WBA featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz (36-1-1, 19 KOs) won a hard-fought unanimous decision over a game but limited Rafael Rivera (26-3-2, 17 KOs) on Saturday night in the title fight headliner for Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
All three judges scored the bout 119-109 in favour of the champion.
Santa Cruz was originally slated to fight Miguel Flores, who withdrew from the fight after suffering an ankle injury and having to be replaced by Rivera on three weeks’ notice.
Both fights drew criticism from many corners because these opponents were a step down for the rangy sharp shooter after his dominant twelve round unanimous decision over Abner Mares in their ordered rematch last June.
Rivera was coming off a first round knockout of Jose Ramos in October. Prior to that, he suffered his first two career defeats in dropping a pair of decisions to rising prospect Joseph Diaz and Joet Gonzalez.
Round one began with both fighters feeling each other out. Rivera threw many punches but did not land anything meaningful as Santa Cruz continued to survey his opponent. Things quickly escalated as the pair traded heavy shots in the final seconds of the round.
Rivera clearly came to fight going toe-to-toe with Santa Cruz as both traded shots to open the second round. Leo was beginning to find success in going to the body while Rivera aimed for the head, with many of those punches being blocked.
Santa Cruz was beginning to settle in and control the action by the third round. Santa Cruz was using his superior height and reach to control distance with Rivera applying pressure but not landing solid shots. The back-and-forth action made this round a hard one to score but the champion landed the harder and cleaner punches.
The two fighters continued to fire away at close range in the fifth, but Santa Cruz was landing more and beginning to outwork the challenger. Rivera threw some wild punches in this round but was being countered when he missed.
The punch variety and skill difference were apparent throughout rounds six and seven as Santa Cruz continued to open his lead by throwing more behind the jab.
The pace slowed considerably in the ninth with Rivera loading up to land a big punch and Santa Cruz doing just enough to win the round. The challenger was still in this fight but was now visibly struggling to keep up with the work-rate of the champion.
Rounds ten and eleven were more of the same with Santa Cruz continuing to dictate the fast pace of this fight. Rivera would need a knockout to win but appeared to be out of ideas as he continued to be outworked throughout the night.
Rivera tried to mount an offense in the twelfth, but Santa Cruz was simply too good on defense. The final round played out as expected with the challenger being out-boxed to the final bell.
Rivera proved to have a solid chin and never stopped trying but virtually no one gave him any chance of winning this contest. Santa Cruz, who is known for his insane punch output, threw over 1,200 punches throughout the fight. According to CompuBox, Santa Cruz landed 334 of 1,273 (26%) while Rivera landed 151 of 805 (19%).
Santa Cruz can now move on to bigger fights next where he hopes to unify the division or move up to junior lightweight to chase another title in a fourth weight class.
“I want to unify the belts against anybody, the champions Oscar Valdez, Gary Russell Jr., Josh Warrington, even a third fight against (former titlist) Carl Frampton. Any of those fights, I want them.”
However, Santa Cruz most wants the Russell Jr. fight and that is probably more feasible than the others right now since both fighters are under the Premier Boxing Champions banner.
Whomever he fights, the entertaining Santa Cruz needs to remain active and give boxing fans much more than one fight in 2018.