LAS VEGAS — At the final press conference before challenging managerial stablemate Daniel Ponce de Leon for the WBC’s featherweight title on Saturday, Abner Mares stood at the podium and summarized what the fight means to him.
“It’s going to be a tremendous fight. It’s my first time at 126. Featherweight…I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m ready for this. You guys know me, and I fight whoever, man. I’ve said it before. I’ll fight anyone, man. As long as I give the fans a good fight, I’m with it. I have trained hard,” said Mares, 27, who will be fighting on a card headlined by the Floyd Mayweather–Robert Guerrero welterweight bout.
“My dad. This fight is dedicated to him. My dad just recently, about a month ago, suffered a stroke. But he’s doing better now, so I dedicate this fight for him. … I actually added something different to my training camp. And it’s called ‘Mexican Judo.’ It’s ‘ju-don’t know if I’m going to box, or ju-don’t know if I’m going to brawl, but you do know that I’m going to win.'”
A former bantamweight who will be in against a tough-minded, hard-punching Mexican southpaw in Ponce de Leon (44-4, 35 knockouts), Mares (25-0-1, 13 KOs) is looking to add a belt in a third division to what is already an exemplary resume.
“This is a big show and a big stage, so more people are going to be watching,” said Mares. “It’s a big fight and a big stage, so it’s just a matter of taking advantage of that and making it my night.”
Mares has twice beaten ex-beltholder Joseph Agbeko, earned a decision over former beltholder Vic Darchinyan and battled to a draw with then-beltholder Yonnhy Perez — all over a 20-month span as a bantamweight. After defeating Agbeko by consecutive majority and unanimous decisions, the latter in December of 2011, Mares rose to 122 pounds for a unanimous decision over ex-beltholder Eric Morel in April of last year to earn the WBC’s belt.
In November of last year, Mares scored a unanimous decision over WBA bantamweight titleholder Anselmo Moreno, who rose in weight to challenge for the junior featherweight belt. Mares dropped the Panamanian in the fifth round and ended his 27-bout winning streak.
“I grew in all of my fights, from the Yonnhy Perez fight, where I got a draw. From there, I hit the gym even harder. Right after that was the Darchinyan fight, which was no easy fight. Against Darchinyan I got cut, got knocked down, but I came back strong. Agbeko, there was the controversy with the low blows, but I fought him again and beat him clean. After that, I captured the world title against Eric Morel, who was a boxer and who was really technical,” said Mares.
“Then there was Anselmo Moreno, who I was able to bring into my fighting skills. I beat him. A guy that people were saying was going to be a ghost that night and that I wouldn’t see him because he was too much of a boxer for me. But I was able to adapt to all of those styles that I just mentioned. I think this is no doubt, a unique style that Ponce brings in. A heavier puncher. But, you know, at the end of the day. It’s just another fight.”
With Moreno having been Mares’ premiere fight as a 122-pounder, he truly is facing, in Ponce de Leon, his largest high-level opponent ever.
“You can look at it that way, but I did start my career at 122. My first 12-to-15 fights were at 122. So, I’ve been fighting at 122. I went back down to 118 and decided to move back up to 122, which is how I captured that world title. But now, I’m moving up to 126,” said Mares.
“But again, I’m not getting my feet wet first. I’m going in against a good fighter and a heavy puncher. It’s a lot. It’s a lot for anyone to handle, I think. But mentally, I’m strong. At the end of the day, I’ve got two hands, he’s got two hands, and I’m capable of doing whatever I can inside the ring.”
Mares said he trained against bigger opponents in preparation for Ponce de Leon.
“You’re talking about 140-pounders, the biggest. Up to 135, and some 130-pound guys. Good sparring. At the end of the day, you can’t go in there to kill each other. … You go in there and you learn. They do whatever Ponce does in the ring, and I try to box off of that,” said Mares.
“He’s a big guy who just stands in front of you. I could either stay there, trade punches and make it a war, make it an interesting fight, or I could box, and do what I know how to do, which is box and to make it my fight. You know, an outside fight. But, it’s easier said than done. I could say it here. I could write it down on paper. But it really could turn out differently come fight night.”
Mares is not unfamilier with Ponce de Leon, having once sparred with him.
“He helped me out in 2010 for the Darchinyan fight. He was my sparring partner years ago. Again, tough guy, good sparring, and I’m sure that he’s an even stronger fighter now,” said Mares, who also shares a friendship with Ponce de Leon.
“He’s a good friend. We’re really close. When I came out of the Olympics, my first coach was Clemente Medina. Clemente was training Ponce at that time, so I worked with his team, I know his family, I saw his kids grow. So we’ve grown with each other.”
Does Medina’s familiarity with Ponce de Leon contribute to his strategy?
