Unbeaten bantamweight contender Leo Santa Cruz isn’t well known outside of Mexico and California, but that can change if he beats Vusi Malinga for the IBF title on Showtime’s Champion Boxing broadcast on June 2.
LOS ANGELES – The gym where Lateef Kayode, Peter Quillin and Leo Santa Cruz trained for the local boxing media on Tuesday is more famous than they are.
However, the three unbeaten young fighters – who shook out at the Wild Card Boxing Club to hype their appearances on Showtime’s big June 2 card in Carson, Calif. – can significantly raise their stature in the sport by winning their career-advancing fights next Saturday.
Kayode (18-0, 14 knockouts), a 200-pound puncher trained by Freddie Roach, faces former light heavyweight champ and fellow RING-rated cruiserweight Antonio Tarver in the main event of the June 2 card, which takes place in Home Depot Center’s outdoor tennis arena.
Quillin (26-0, 20 KOs), an athletic middleweight prospect, fights former junior middleweight champ Winky Wright in a scheduled 10-round bout.
Santa Cruz (19-0-1, 11 KOs), the younger brother of former lightweight contender Jose Armando Santa Cruz and a RING-rated bantamweight, will vie for a 118-pound title against South African veteran Vusi Malinga.
Just being on a Showtime Championship Boxing show will introduce the trio to a broader audience, but winning on June 2 will earn them the respect that every up-and-comer craves.
For Santa Cruz, a 23-year-old resident of Lincoln Heights, Calif., respect is spelled “I.B.F.,” as in that sanctioning organization’s bantamweight belt that was recently vacated by fellow Southern Californian Abner Mares.
“This fight means the world to me,” Santa Cruz told RingTV.com at Tuesday’s media workout. “I’ve been training all my life for that title.”
Santa Cruz, whose recent fights have been televised on Televisa in Mexico or the Spanish-language Telefutura network here in the U.S., will fight before the widest English-speaking TV audience of his career on June 2, but the shy, soft-spoken contender says he isn’t concerned about fame. He just wants to win.
Santa Cruz’s nickname “Terremoto” means earthquake in Spanish but the quiet young man prefers not to make waves. He says he’s able to sneak up on his competition that way.
Santa Cruz was often overlooked in the amateur ranks, where he compiled a reported 148-7 record. However, he beat local standouts Charles Huerta, Christopher Martin, and future 122-pound titleholder Rico Ramos on his way to qualifying for the 2006 U.S. Championships, where he advanced to the finals and lost to eventual ’08 U.S. Olympian Gary Russell Jr.
Russell, an undefeated pro featherweight, is considered one of the sport’s hottest prospects. It will be a feather in Santa Cruz’s cap if he’s able to win a major world title before his former amateur peer.
Of course, that won’t be easy. Although Malinga was caught cold in the first round of his first title shot (against Hozumi Hasegawa in 2009), the 32-year-old southpaw has a reputation as a fierce competitor in South Africa and the East London native backed it up by scoring a fourth-round TKO of Thai legend Veeraphol Sahaprom in ’08 and by outpointing tough Filipino veteran Michael Domingo in October of 2010 (his last fight).
“I’ve seen three of Malinga’s fights,” said Santa Cruz. “He comes forward and he has good power. He seems to like throwing the uppercut.”
That’s fine with Santa Cruz, who has stopped his last nine opponents (most of whom were felled by his brutal body attack), including a sixth-round KO of former European Boxing Union titleholder Stephane Jamoye and a fifth-round KO of former WBO 115-pound beltholder Jose Lopez (a grizzled Puerto Rican veteran who had never been stopped) last year.
Quillin is building a nice KO streak of his own, having stopped his last five opponents, including former super middleweight title challenger Jesse Brinkley (TKO 3) and former Scottish amateur star Craig McEwan (TKO 6) last year. The gregarious 28 year old from Grand Rapids, Mich., got a taste of the boxing’s bigtime when the McEwan fight, which was under the Alfredo Angulo-James Kirkland shootout last November, opened an HBO broadcast.
He says his goal is to stay on U.S. premium cable.
