Santa Cruz stoked by network stage

Exciting but little-known bantamweight titleholder to headline network TV fight

Updated: December 13, 2012, 3:46 AM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

Leo Santa CruzGene Blevins/Hoganphotos/Golden Boy Promotions"I want to please everybody," says Leo Santa Cruz, who does just that with his high-volume punching.

Only the most hardcore boxing fans know about bantamweight titleholder Leo Santa Cruz, but, ideally, many more will know him by the end of his fight on Saturday.

Santa Cruz, a tremendously crowd-pleasing fighter, was selected by Golden Boy Promotions to headline the return of boxing to CBS, which hasn't aired a live fight in more than 15 years -- not since then-middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins stopped Glen Johnson in the 11th round in July 1997.

That was when Santa Cruz was just 8 years old.

"I don't remember watching it, but I'm sure my dad did," Santa Cruz said.

Santa Cruz will be defending his 118-pound title for the third time when he faces Mexico's Alberto Guevara (16-0, 6 KOs) on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET) at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, which will also play host to a Golden Boy-promoted tripleheader on Showtime on Saturday night (10:30 ET/PT) headlined by the return of former junior welterweight titlist Amir Khan (26-3, 18 KOs) of England against Carlos Molina (17-0-1, 7 KOs) of Los Angeles.

"Considering that six months ago I was just a guy fighting on undercards, to now being picked to headline and defend my title on free network television is hard to believe, but I'm so happy," Santa Cruz said. "It is a tremendous honor and something I am not taking lightly."

Santa Cruz is the star of the show, but the fight is also a great opportunity for Guevara, who will be fighting, by far, the most notable opponent of his career.

"I really can't describe how happy I am to be fighting for a world title on such a great network like CBS," Guevara said. "This is definitely as good as it gets. I'm very proud to be part of this event, but what's important to me is to be able to take advantage of the opportunity.

"I understand that there are not a lot of people who know about me, but I've always felt that if I continued to do my job in the ring, the attention would come little by little. With this opportunity, I can get a lot of recognition right away."

Golden Boy has been the de facto exclusive promoter of boxing events on Showtime this year, and CBS is Showtime's sister network, so Showtime helped engineer the return of boxing to CBS. The show will be produced by Showtime, and its announcers used on a 90-minute broadcast that will follow college basketball.

"You know boxing is on a great roll [with] a great, exciting fight this [past] weekend with Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, and now boxing is moving on to a bigger stage in terms of viewership and people watching on free TV. Boxing is back on CBS," Golden Boy promoter Oscar De La Hoya said. "I think having boxing on network television can only help the sport and can only elevate the sport to a whole new level."

The show will also provide a high-profile launching pad for junior featherweight Joseph Diaz, a 20-year-old 2012 U.S. Olympian from South El Monte, Calif., who will be making his professional debut against Vicente Alfaro (5-2, 1 KO).

"This is a dream come true, a blessing," Diaz said. "Since I was 11 and started training at the South El Monte Teamsters Youth Boxing Club, I always wanted to be a pro fighter. I'm very excited about finally being able to showcase my skills. ... I'm really thankful for all who have helped me get to this point, and can't wait to fight on Saturday on CBS. Fighting on CBS is an incredible honor."

CBS once televised fights almost weekly during the 1980s and early '90s before the sport vanished from the networks. Now it's back. Whether it stays might depend largely on how Saturday goes.

[+] EnlargeJoseph Diaz
Scott Heavey/Getty ImagesJoseph Diaz, a touted 2012 U.S. Olympian, will make his professional debut in the return of boxing to CBS after a 15-year hiatus.

"I want to please everybody; I want them to be happy, and it makes me work harder," Santa Cruz said. "But I'm still going to go up there like I always do and do what I do, because some people, they're happy already with how I fight. There is a little bit of pressure, but I am going to go out there and do what I do and try to please everybody and do my best."

Santa Cruz, a 24-year-old Lincoln Heights, Calif., resident, already has had a really big year, which he could add to by beating Guevara. Santa Cruz won a vacant world title in June with a breakout performance against Vusi Malinga, whom he easily outpointed by seemingly throwing about a million punches over 12 rounds.

He was put right back in the ring in September by Golden Boy and he didn't disappoint, easily defeating former flyweight titlist Eric Morel in a fifth-round knockout. Unscathed from that fight, Santa Cruz returned Nov. 10 and punished Victor Zaleta en route to a crowd-pleasing ninth-round knockout.

Santa Cruz is 4-0 overall this year -- including a win before he won his belt -- and will go for another win in what has been a busy year. Santa Cruz said he enjoys the packed fight schedule.

"They told me that if I was ready to, come on and fight, and I was like, 'Yes, I want to fight,'" Santa Cruz said. "They told me that it was up to me and, yes, I decided to fight because I wanted to finish the year strong. After this one, I'm going to take a little rest and get ready, and hopefully everything goes good on this one. I'll take some rest and become stronger for next year."

And who knows? Maybe it will mean more network airtime.

"Millions of people are going to be watching [on Saturday], and this is what I need -- exposure, so that people to get to know me," Santa Cruz said. "Hopefully, they become fans and they like how I fight, so I can give them a good show and they keep on watching and following me."