WBA featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 KOs) makes his third title defense against late replacement opponent Rafael “Big Bang” Rivera (26-2-2, 17 KOs) on Saturday, February 16 at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
Santa Cruz, 30, enters this fight coming off two successful defenses, most recently beating Abner Mares last summer by unanimous decision. The exciting Mexican fighter appears to have rebounded nicely following his only loss to Carl Frampton back in 2016.
Rivera is a slight upgrade over previous opponent Miguel Flores (23-2, 11 KOs), who withdrew because of an ankle injury. That fight was ridiculed because Flores was coming off two consecutive knockout losses in 2017 and had been inactive since his knockout win over Raul Chirino last April.
Like Flores, Rivera of Mexico, is coming off an easy win over Jose Ramos in October. Before that, however, Rivera lost two consecutive fights by decision to unbeaten prospect Joet Gonzalez and then dropped a unanimous verdict to previously unbeaten contender Joseph Diaz Jr. in September 2017.
Santa Cruz once said that he wants to fight the best but his resume tells a different story. Santa Cruz was supposed to face Flores, which was not exciting and Rivera is not exciting. Both selections have ‘mismatch’ written all over them in favor of Santa Cruz.
As mentioned, Rivera has lost two of his last three contests and somehow gets a world title shot against arguably the best 126-pounder. That is a head-scratcher.
To the casual fan, it will probably be exciting to see Santa Cruz in action again but hardcore enthusiasts know better. This feels like a step backwards for Santa Cruz, especially at this stage in his career. Pitting Santa Cruz against a fringe contender like Rivera has no discernible upside and comes across as a ‘stay busy’ fight when there are better options available.
Old and New Business
With a win over Rivera, Santa Cruz expects to engage with the other big names within the division in a series of unification bouts beginning with WBC champion Gary Russell Jr. Santa Cruz lost to Russell Jr. in the amateurs so this is a shot at redemption.
It’s a tantalizing matchup which has been discussed for years and could ultimately determine a new Ring champion at featherweight. Both fighters want to face each other according to some sources. It figures to be a tough fight for Santa Cruz because Russell Jr. has faster hands, and good power.
The one major knock against Russell Jr. is that he is not active enough in defending his WBC strap having only fought once a year in the past four years. Gary has gone on record by promising that a better 2019 is in store but that is questionable. A win over the talented southpaw would give the WBC a much more active champion.
A potential rubber match with Carl Frampton could also be on the table given the action-packed nature of the first two fights. Frampton most recently came up short against Josh Warrington in December for the IBF title but is still a top-rated featherweight. A clash with Warrington is least likely to occur anytime soon as promotor Frank Warren would probably not be willing to gamble on the momentum the Englishman has right now.
Three Keys to Victory
Focus – Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once remarked, “There is no greater danger than underestimating your opponent.” Santa Cruz clearly has his sights on bigger prey within the 126-pound division so focus could be a factor if he is not completely committed to the task-at-hand.
Counterpunching – Rivera is a very good counter puncher who works well behind the jab and has a strong left hook. Santa Cruz has excellent length but also a habit of being drawn into exchanges on the inside, where he gives up that height and can be susceptible to an opponent’s power punches.
Pace – Everyone knows that Santa Cruz has boundless energy, can fight inside and out and loves to push the action. At the same time, he can re-set quickly and does a very good job of getting back on defense after unleashing his fistic flurries. Rivera also faces an accurate and concussive puncher who lands more shots than he is hit by in return. It will be a tall order for him to mitigate that kind of pace.
This should be a more competitive fight than the Flores fiasco but implying anything more would be pure hyperbole. Rivera is solid and does not make many defensive mistakes so he has that going for him. Rivera’s knockout wins albeit against mostly low-level fighters, proves that the Mexican has some pop in his fists. He needs to come out aggressively and go after Santa Cruz to have any real chance of turning the tide in this fight. Leo is easily the more polished boxer with faster hands and a three-inch reach advantage. Rivera is also taking this fight on very short notice and we just saw the demolition job that Gervonta Davis performed on late replacement Hugo Ruiz last week. The forecast does not look good here.
I expect Santa Cruz to win in style and most likely by KO around the sixth round.
What are your predictions? Let us know in the comment section below.