“Showtime and HBO are the biggest platforms for professional boxers,” Quillin said. “Professional fighters from other countries come to America just to be on Showtime and HBO, even the ones who are household names in their own countries. Those two cable networks make some of those foreign fighters household names in the U.S.
“Hey, if they can do it for foreign fighters, then they can do it for an American fighter, especially one as entertaining as I am in and out of the ring.”
Quillin, who turned pro in New York City, where he fought 18 of his first 20 bouts, has never lacked confidence. The physical specimen with a quirky charm moved to Los Angeles two years ago with the simple but lofty goal of becoming a “star.”
“Comin’ to L.A. was all about chasin’ my dream,” Quillin said. “I was stagnant in New York. I was too comfortable. I didn’t want to be babied. My manager set up a meeting with Roach here at the Wild Card. I sparred with Vanes Martirosyan and some other middleweights in the gym and I was myself.
“Freddie and (co-trainer) Eric (Brown) told me I had potential. Not long after I signed with Golden Boy and they kept me busy. After the McEwan fight I signed with (manager) Al Haymon and people in boxing really took notice.”
Quillin will have more eyes on him on June 2 than he has for any previous bout, which is why he says he’s not underestimating Wright, who has only fought once – a unanimous decision loss to Paul Williams in 2009 – in the past four years.
“I’m not looking at Wright like he’s an old fighter or an inactive fighter,” Quillin said. “I’m looking at Wright like he’s a 21 year old on steroids.
“I’m serious. I’m going to beat Winky and take that experience and wisdom he has. Hopefully, a win will lead to a title fight.”
Kayode, a 28-year-old Nigerian who now lives in Hollywood, was nearing a title shot at WBA beltholder Guillermo Jones late last year, but bypassed it for the chance to fight Tarver. For Kayode, who headlined three ShoBox: The New Generation shows last year, the scheduled 12-round bout (for Tarver’s IBO title) is a chance to silence one of his harshest critics.
Tarver, who moonlights as a Showtime commentator, did not hesitate to point out Kayode’s defensive and technical flaws during 10-round decision victories over Nicholas Iannuzzi, Matt Godfrey and Felix Cora Jr.
For Kayode’s manager, Steve Feder, making the Tarver fight was all about name recognition and more exposure for his fighter.
“It’s not easy managing a cruiserweight because, for the most part, U.S. networks don’t want to invest in that division,” Feder said. “I got lucky with Lateef because we were able to get him on the undercards of Showtime main events and (ShoBox producer) Gordon Hall, (Steve) Farhood and Antonio got to see him.
“I think they were excited by Lateef’s knockouts. Those knockouts got us on ShoBox. Lateef’s been on five ShoBox broadcasts, which is unprecedented for a cruiserweight in this era. It was great to have that TV exposure, but we reached a point where we needed to get Lateef rounds, and we did that last year.
“He wasn’t perfect, and Antonio criticized him, which bothered Lateef, but it was a good thing because it laid the groundwork for a future fight between them. When Tarver fought Danny Green last year I was hoping he would win so we could fight him. The cruiserweight division is basically a European division. Most of the talent is signed to European promoters and there aren’t any well-known Americans in the division, except for Antonio.”
Despite being 43 years old, Tarver, who is by far the most skilled and experienced opponent Kayode has ever faced, is viewed as a prohibitive favorite by many boxing writers and hardcore fans.
Feder understands that opinion but doesn’t regret making the fight.
“People tell me Tarver is too big of a step up for Lateef, but let’s be honest, there’s nothing in-between the guys he fought last year and Antonio,” Feder said. “Nobody wants to see Guillermo Jones. The networks aren’t interested in that fight. We’re not going to fight Ola Afolabi, his main sparring partner, who happens to be one of his closest friends.
“Who else is out there? B.J. Flores? Come on. Tarver’s a great opportunity and ShoBox groomed him for this fight. Yeah, Lateef is raw, but he can punch, he can take a shot and he’s going to be in great shape. I think Antonio realized that at the press conference when he saw Lateef take his shirt off. I think he knows that he stepped in some s__t. He was sweating a lot, but he kept his shirt on and I could tell he was thinking ‘This guy might not have my skills but he’s crazy enough to come after my ass.’”
Photos / Esther Lin-SHOWTIME
Email Doug Fischer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dougiefischer