Abner Mares: Rebirth and Redemption

By Laurena Marrone on August 18, 2015
Abner Mares: Rebirth and Redemption
“I beat on a kid [the first time I was in the gym]. It felt good. I didn’t know it was boxing.”

“He’s a good fighter,” says Mares about Santa Cruz. “I have always said he’s a good fighter. He’s a tough fighter and I am fighting a tough fight…”

On August 29th, Abner Mares (29-1-1, 15 KOs) will face Leo Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KOs) for the vacant WBC Diamond Featherweight title at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA. The fight airs as part of Premier Boxing Champions on ESPN (10 PM EST/7 PM PST).

There is a calm, quiet determination in Abner Mares’ voice. It has been another long day of training, something that he has been doing non-stop since January. He knows that Leo Santa Cruz will present a difficult challenge, but Mares is no stranger to difficult challenges. His life has been a series of them.

It is an unfortunate but common theme that boxers often face their greatest struggles outside the ring, and Abner Mares is no exception. For some, their troubles are self-inflicted. For others, it is simply a matter of circumstance.

When Mares was seven years old, his mother uprooted their family and made their way across the border from Mexico to the United States. They would travel from Guadalajara to Los Angeles, smuggled into the City of Angels in separate cars. It was a life change of such magnitude that no child could truly comprehend. “I know that my mom did not explain it to me,” he says. I don’t think I remember her even trying to explain it. But I knew we were trying to get away from some things, from problems, from violence. And I was scared. I remember being frightened and scared. I remember crying for my dad the entire way. I didn’t know what the USA was. I just remember being terrified.”

His new life on the gang-ravaged streets of Southeast Los Angeles brought more uncertainty than hope. His mother had to work two menial jobs to support the family, and even still, they lived in poverty. When his father joined them a short time later, his grueling work schedule did not provide much time for parenting. So, like many children who are searching for a sense of belonging, gang members found him to be the perfect target. Not only was he vulnerable and impressionable, he was also earning a reputation on the streets as a strong, natural fighter.

In an effort to channel his son’s energy in a positive direction, Mares’ father led him to the boxing gym. There, he might find a way to use his physical strength constructively, or perhaps discover an emotional outlet.

“It was a little bit of both,” he says. “Like I said, I come from a really tough childhood and I still remember my first time getting in the ring. I tell this to people all of the time: it was entertainment for the older people at the gym. You’ve got two young little kids up in the ring just throwing punches without knowing what it meant. It was for their entertainment.

“But I remember beating up on the kid,” he laughs. “It felt good. It felt really good. I didn’t know it was boxing. At the time I saw it as fighting. I remember celebrating and being really happy about it and…” he pauses. “Redeemed, I guess you could say.”

Mares’ adolescent years were filled with turmoil. He watched the merciless streets swallow up friends and neighbors, leaving many dead or in prison. When he appeared to be on the fast track toward a similar fate, his parents took drastic measures to stop the collision course. He would be sent back to Mexico to focus on boxing and vie for a spot on the Mexican National Team. Already dealing with the complex emotions of a teenager, he felt rejected and resentful. “I was 15 and I was going through that stage where I didn’t know what was going on,” he explains. “If my family really loved me or not because they sent me away. I was confused.

“At that age I think teens are confused about knowing what they want in life and how they’re going to get it, he says. “How I saw it was that they pushed me away. As not wanting to deal with my problems. But now, as a grown man, I see that they were doing what they could to keep me away from violence.”

I asked if he felt that their decision had saved his life. His response was emphatic. “No doubt,” he said, “100 percent. Because I remember almost being jumped into the hood, what you call the barrio, and my mom and father, knowing that was going to happen, decided to take me away. They sent me away.” He reiterates, “Yes, no doubt. 99 percent of my friends I hung around with, they’re now either in prison, the ghetto, or they have no job or means to support themselves.”

When Mares arrived on Mexican soil he had lived in the United States longer than in his native country. Mexico was his birthplace, but not necessarily his home. “I don’t remember feeling welcomed when I went to Mexico at all,” he says. “They saw me as a young kid from the US, thinking I was bad. And honestly, I thought I of myself as better than the young kids in Mexico because I grew up in the US. They called me pocho (a term meaning an Americanized Mexican, a Mexican who has lost their culture). They never called me by my name. I was picked on for not being, or not seeing me as being, from there. But within time it changed. It’s my heritage and I made myself, like anywhere, I made myself get respected and I fell in love with the country. I am from there. It made me appreciate and want to represent my beautiful country.

“But I identify with both countries. Obviously, coming back here and getting the opportunity to work to make a better life for myself and for my family, I’m grateful. But I don’t identify with one or the other. I’m really proud of where I come from.”

Mares became a dominant force in Mexican amateur boxing and represented Mexico in the 2004 Summer Olympics. He lost a controversial decision to Hungary’s Zsolt Bedák, but his gutsy performance and record of 112-8 (84 KOs) were enough for Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions to take notice. A professional contract would bring him back to the United States.

He made his professional debut in 2005 and won his first title two years later. The public loved his exciting, aggressive style and he was ascending in both rank and popularity. But in 2008, the tide would turn once again. A serious eye injury put his career on indefinite hold. Confronted with the options of risking a dangerous and unpredictable surgery or his future in boxing, he opted for the surgery. He made a complete, if not miraculous recovery.

When Mares returned to the ring in 2009, he would debut what is now one of boxing’s most recognizable walkout statements: A half-skull bandana covering his nose and mouth, forcing all attention, ever so appropriately, to his eyes. It represented a strong message to those who had essentially written him off. “It symbolizes a warrior,” he says. “A man coming back to life from death.” The rebirth of Abner Mares had begun.

