Doug Fischer

Santa Cruz won’t be challenged until he fights the best

LOS ANGELES – Leo Santa Cruz was looking forward to a hard-fought action fight against Victor Zaleta on the undercard of Abner Mares-Anselmo Moreno showdown at Staples Center on Saturday.

What the 24-year-old bantamweight titleholder got was a courageous stand from the unranked challenger, who was dropped three times en route to a ninth-round stoppage.

Santa Cruz’s second defense of his IBF belt was as one-sided as his title-winning decision over Vusi Malinga in June and his fifth-round stoppage of Eric Morel in September, but Zaleta’s ability to absorb punishment and his willingness to punch back in spots made for a mildly entertaining bout.

At the very least it gave fans watching the bout on Showtime eight and half rounds to become more familiar with Santa Cruz, one of the hottest up-and-comers in the sport.

Against Zaleta, Santa Cruz (22-0-1, 13 KOs) once again exhibited the traits that make him special – relentless pressure, volume punching and a debilitating body attack. The Los Angeles resident reminds many of Antonio Margarito, however, Santa Cruz cuts off the ring without getting hit as much as the rugged former welterweight titleholder and his technique far better.

Santa Cruz – who scored knockdowns in rounds four, seven and nine – averaged 93 punches per round, according to CompuBox. And he wasn’t just imitating a windmill in the ring; he’s an accurate puncher – to the body and head. Santa Cruz, who landed 119 body punches, averaged 38 landed punches per round.

He landed 41 percent of his total punches and a scary 52 percent of his power shots.

How Zaleta was able to survive the punishment is anybody’s guess.

“He was a strong fighter; he made this a fight,” Santa Cruz said. “I was working on his body and I finally caught him with a right hand that ended the fight.”

Zaleta (20-3-1, 10 KOs) was gracious in defeat and impressed with the young titleholder.

“I have the heart and blood of a Mexican fighter,” he said. “I’m a very proud fighter, but Santa Cruz is very strong. I definitely felt his power.”

Fans want to know if the best bantamweights and junior featherweights would also feel Santa Cruz’s power. He wants to find out, too.

Santa Cruz believes he’ll be ready for the likes of Mares and Moreno soon.

“I want one or two more fights, so I can get more experience,” he said. “I’ll probably have one more fight at bantamweight, then one at junior featherweight, and then I want to go for a title at junior featherweight.”

Santa Cruz will get the hard-fought action fight he desires against Mares, Guillermo Rigondeaux and RING champ Nonito Donaire.

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