A day with world champion fighter Leo Santa Cruz.
In an unassuming location on the east side of Los Angeles, somewhere in between countless industrial parks, bustling shopping malls and morning traffic as far as the eye can see, a family arrives at a small boxing gym to put in another day of hard work.
The location of the gym, and the fighter who calls this gym home, are one in the same. Quiet. Humble. Tough. There is nothing flashy about the front office, which includes a desk, two chairs and a handful of boxing gloves hanging from the wall. Posters of current WBC Junior Featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz line the corridor of the space. A doorway opens up to a modest boxing gym, which includes four heavy bags, a speed bag setup and a ring that hovers close to the ground.
As Leo Santa Cruz enters the gym, his hands are wrapped, the sounds of traditional Mexican music permeate from the speakers, and his team begins to crack jokes to lighten the mood. Santa Cruz smiles in the background as if he is barely listening to the conversation across the gym. The entire time his signature smile is stretched across his face.
“Yeah, it is just my personality. Ever since I was small I just always smiled,” Santa Cruz tells me during our time together at the gym. He adds, “Even when I am mad I don’t show it, I am actually happy. That is just who I am.”
A casual observer may ask themselves, “how is this happy kid a world champion prizefighter?” The answer is simple. This “kid” can throw some leather. The signature smile is deceiving. It isn’t a stretch to think that Santa Cruz is incapable of getting mad.
“I can get mad, but I just don’t show it. I will always be smiling. It’s just something I am used to. I am always going to be like that,” says Santa Cruz.
You wouldn’t know it by meeting him in person or seeing him for the first time that Santa Cruz, a rising superstar in the featherweight division, is about to step into the ring with his older brother Antonio Santa Cruz and display impeccable footwork, speed, and raw power that closely resembles the style of his childhood idol, Julio Cesar Chavez.
“I looked up Julio Cesar Chavez when I was small because my dad liked to watch him,” says Santa Cruz when I asked him who he molds his fighting style after. “My dad always told me that his style was perfect and that to use the body shots like Chavez did would help me win. When I was 8 years old I went to the gym and I started practicing body shots like my dad said,” says Santa Cruz.
And before I know it, during the first round of light shadowboxing, a familiar voice shouts out instructions to Leo about his hands being too low. His father, trainer and closest confidant, Jose Santa Cruz reinforces the principles he taught Leo and his brothers many years ago.
When I asked Santa Cruz about the process of continuously learning to hone his skills inside the ring, he quickly responds with an articulate answer: “A fighter never stops learning,” says Santa Cruz. “You can always learn more and more…from the bad and you learn from the good…that is what we have been doing,” he confidently states.
Santa Cruz’s father, Jose , is a longtime boxing fan, who spent countless hours digesting the sweet science. He would take Leo and his brothers to the gym and teach them what he learned at a very young age. Often times with little to no money to catch the bus to the gym, Jose would walk Leo and his brothers to the gym so they could practice their craft.
“My dad is always watching videos from other fighters from way back and now to see what people are doing wrong and what they are doing good,” says Santa Cruz. “My dad has no fear to tell me what I am doing wrong…he tells me straight” says Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz adds, “Other trainers will scream at their fighters instead of telling them what they are doing good and what they are doing bad…if I am doing good he tells me, but if I am doing it wrong he makes sure that I fix it…that’s what keeps me learning.”
But to assume that Leo Santa Cruz, or “El Famouso Terremoto” as he is called in the ring, relies solely on his father and brothers for advice, guidance, and support would be a mistake. Santa Cruz has other people around him who he considers family, such as his Mexican Tradition Boxing Team, who assist Leo with his everyday affairs.
When I was observing Santa Cruz in the gym, I was able to speak with the Mexican Tradition Boxing Team Social Media Coordinator, Rene Rodriguez about what it means to be part of the team. “I am learning more and more from everyone here, including Leo himself, and I’m fortunate enough to have an opportunity to be part of this team,” said Rodriguez. He adds, “It is a dream come true to work with Leo and my brother [Andrew Rodriguez]. It is honor to be a part of it all.”
