Doug Fischer

Santa Cruz ready for Zaleta and the junior featherweight division

Leo Santa Cruz (left) is ready to move up to the loaded 122-pound division but the Los Angeles resident will defend his IBF bantamweight title at least one more time against Victor Zaleta (right) on Satruday at Staples Center.


LOS ANGELES – Enjoy Leo Santa Cruz at 118 pounds while you can.

The unbeaten bantamweight titleholder will defend his IBF belt against Victor Zaleta on the Abner Mares-Anselmo Moreno undercard at Staples Center on Saturday. The Showtime-televised fight will be Santa Cruz’s second defense of the title he won from Vusi Malinga in June, and it could be his last.

Santa Cruz (21-0-1, 12 knockouts), a 24-year-old pressure fighter from the L.A. area, already has his sights on the loaded junior featherweight division and the elite fighters who reside in the 122-pound weight class.

The tall (at least 5-foot-7) and rangy volume puncher and his team had planned for his last bout – an impressive fifth-round stoppage of Eric Morel on the Saul Alvarez-Josesito Lopez undercard in September – to be his final fight at bantamweight, but Santa Cruz had second thoughts.

“I didn’t want to give up the belt so soon after winning it,” Santa Cruz told after the final press conference of the Showtime Championship Boxing event on Wednesday. “It was hard to get it, and when I won it I wanted to make more than one or two defenses of it.”

Part of Santa Cruz’s hesitation to make an immediate move to 122 pounds was his devastating performance against Morel, a 49-bout veteran who had only three losses – including a respectable 12-round decision to Mares in April – and had never been stopped.

Santa Cruz seemed to cripple the former flyweight titleholder with every shot, forcing the proud Puerto Rican stylist’s corner to halt the bout between rounds. The dominant victory prompted many fans and boxing writers to view Santa Cruz the future ruler of the 118-pound division – and perhaps the best active bantamweight  right now should Moreno elect to stay at 122 pounds after Saturday’s showdown with Mares.

“I thought the Morel fight would be harder,” Santa Cruz said. “I thought it would go the distance. He took Mares the distance, so I knew he was smart and tough, but we prepared for him in the gym by working a lot on body shots. When you work the body it kills the opponent’s legs. That’s what happened to Morel.”

The result was a one-sided blowout. Santa Cruz is hoping for a more crowd-pleasing scrap against Zaleta (20-2-1, 10 KOs), a former 115-pound title challenger from Mexico.

“Zeleta is young and aggressive,” Santa Cruz said. “We’re probably going to mix it up and fight how Mexicans fight. That’s how I like to fight, in the center of the ring. I hope I get a challenge. I don’t want fans to think that I only fight older fighters like Morel and Malinga.”

There’s no shortage of top fighters who are in their prime in the 122-pound division. Whenever Santa Cruz moves up, he’ll have to deal with the likes of RING champ Nonito Donaire, WBA beltholder Guillermo Rigondeaux, and of course, the winner of Mares-Morneo.

Santa Cruz’s strength and conditioning coach Daniel Garcia hopes the step up to junior featherweight is sooner rather than later.

“Leo can make 118 pounds because he’s young and he’s disciplined, but he’s gotten bigger and he’s added more muscle to his tall frame over the past year or two,” Garcia said. “I think he’s really a junior featherweight now, because he’s super lean at bantamweight. Right now he’s at 2 or 3 percent body fat. When he makes 118 pounds, he has to dehydrate and I don’t want him to do that.

“In a perfect world we’d have a few months off after this fight to bulk Leo up and then bring him down to 122 pounds the right way so that he’s one of the strongest junior featherweights out there. But I think the plan is to bring him back – either in L.A. or Mexico – in December.”

Santa Cruz doesn’t mind the busy schedule. He wants the work and the exposure that comes with it, even if he has to boil his body down to bantamweight.

“After Zaleta, I’m hearing that I could fight (Jamie) McDonnell,” he said. “He’s young and he’s my (IBF) mandatory, and I’m told that he’s pretty good. I want tough challenges. I would love to fight (former titleholder) Joseph Agbeko before moving up to 122. I want to prove to fans that I’m a real champ.”



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