“My coach trained him years ago, and I’m sure that Ponce has changed. Clemente tells me little things, but it really comes down to my sparring partners and the way they help me and the way that I’m going to do the fight,” said Mares.
“Probably the Mexican will come out of me and I’ll want to make it a war. A tough fight. I can box, and the good thing is that I have different things and different tactics that I can do in the ring.”
If he’s successful against Ponce de Leon, Mares said he would seek out challenges against junior featherweight Leo Santa Cruz, a former 118-pound titleholder, and left-handed 126-pounder Gary Russell Jr., both of whom are promoted by Golden Boy.
Other potential opponents for Mares would be Nonito Donaire, current RING, WBA and WBO titleholder Guillermo Rigondeaux, JuanMa Lopez, Orlando Salido or RING and WBO featherweight champion Miguel Angel “Mikey” Garcia — though all five are handled by Golden Boy rival Top Rank and thus the bouts are unlikely to happen.
“There’s a lot of names. It sucks that most of the names are with Top Rank. [Top Rank CEO] Bob Arum has got JuanMa Lopez who is fighting Mikey Garcia [on June 15.] They’ve got Salido. All good fights,” said Mares.
“But there is one guy that Golden Boy has, which is Gary Russell. They’re hyping him up and they’re bringing him up. They’re looking at the winner of this fight. Who knows? It might be against him. I’m up for all of the big fights. I’m not here to take no easy fights. If Golden Boy comes at me and says, ‘Abner, okay, you have a tough fight on May 4, relax and take an easy fight.’ I’m going to say, ‘No. bring on the next guy.’ A tough fight? Let’s bring it,” said Mares.
“I’m about that. I want to please the crowd, make my money and get out of this quick and make history. Donaire is still there, even after one loss. He just fought a better man that night. I’m open to fight anyone. I’m looking into all of these big fights. I know that Leo Santa Cruz wanted to fight me in the past, and he’s at 122. If he’s willing to move up to 126, let’s do it. You know, after this fight, I don’t know how my body’s going to feel to go back down to 122, but if my body can do it, I’m willing to go back down to 122 to make that fight happen with Santa Cruz for the fans.”
But Mares must first get beyond Ponce de Leon, a 32-year-old former 122-pound beltholder who won his current title with an eight-round technical decision over Jhonny Gonzalez last September, ending a 12-fight winning streak that included 11 knockouts for Gonzalez.
Ponce de Leon suffered his initial loss in February of 2005 by unanimous decision to ex-titleholder Celestino Caballero as a junior featherweight, and was stopped in the first round of a 122-pound bout by Juan Manuel Lopez in June of 2008.
Ponce de Leon also lost unanimous decisions against unbeaten boxer-punchers Yuriorkis Gamboa, who is now a junior lightweight contender planning to fight at lightweight, and Adrien Broner, now lightweight titleholder who is scheduled to fight for a welterweight belt. Ponce de Leon fought Gamboa at 127 pounds (one pound over the featherweight division limit) and Broner up at 130 pounds.
Mares, like Ponce de Leon, is managed by Frank Espinoza, who has remained neutral throughout the promotion of their fight.
“Frank is probably pulling for a trilogy. I know that he was happy that he could make this fight. I know that it was hard for him,” said Mares. “It was hard for all of us, you know, really. But it’s our job to entertain people. To entertain the crowd, boxing fans and to just give a good fight.”
Meanwhile, Mares is enjoying the fruits of his labor, having purchased a new Porsche.
“That’s big for me. That’s something that I never dreamed of. I went from a Toyota Camry back in 2010, to the Porsche,” said Mares. “So look at me now. It’s paid off, but I’m still the same guy. My friends drive it, and I drive it the least because I’m always training.”
As for the source of his inspiration, Mares says he’ll be telling his father to take it easy.
“It was a month ago. He had to have surgery on his heart. He had two closed arteries. It affected me through the camp a little bit. I tried not to think too much of it. But at the end of the day, thank God, my dad, you know, he’s good. He made it. He’s safe at home. He’s recuperating. Mentally, you know, he’s here with me. He’s going to watch the fight, but I’ve told him to relax, and I’ve got it under control,” said Mares of his 54-year-old father.
“Let your son do his work, sit back, and look pretty. But It’s for the fans. I want to come out of this clean and just go home and spend the time with my family and just be happy and walk down the street and have people recognize my effort from the fights that I’ve been in. People are recognizing the elite opponents that I’ve been in with, and they know that. It’s not people booing me for fighting against a bum. I’ve been fighting nothing but good fighters.”
Photo by Naoki Fukuda
Photo by Craig Bennett, Fightwireimages.com
Photo by Naoki Fukuda
Lem Satterfield can be reached at email@example.com