The Subtle Brilliance of Leo Santa Cruz

By Paul Magno on June 5, 2018
The Subtle Brilliance of Leo Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz’s bag of tricks is not as big as Floyd Mayweather’s. (Harry How/Getty Images)

“El boxeo” embraces death, venerates struggle above accomplishment, and adores the ill-fated tragic hero who bravely fights a losing battle…

Boxing, brought to the port cities along the Gulf of Mexico by British and American sailors in the early parts of the 20th century, quickly became one of Mexico’s sporting obsessions and an integral part of Mexican culture.

“El boxeo” speaks to the uniquely Mexican philosophy on life—one that embraces death, venerates struggle above accomplishment, and adores the ill-fated tragic hero who bravely fights a losing battle.

And with this integration of boxing into Mexican culture, there also came the creation of archetypes. The Mexican boxer is a fierce, stoic warrior, brave to a fault and almost enthusiastic to kill off a part of himself to slay his opponent.

Mexican fighters have played into this image and have adopted this persona, shaping what is considered “Mexican Style” boxing. Media and fans have also played into the stereotype, never failing to refer to the Mexican’s “proud machismo,” his willingness to take punishment to inflict punishment, or just his overall warrior mentality.

Leo Santa Cruz is as Mexican as they come. Originating from the heartland of Mexico in the state of Michoacan before moving north to Southern California as a child, Santa Cruz is clearly the product of a lifetime’s worth of hearing what a Mexican fighter “should” be.

But, beneath the “brawl ‘til you fall” outer shell of what he appears to be, “El Terremoto” is a damn fine technical fighter.

The brilliance is subtle and almost unperceivable if one allows Santa Cruz’s flying fists to distract from the finer details of a fight, but it’s there.

If left unchecked, the tall and rangy Santa Cruz will batter opponents from long distance all day long, getting off first to establish distance and then gradually wearing foes down with a superior work rate. When things get complicated, though, Santa Cruz really shines.

As showcased against a bull-rushing Abner Mares in their 2015 bout, the fighter from So Cal by way of Huetamo knows how to turn chaos into order and gradually condition opponents to fight at his preferred pace and space.

Santa Cruz will side-step full-on rushes, pushing off on mega-aggressive foes, redirecting the momentum of the offensive surge and, thereby, nullifying the attack. He’ll also pivot on the inside, turning slightly on the onrushing foe to deflect that foe’s momentum and, again, nullify the attack. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Santa Cruz had studied Aikido, the martial art specializing in turning an opponent’s momentum against himself. Really, though, it’s just smart boxing from a fighter who knows it’s in his own best interest to take the inside game away from his opposition.

The negation of the inside game goes hand in hand with active discouragement as Santa Cruz launches sharp uppercuts and tight hooks to accompany the side-stepping and pivoting.

Opponents learn that coming in on Santa Cruz will result in a muddled mess and some significant return fire— so, they back off a bit, supposedly to regroup and rethink the task in front of them. But, no. Once on the outside, their slightest movement forward is met with a long, sharp shot from Leo or, most likely, lots of long, sharp shots. And now they’re stuck. If they bull-rush back in, they find nothing there and if they stay on the outside, they will continue to be beaten to the punch. That’s when most opposition just gives in.

Even the skilled and tenacious Mares, by the mid-to-late rounds of their encounter, found himself fighting at Santa Cruz’s preferred pace and space, conditioned to accept the implied boundaries established by his foe.

Santa Cruz’s bag of tricks is not as big as Floyd Mayweather’s, but Leo’s got a Batman-like utility belt of handy tricks that keeps him in control of fights. Mostly related to nullifying an opponent on the inside and forcing things back at arm’s length, where he can let his hands go and go, the 29-year-old’s skills are sharp and extremely effective—and involved just as much hard work to perfect, along with nuance and attention to detail, as any of the more recognized tricks of the trade from acknowledged technical masters. A fun night for the boxing nerd would involve going back and finding those moments where a Santa Cruz opponent gets cocky and tries to bring the fight to the inside. This article has just touched on Santa Cruz’s preferred tactics.

This Saturday, Santa Cruz gets back into the ring with Abner Mares at Staples Center in Los Angeles and it should be an interesting fight—especially if you enjoy boxing strategy.

Can Mares get inside and stay there on Leo? Does he even recognize how fully he was being manipulated by Santa Cruz in their first fight? And, as for Santa Cruz—Odds are that he will try and pick up right where he left off last fight. Can he amp things up even further and stop Mares?

Come Saturday, most will be caught up in the Mexican vs. Mexican narrative of two warriors going into battle. And that will be true to an extent. But there’s a whole other layer beneath that superficial surface.

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  1. tetumbo 01:10pm, 06/08/2018

    Excellent article. i don’t believe I’ve ever read a more accurate (stirring?) description of the “Mexican” ring-profile or of Santa Cruz’s fighting ability, which has been frequently underestimated and even disparaged by previous “experts”. however, I also don’t count out Mares. especially now that he’s joined forces with Garcia. this figures to be an epic-bout, if these two adhere to the “Mexican” fighting profile, they will both be fiercely- and equally-determined to earn a decisive, convincing, and unequivocal win and with the extra motivation of fighting in front of an L.A. fight-crowd that will include two local fanbases loyal to each fighter. it’s gonna be Loud. it’s gonna be intense.

  2. Balaamsass 05:56am, 06/06/2018

    He’s all that but he still needs to beat Gary Russell….not sayin’ he won’t. BTW don’t give those fist fight challenges via email a second thought….it’s those job offers that you should be wary of. You don’t want to end up biting a pillow on some sex crazed editor in chief’s casting couch….just sayin’!

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