Leo Santa Cruz’s fight against Keenan Carbajal on Feb. 5 in Las Vegas will be like a restart for him.
The last time we saw the four-division titleholder, on Oct. 31, 2020 in San Antonio, he was on the wrong end of a brutal one-punch knockout against Gervonta Davis in the sixth round of what had been a wild fight at 130 pounds.
Santa Cruz has held onto his 126-pound belt but Davis’ fight-ending uppercut put an instantaneous end to the considerable momentum the Mexican had built.
The good news, if that’s what it is, is that Santa Cruz was able to take some much-needed time off after his setback. The 15 months out of the ring has healed both his disappointment and any aches and pains accumulated over his 15-year career.
“I feel good,” Santa Cruz told Boxing Junkie. “Before, when I was training, when I was sparring, I felt kind of tired. My arms would get tired right away. This camp I feel better in the gym than I did in other camps.”
Santa Cruz (37-2-1, 19 KOs) doesn’t regret taking the fight with the gifted, naturally bigger Davis but he regrets his tactics.
He was too brave, he lamented. He was able to take Davis’ power punches in the early rounds so he felt comfortable fighting the bigger puncher toe to toe. That decision produced an entertaining fight but also led to his demise.
Santa Cruz had his back to the ropes when he unloaded three consecutive right hands. Davis simply sidestepped the third one and unleased the upper cut from hell, which rendered Santa Cruz unconscious.
“I wish I could go back and learn from the mistakes I made,” Santa Cruz said. “I got carried away, I got confident. And, you know, I make the mistake of staying there and throwing the right three times. I could’ve just moved and not … get hit with the uppercut.
“I was in a competitive fight. I thought we were doing a great fight but, you know, I just got caught.”
The loss stung more emotionally than physically. How could it not? Santa Cruz, a potential Hall of Famer, is accustomed to being on the other end of one-sided fights. And he had never been stopped.
He didn’t dwell long on the setback, however. He took a philosophical approach to his disappointment and found solace in support from those close to him and his fans.
“I got over it pretty quick,” he said. “… Even the best lose, [Julio Cesar] Chavez, Oscar De La Hoya. All those champions, they lose and they come back strong. Then hearing from the fans, the comments [on social media] and everything. That made me feel better.
“It gave me the confidence, it gave me the motivation to get back in there and do everything good.”
And now he’s contemplating the possibilities, starting with Carbajal (23-2-1, 15 KOs), a solid all-around fighter from Phoenix who has won 18 consecutive fights but has never faced an elite opponent.
The bout, which will be televised on Showtime, will take place at 130 pounds, not 126, because the 33-year-old Santa Cruz needs time to whittle his weight down. He said he has weighed as much as 154 over the past year.
If things go well on Feb. 5, however, he plans to defend the WBA featherweight title he has maintained even though it hasn’t been on the line for three years.
He appears to be on track to face the winner of the March 12 fight between Leigh Wood and Michael Conlan, who will be fighting for a secondary WBA featherweight title. Then, if he wins that bout, he will seek more high-profile fights at 126 or 130.
“Oscar Valdez is at 130. Maybe I’ll go up to 130 again and fight for one of those titles,” Santa Cruz said. “Or maybe I’ll unify against Gary Russell [at 126]. I’m just looking forward to big fights and big names. … It’s a restart for me. I have to work my way back to the top.
“I have to go out there, beat Carbajal and look really good. Then I’ll fight a champion, unify or defend my title. And the bigger fights will come from there.”