Leo Santa Cruz vs. Rafael Rivera fight start time, prediction, PBC boxing, card, how to watch
Santa Cruz returns to the ring on Saturday night to defend his featherweight title
In what is expected to be the final hurdle before a long-awaited unification fight against unbeaten WBC champion Gary Russell Jr., WBA titleholder Leo Santa Cruz returns on Saturday set on maintaining his claim as the best fighter at 126 pounds.
Most fans will admit Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 KOs) won't be coming back to face a preferred opponent considering how loaded the division remains when he faces late replacement Rafael Rivera (26-2-2, 17 KOs) in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card (Fox, 8 p.m. ET) at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
While the 24-year-old Rivera, a native of Mexico, is considered a more dangerous foe than Santa Cruz's original opponent Miguel Flores, who pulled out last month due to an ankle injury suffered in sparring, the fight is clearly a showcase opportunity for Santa Cruz in front of a national television audience. In fact, it's the all-action welterweight co-main event between TV-friendly brawlers John Molina Jr. and Omar Figueroa Jr. that has largely grabbed the attention of hard-core fans.
"We kept our training camp going despite the change of opponent. We always train the same no matter who the opponent is," Santa Cruz said. "We spar against fighters who have every different kind of style, because the opponent could always bring something new to the ring. My dad tells me to always be prepared for any kind of style. We are ready for whatever the opponent brings into the ring."
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The 30-year-old Santa Cruz is fresh off an exciting decision win over Abner Mares in their rematch last June and hopes to move up in weight to 130 pounds after unifying against Russell in order to add to his growing Hall-of-Fame resume as a fighter who won titles in four different weight classes.
"Gary Russell Jr. is the fight that I want," Santa Cruz said. "He beat me in the amateurs, but in the pros I get 12 rounds. I think that I can beat him."
The often mercurial Russell (29-1, 17 KOs) has preferred in recent memory to fight just once per year. He held off a tough effort from Joseph Diaz Jr. last May to defend his title but hurt his right hand in the process. Russell spent the rest of 2018 taking care of newborn twins, a daughter named Laila and a son named Ali.
So Santa Cruz will be forced instead to face the rugged Rivera, who suffered consecutive defeats to then-unbeatens Diaz and Joet Gonzalez over the last 18 months.
"I know that Rivera has fought some good opponents like Joseph Diaz and Joet Gonzalez, and he has gone the distance with them," Santa Cruz said. "He has given them tough battles. He has shown that he's a tough fighter who will leave everything in the ring.
"This isn't going to be an easy fight. Rivera is tougher than people have given him credit for in the past. It motivates me to try to be the first to knock him out. If I have the opportunity for it, I'm going for it. Most important though, is to come out of there with the victory."
When it comes to class, the pound-for-pound ranked Santa Cruz is simply at another level compared to Rivera. Look for him to pressure his younger opponent from the start but going to the body and breaking him down with activity.
Should Rivera find some success, Santa Cruz proved in a pair of action fights against Mares and Carl Frampton that he's more than capable of using his jab to control distance and slow down the pace. What River largely has going for him is youth and toughness and he'll need both in order to see the final bell.
Pick: Santa Cruz by UD12
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