After all life has thrown at Abner Mares, fighting seems easy. | Photo: Suzanne Teresa/Premier Boxing Champions
Joy was once a handful of day-old goo Abner Mares had sifted out of a large trash container that sat behind a grocery store in poverty-laden Hawaiian Gardens, Calif. That was the existence the former three-division champion once knew, day-to-day, picking trash and eating scraps.
Every so often, the fetid smell of rotted garbage would be tolerated by mining a box of day-old ice cream.
“That’s how I lived -- like an animal,” Mares told Sherdog.com, “and people wonder why I fight the way I do. I know what it was like having your stomach ache for days because there was nothing to eat. We were that poor. It’s why nothing ever stands in my way in the ring.”
It is why Leo “El Terremoto” Santa Cruz (30-0-1, 17 KO) will have his unblemished record threatened when he climbs into the ring against Mares (29-1-1, 15 KO) on the Premier Boxing Champions show from the Staples Center on Saturday in Los Angeles. The event airs at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN.
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“If Mares loses, I know he’s going to want a rematch. If I lose, I’m going to want a rematch,” said Santa Cruz, 27. “So none of us are going to be comfortable after the fight.
“This is the toughest fighter I’ve faced,” he added. “A fight against him will be the biggest of my career, even bigger than my first title. Mares has a bigger name; everything is bigger. With two Mexicans fighting, it’s always a war. There have been a lot of great battles like that in the past, and I think this will be, too. We could end up with a trilogy of fights.”
Some suggest Mares may be shopworn. The 29-year-old has had his share of wars, and the next punch that misses him will be the first, in a figurative sense. It is actually the only way he knows how to fight. He suffered a brutal first-round knockout to Jhonny Gonzalez in 2013; he has been in the ring against Joseph Agbeko (twice), Yhonny Perez, Vic Darchinyan, Anselmo Moreno and Daniel Ponce De Leon; and his borderline hall-of-fame career has seen him garner titles at bantamweight (118 pounds), super bantamweight (122) and featherweight (126).
Since losing to Gonzalez, Mares has won three straight. However, the hints that he is not the fighter he used to be are there, the chinks in his once-formidable veneer beginning to show.
“I know what (Santa Cruz) is thinking,” Mares said. “I know what’s on his mind: This is the right time to fight me. I got knocked out two years ago. I’m done. I’m vulnerable. But if he thinks that, he’s made a mistake by taking this fight.”
Mares claims he is smarter and stronger than he was coming up. He says he will use head movement and defensive skills he has not exhibited before to get inside Santa Cruz’s three-inch reach advantage -- Santa Cruz has 69 inches to Mares’ 66. He plans to use his superior experience to wear down the 27-year old.
“Mentally, I’m great and I’ve put the work in,” Mares said. “This guy hasn’t fought anyone, not anyone on my level. Let’s see what he can do against someone like me who has been in against the best -- and beat the best. He says I’m the biggest challenge of his career, but my biggest challenge is myself. The only way he could beat me is if I wasn’t prepared, and I am prepared. This is a mental game. If you’re not mentally strong, you’ll lose. I’ve been mentally strong since I was kid going days without eating. I’m still hungry.”
Joseph Santoliquito is the president of the Boxing Writer's Association of America and a frequent contributor to Sherdog.com's mixed martial arts and boxing coverage. His archive can be found here.
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