LAS VEGAS — Mexican-born bantamweight Leo Santa Cruz may have only turned 24 in August, but the youngster went old school on one of the sport’s elder statesmen in Saturday night’s Showtime-televised undercard of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez vs. Josesito Lopez at the MGM Grand.
In defense of his IBF crown, Santa Cruz (21-0-1, 12 knockouts) brutalized 36-year-old Eric Morel (46-4, 23 KOs) with a ferocious, strength-depleting body attack that forced his rival to retire on his stool prior to the sixth round, and, perhaps, for good.
“That’s my favorite shot. In the gym, I am always working on the body shots. That was the plan, to work the body and try to break down his legs,” said Santa Cruz of Morel, who was stopped for the first time in his career and was coming off a unanimous decision loss to Abner Mares in a failed bid to earn the WBC’s junior featherweight belt.
“I was going to stay on the body, because after that first shot, I knew that it had gone in easily. From there, I just kept getting there and getting there. When he would cover up to the body, then I would go to the head, and then, come back down to the body.”
Morel’s winning streak of 11 straight fights was ended by Mares, who was at ringside.
Santa Cruz was coming off June’s unanimous decision over South African lefthander Vusi Malinga, which earned him the vacant belt and ended Santa Cruz’s streak of nine straight knockout victories.
“Leo Santa Cruz is on his way. He’s a beautiful fighter to watch, and, personally, I love watching him fight. I think that he’s the best body puncher in boxing today. It’s just very impressive,” said Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Eric Gomez.
“There were a few so-called experts that said that this was the wrong fight. Even a few members of his team and ex-members of his team were saying that this was a mistake, making this fight. But he proved everybody wrong. This kid is special. This kid is very, very special.”
Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer goes even farther.
“In the lower weight classes, I think he is the single best fighter, period, end of story. And he’s getting better, and better, and that’s the scary part. How much better can you get? The guy is already that good…Eric Morel is a terrific fighter,” said Schaefer.
“But to see Leo Santa Cruz to be able to do that to a fighter, a warrior and an accomplished fighter and a former world champion like Eric Morel, it just shows you how good Leo Santa Cruz is. I really think that he and Mares are right there. I think that’s a fight that I would eventually like to see, Santa Cruz and Mares. They’re terrific fighters.”
DANIEL PONCE DE LEON WEARS A BELT ONCE AGAIN
For the first time in more than four years, Daniel Ponce de Leon is wearing a title belt.
The 32-year-old fighter overcame a profusely-bleeding cut high on the right side of his scalp, as well as a steady attack from his hard-hitting featherweight rival to come away with an eighth-round unanimous technical decision that dethroned WBC featherweight beltholder Jhonny Gonzalez, who had won 12 straight fights, 11 of them by stoppage.
The bout ended when a nasty gash emerged over the right eye of Gonzalez (52-8, 45 KOs), of Mexico City, after which it was determined that Gonzalez could not continue and that the result must depend on the judges’ cards.
Judges Dick Houck and David Sutherland had it 79-72, and Jerry Roth, 77-74, all for Ponce de Leon (43-4, 35 KOs), a Mexican-born resident of Huntington Park, Calif., and former 122-pound titleholder.
“This is a very special evening for me. I’ve been waiting for a long, long time to be a world champion again. This is really the happiest day of my life,” said Ponce de Leon (43-4, 35 KOs), who has been knocked out once — in the first round when Juan Manuel Lopez dethroned him as WBO junior featherweight titleholder in June of 2008.
“I know that I was a champion before, but this one is much, much more special because I have mature, and I feel much, much more stronger than ever. I have to take a well-deserved break, and and I want to just tell everybody that the best is yet to come, and I’m not going to stop. I want to give the fans the best fights that I can produce.”
Ponce de Leon has now won three straight fights after having lost to unbeaten ex-beltholders Adrien Broner and Yuriorkis Gamboa, in March and September of last year, respectively. Ponce de Leon’s other loss was against Celestino Caballero in February of 2005.
“I want to thank Jhonny Gonzalez for giving me the opportunity,” said Ponce de Leon. “He was a tough, tough fighter in there, and it took me a while to figure him out. I started throwing more punches, and now, I’m ready for whoever is next.”
That could very well be Gonzalez, who claimed to have a rematch clause in the contract for the fight.
“We will be talking of course about the rematch between Daniel and Jhonny,” said Schaefer.
Gonzalez had scored 11 straight knockouts heading into April’s unanimous decision over Elio Rojas, whom he floored with a 10th-round body shot. Gonzalez had not suffered defeat since falling by third-round knockout in May of 2009 to Toshiaki Nishioka, whom he dropped in the first round.
FANS’ WAVE OF EMOTION
So into the excitement of the evening was the crowd, that, during portions of the De Leon-Gonzalez fight, there was a continuous wave executed by fans.
“You know, I have never seen that. I was talking to some of the commission members here, and they were saying that it was the best crowd that they have ever seen at a boxing match,” said Schaefer.
“This was great fights, and the crowd was into it. Honestly, from all of the fights that we have done, in the history of Golden Boy, this was the single-most satisfying night. I have never seen a crowd like that. It was absolutely incredible.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR MAIDANA?
A 29-year-old Argentinian, Maidana considered returning to the junior welterweight division before turning to veteran trainer Robert Garcia, whose job it was to restore the fighter’s power and resolve.
On Saturday night, Maidana rose into the 147-pound division for the second consecutive fight, this time, scoring a an eighth-round technical knockout over tough Jesus Soto Karass.
In what was a give-and-take fight, Maidana (32-3, 29 KOs) took as much as he gave, enduring until he cornered and battered Soto Karass (26-8-3, 17 KOs).
Marcose then turned up the heat to the point where referee Kenny Bayless, having seen enough, stopped the fight 43 seconds into the final round.
“What we will do as well is I have already had a conversation with Marcos Maidana,” said Schaefer. “He is ready to fight anyone at 147, and I think that he is a threat at 147 as he was at 140, and, obviously, he has carried his punch into the 147-pound division.”
Schaefer likes as options, a potential rematch with Alexander, or match ups opposite WBA welterweight beltwinner and Brooklyn native Paulie Malignaggi or southpaw interim WBC titleholder Robert Guerrero.
“We were talking potential opponents and fights, maybe against a Paulie Malignaggi, or a Devon Alexander, or a Robert Guerrero,” said Schaefer. “One of those names. There are so many great names at 140, 147 and 154. That’s really where all of the action is.”
ALVAREZ EARNS THE BIG PRIZE, BUT GOLDEN BOY SPREADS THE WEALTH
Although already set to earn $2 million, Alvarez (41-0-1, 30 KOs) was voted by the fans to receive a bonus of $1000,000, this, for a fifth-round knockout triumph during which he floored Josesito Lopez (30-5, 18 KOs) three times.
“I think that Canelo always wants to entertain, and you had four, terrific fights, and four fights which all had great endings or knockouts. The ‘Knock Out Kings’ slogan was perfect for this. The way that he finished Josesito Lopez, the fans, who were voting at home and in the venues through AT&T, they spoke, and they spoke loudly,” said Schaefer.
“We had to leave the lines open because the volume was so overwhelming, that Showtime wanted to be able to process as many calls as they could. The overwhelming winner was Canelo Alvarez. But what [Golden Boy Promotions President] Oscar [De La Hoya] did, because all of the fighters fought their hearts out, he gave the other three ‘Knock Out Kings,’ Ponce de Leon, Santa Cruz and Maidana an extra $25,000 as well.”
Photos by Tom Casino, Showtime
Lem Satterfield can be reached at email@example.com