Between 2009 and 2013, Mares would face some of the toughest competitors in three different weight classes, and become the second youngest fighter to become a three-time world champion. Poised for greatness in the sport and amassing legions of fans in Mexico and the United States, Mares was touted as one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world.

Around the same time, another rising star was gaining traction. His name was Leo Santa Cruz. Boxing fans, especially those in Los Angeles, were hungry for a Mexican-style showdown between their two adopted sons. It came about as close as you could get on August 24, 2013, when Mares and Santa Cruz were featured on the same card at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA. Santa Cruz plowed through Victor Terrazas, winning by a third round knockout. Mares suffered his first loss, a stunning first round knockout by Jhonny Gonzalez.

“The most important thing I learned from the Jhonny Gonzalez fight was don’t ever underestimate any opponent,” he says. “I underestimated Jhonny Gonzalez. With all that I had accomplished, I just thought that I had fought through everything and that Jhonny would be simple to get through. Without a doubt, what I learned is do not underestimate anyone.”

Following the loss, Mares made several changes to his team, including a switch to defensively minded trainer Virgil Hunter. The relationship would last for just one fight before he returned to Clemente Medina. This was not the first nor last time in his career that such a move would be made. “I know I have been criticized for it,” he says. “People saying ‘you’re never going to get one style’ and that I haven’t been faithful to one. Like you said, I went through many, more than five. And I have to be honest. The reason mostly was my dad. My dad was always changing my trainers, and my dad has always been part of my team and my career. So yes, he has always made revisions. But at the end of the day, I learned so much from all of the trainers, I adapted to all of them, and now I can say I am a complete fighter because of all the coaches that I had.”

While the criticism of Mares may be about too much change, for Santa Cruz it may be about too little. Most boxing fans, including Mares, believe that he has yet to face any top level competition. “He’s a good fighter and I have always said he’s a good fighter,” says Mares. “He’s a tough fighter and I am fighting a tough fight. But it doesn’t justify him being a good fighter by fighting all those he has faced at their level. So what I’m trying to say is that it was only right and it was only time for him step up and fight against a different level and type of fighter because I’m not the only one saying this. If I was, maybe it was just me trying to sell the fight, trying to get under their skin, to get to their head, but no, this is the fans, and I back it up because it’s 100 percent true. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that good fighters should face their level of fighters.”

Back at training camp, Mares plots a strategy with his team. Medina has promised fans a “more confident, more angry fighter” than in the past. “I’m confident about my skills,” he says. “I’m confident about my training. I’m confident in my team. I don’t think angry is the proper word to use. I think it’s more focused. Hungry…that’s the word. I’m hungry for success. I’m hungry for victory. I’m not angry. I’m not an angry person. I’m not angry at life and I’m not angry at my opponent. I’m focused. I know what I have to do to win.”

Abner Mares’ legacy inside the ring has yet to be determined. But in speaking with him, I get a sense that leaving behind a legacy outside the ring holds equal value. He cites the opportunity to use the spotlight to set an example for young people, especially those plagued by violence, as the most significant benefit of his career. He says, “I am privileged to have their faith in me.”

Our conversation concludes with Mares sharing a story about his recent visit with kids from a local youth activities league. He recounts a thoughtful question posed by one of the young boxers, “Do you feel obligated to win this fight?”

“No, I’m a winner already,” he replied. “You name it, I went through it and more. You can make it. Look at me. It’s about never giving up and never taking no for an answer.

“To win or lose does not define the work we put in.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Recap: Abner Mares vs. Jhonny Gonzalez & Victor Terrazas vs. Leo Santa Cruz - SHOWTIME Boxing

Abner Mares "Honestly, has Santa Cruz ever fought a top guy at bantam/Super Bantamweight?"

Leo Santa Cruz "Mares not the same since loss; I'm hungrier, younger & want to prove fans wrong!"

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  1. Caryn A. Tate 12:01pm, 08/20/2015

    Great article Laurena! It’s refreshing to see a fighter who cares about being a positive influence on kids, and using his popularity to help people. Thanks for helping to get Abner’s story out there.

  2. paul 07:09am, 08/19/2015

    good article looking forward to this fight. mares seems like a bright young man with his head on right. agree that santa cruz has not fought the best opponents while mares has been in the the better fighters might that make the difference?

  3. Laurena 05:04am, 08/19/2015

    Thank you DavidT and Swans for your comments! Much appreciated.

  4. DavidT 07:22pm, 08/18/2015

    Mares’ mother is a saint.  He made alliances with the right peole.  He’s already a success.  Good story.

  5. Swans 04:20pm, 08/18/2015

    If El 7 Mares fights the way he did against Moreno- it will be a hard fight for Cruz who has never tested his skills against a top guy; on the other hand Mares has fought plenty of top guys even if he was stopped by one.  I got Mares By 10 round knock out in a very Bloody up and doun, swing both ways type of fight.

  6. Laurena 11:33am, 08/18/2015

    Thank you all for your comments! It is very much appreciated!

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:02am, 08/18/2015

    Great interview and write up! “Good fighters should face their level of fighters.”....if only! Santa Cruz will be there to the bitter end….but I guess Abner knows that because he obviously has a good head on his shoulders.

  8. KB 08:13am, 08/18/2015

    Mares may be in for a tough night, On the other hand, Leo seems to have peaked too soon. Should be a barnburner-Mexican-style. Garza-Meza style.

  9. Jayme Camilleri 06:48am, 08/18/2015

    His mask reminds me of those worn in Dia De Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, held throughout Mexico…love that he came out wearing one to signify his rebirth! Great article!

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