Featherweight champ Leo Santa Cruz faces off against Frampton – and the unknown

Leo Santa Cruz with his belts and his dad, Jose after defeating Abner Mares on Aug. 29, 2015, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (Photo: Suzanne Teresa/Premier Boxing Champions)

Leo Santa Cruz with his belts and his dad, Jose after defeating Abner Mares on Aug. 29, 2015, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (Photo: Suzanne Teresa/Premier Boxing Champions)  (photo

This Saturday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, WBA featherweight champ Léo Santa Cruz will step into the ring to face off not just Northern Ireland’s Carl Frampton, but the unknown.

For one thing, Santa Cruz (32-0-1) doesn’t know as much about Frampton (22-0). He might like to know that the Irish boxer is the U.K. champ, though it’s his first time fighting in the U.S. How good his overseas opponents have been is unclear.

“I do think this fight may be my toughest challenge,” Santa Cruz, 27, told Fox News Latino recently. “It’s two undefeated fighters for the title. He’s a superstar in Ireland, but it’s a little bit harder not knowing much about him.”

With 14 knockouts to his credit, Frampton’s reputation is as a big puncher, but Santa Cruz, who is more known for his motor – never running out of steam, always throwing punches – doesn’t seem intimidated.

“My dad always said to fight moving forward. Go out there and give fans what they want to see – a toe-to-toe fight,” the champ said.

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And there lies the biggest unknown for Santa Cruz, who, for the first time in his career, trained for this bout without his coach and his biggest booster, his father.

His father, José Santa Cruz, 56, was born in Michoacán in Mexico, and he discovered boxing as an adult, too late to take it up himself but not too late to have a dream: To have a son who was boxing champion of the world.

Papa Santa Cruz moved to Los Angeles and had four boys, all of whom he pushed into boxing.

"One of you guys is going to be a champion, but we have to keep working hard," he told them, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The father then added as he pointed to each of his sons: "If it's not you, it's going to be you. If it's not you, it's going to be you.”

So he trained all of them, and one by one, they hung up their gloves because of injury, lack of talent, disinterest. Until José’s youngest, Léo, turned pro in October 2006, and immediately began winning.

After he claimed his first belt, the IBF bantamweight title in June 2012 after beating Vusi Malinga in a unanimous decision, he turned around and gave it to his corner man, his dad.

He went on to win two more titles – WBC super bantamweight and, most recently, WBA featherweight by out-pointing Abner Mares in August 2015 – and his father was in his corner every step of the way.

But in April, José Santa Cruz was diagnosed with Stage 3 myeloma – a bone cancer that was lodged in his spine. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy even as his son prepared for his biggest challenge.

Instead of his dad, it’s been his older brother Antonio guiding his training.

“Dad taught him how,” Santa Cruz told FNL. “He trained us all, so it wasn’t tough for Antonio to sort of channel him.”

Even better, his father is responding to the treatment. “Dad’s doing really well,” the champ said. “The cancer’s in remission, thank God. He’s healthy, and he’ll be in my corner on Saturday.”

So Santa Cruz is grateful that the unknowns he will be facing aren’t as scary as they might have been. And matters of tactics against Frampton seem almost easy to deal with.

“I’m going to come out strong, but in the early rounds I’m just going to pressure him, get him tired,” Santa Cruz told FNL. “Hopefully he’ll start getting gassed in the 6th round.”

The California fighter pointed out that he has a decided reach advantage – 8 inches – over Frampton.

“If I’m starting to tire, I can just fight him from the outside and trade punches. Jab-jab-right,” he said. “We’ll do whatever is necessary to win.”

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