skilled southpaw from Panama was brought to the United States to begin showcasing him to American fans.
Last December, in Moreno's first fight in the U.S., he defended his 118-pound title with a lopsided decision against former junior bantamweight champ Vic Darchinyan. In the main event that night in Anaheim, Calif., fellow bantamweight titleholder Abner Mares retained his title with a lopsided decision against former titleholder Joseph Agbeko in their rematch.
By placing the two titleholders on the same card, Golden Boy clearly was building toward an eventual Mares-Moreno match, and it became even more obvious when they were put on the same televised card again in April.
On that night in El Paso, Texas, Moreno knocked out David De La More in the ninth round; Mares, who had moved up to junior featherweight, pitched a virtual shutout against former flyweight titlist Eric Morel to claim a vacant 122-pound title in the main event.
So now, after being on a collision course for a year, Mares and Moreno -- who is moving up in weight -- will meet in a high-level bout Saturday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/PT, with preliminary bouts on Showtime Extreme beginning at 8 p.m. ET/PT).
"This will be a very good fight, a very tough one that will bring out the best in me and the best in both of us," Mares said. "This is the kind of fight the fans want, a pretty even fight, you could say, between two world champions going at it from the opening bell."
And it's a fight that Mares (24-0-1, 13 KOs) and Moreno (33-1-1, 12 KOs), along with everyone else, saw coming.
"Obviously, we were in the same weight class, bantamweight," Mares said. "When he first started fighting on my undercards, he was a current champion as well. So I definitely saw myself fighting him in the future. Like I say, here we are. It's made. People were asking for this fight, and I can't wait to give the people what they want."
"I've always wanted to fight good fighters like Abner, and it crossed my mind, obviously, yes, fighting him," Moreno said through translator and Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez. "He's a very, very good fighter. It did cross my mind and I felt that someday it should happen, or it will happen, and I just thank God that it finally happened.
"The hour's upon us. I can't wait. I think that a lot of fans can't wait for this fight. It's a fight that has been talked about before. I think that I'm ready and it's going to be a very, very good fight."
The card is stacked. Bantamweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz (21-0-1, 12 KOs), in the second defense of his belt, will face Victor Zaleta (20-2-1, 10 KOs), and junior middleweight contender Alfredo "Perro" Angulo (20-2, 17 KOs) will return from a year out of the ring -- much of which was spent in a detention center because of immigration problems -- to face Raul Casarez (19-2, 9 KOs).
The Showtime Extreme coverage of the preliminary bouts will include light heavyweight titleholder Nathan Cleverly (24-0, 11 KOs) of Wales, making his fourth defense, against Sean Hawk (23-2-1, 17 KOs) and junior welterweight prospect Antonio Orozco (15-0, 11 KOs) versus Danny Escobar (8-1, 5 KOs).
Mares, 26, of Hawaiian Gardens, Calif., has been a regular in tough fights on Showtime. He fought to a draw against Yonnhy Perez in a bid for a bantamweight belt in 2010. Then he won Showtime's four-man bantamweight tournament, taking a bloody split decision from Darchinyan in the semifinals, followed by a controversial majority decision against Agbeko in their first meeting in the August 2011 final.
The quality opponents Mares has fought could brawl with the best of them, and he too enjoys a high-contact scrap.
Moreno, 27, is an entirely different fighter. He's slick. He's fast. He's very skilled. And he can also make bad, uninteresting fights because of his awkward hit-and-run style.
"I think this could be a more mentally exhausting fight than a physically exhausting one for me," said Mares, a 2004 Olympian for Mexico, where he was born. "I know I have to be mentally sharp. With Moreno's style, if you miss, you cannot become frustrated. You have to keep working, and that is one of the biggest keys for me."
Moreno doesn't apologize for a style that has worked well enough for him to win a bantamweight title in 2008 and make 10 defenses.
"My style is what it is. I'm an elusive fighter, the kind of fighter that hits and doesn't get hit," he said. "My style is one that makes you watch at all times. I've fought the same way since I was younger. I learned that lesson when I was fighting in the streets, when you need to stay smart all the time and not just brawl."
Knowing that this fight might loom, Mares and Moreno watched each other fight. But while Moreno paid attention to Mares' bouts when they were on the same cards, Mares mostly tuned out Moreno on those nights because he was warming up for the main event.
"I was mainly concentrating on my fight," Mares said. "I've always said I don't like looking at opponents' fights. I've seen him fight, yes. I'm not going to lie. I've seen him fight a couple of times, not many rounds. He's a really technical, elusive fighter. I leave that for my trainer [to scout him]. But again, for some reason, I always thought this fight would come."
Even Moreno gave something less than his full focus to Mares' bouts until recently.
"It wasn't until the Eric Morel fight that I paid very, very close attention because I felt that there was a good chance that I would be fighting him," said Moreno, who will decide after Saturday's fight whether to remain at junior featherweight or return to bantamweight to defend his title in that weight class. "So I took a lot of notes and I paid attention to that fight from Round 1 all the way to Round 12."
Moreno may have studied Mares more than Mares studied him, but the match still figures to be closely contested. Hopefully, it will also be entertaining.
"Obviously, we both want to steal the night and we both want to be in the limelight," Moreno said. "This is going to be a very, very, very tough fight for me. It's not going to be an easy fight. I understand this. He's the world champion. So all I can say is that I'm very, very well-prepared for this fight. I'm sure we both are. It's going to be a great night, and I think I have what it takes."
Said Mares: "It's a big challenge, believe me, and they keep getting bigger and bigger as I keep fighting. I want it to continue. Obviously, I fought nothing but world champions, current world champions, ex-world champions in my last four or five fights.
"Definitely, everybody's good in their own style, and Anselmo Moreno brings in a different style -- a unique style, you could say, a great style that works for him. He's obviously a really defensive fighter, a smart type of a fighter. But again, we train hard and this is what we train for.
"You don't pick your opponent nowadays. I don't like to pick opponents. Whoever is there to fight, whoever is the best, I'll fight them no matter what style he brings, and I just have to get accustomed to it and figure him out."
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