To understand how the Rodriguez brothers came to be in the position they are, or to fully comprehend what the words “family”’ and “boxing”’ mean to Leo Santa Cruz, you have to look no further than Leo himself – a humble champion who personifies the overly-used and often times inaccurate term, “People’s Champ.” This was clear as day to me when during Leo’s training session, four young fans were escorted into the gym by Andrew Rodriguez, Marketing Director of Mexican Tradition Boxing Team.
“As you can see we have fans here who came down from northern California just to meet [Leo],” Rodriguez explains. “Leo is a true ‘People’s Champ’…he loves his fans…he is such an advocate for the people,” Rodriguez adds.
Earlier in the day, I noticed that four young adults showed up at the gym unannounced, sporting brand new “El Famouso Terremoto” t-shirts and holding posters with Santa Cruz’s logo. The four fans – three of whom are brothers in fact – who made a 5-hour trip from the Bay Area to see if they could get a quick glimpse of their favorite fighter, are all smiles as Santa Cruz waves them to the ring for a photo.
“Leo is my top fighter right now. I love his style…the way he fights,” says Omero Medina. “There are other fighters where we want to meet them and they won’t acknowledge you, but Leo actually makes the time…For example, one time his manager wanted him to leave…but Leo was like ‘hold on, no let me take this photo,’” says Omero.
“He just always makes time for his fans,” adds Jose.
Omero Medina, Francisco Medina, Andres Medina and Jose Villalobos are in town for the Juan Manuel Marquez – Mike Alvarado fight at The Forum in Los Angeles one day later. They took a chance and left one day early, reached out to Santa Cruz on Twitter, and asked if they could stop by the gym to meet him. Santa Cruz didn’t have to think twice and he welcomed them into the gym to take photos, sign gloves, and let them watch some of the workout. The Bay Area natives were smiling as much as Santa Cruz. After the workout, they spent some time talking to me about how grateful they are to have a fighter like Santa Cruz to root for.
“We wanted to see him train,” adds Francisco. “To me, I just like the way he fights and the way he carries himself. He’s so humble and I like that,” he continues.
After spending nearly 2 hours in the gym with Rene Rodriguez, observing Santa Cruz in the ring, and developing ideas for this article, it was obvious that Santa Cruz feels comfortable with his family and friends around him. The mood is both light and focused at the same time. In one corner of the gym, an up-and-coming fighter works the heavy bag with precision, while a heavyweight prospect wraps his hands and trades jokes with Santa Cruz’s father to pass the time. The conversation between the two is held up by a slight language barrier, but that makes it all the more enjoyable for both men and the other fighters in the gym. At this very moment, I look over to Santa Cruz and he is working the speed bag, smiling ear to ear.
I asked Santa Cruz if it helps to have great support group like this at the gym.
“Yeah, it does help. It gives me motivation and strength…it makes it easy to come to the gym…and to train harder,” says Santa Cruz.
I responded that it truly seems like a team atmosphere at the gym. Santa Cruz added, “the support I receive is great from family and friends. And not only for me…we help each other out. We all motivate each other to be better.”
The motivation to be better and continue on his path to being a Mexican boxing legend does not start or end with the people at the Who’s Next Boxing Gym. Leo Santa Cruz has been through insurmountable challenges in his life and overcoming each hurdle has made him a stronger individual. From the days of growing up in poverty, to fighting his way through the amateur ranks and onto the big stage, there are two people who Santa Cruz aims to achieve great things for.
“The biggest inspiration in my life is my brother and my daughter,” says Santa Cruz. “She is one and a half years old and since she was born I said I wanted the best for her…she makes me want to do great things,” he adds.
It is clear to me that Santa Cruz truly sacrifices everything in the ring to support the people who inspire him. Santa Cruz continues, “I didn’t want her to suffer what I had to suffer when I was growing up.”
Santa Cruz and I continue our conversation and before long I ask him about the second person who inspires him to fight for a living.
“My brother Roberto has Lupus and he suffers a lot,” Santa Cruz explains. Santa Cruz’s brother Robert, who was an accomplished boxer himself, currently suffers from the debilitating disease and continues to be Leo’s biggest fan.
“I try to do my best to help him out because the disease he has is very dangerous. You never know what can happen, so I am trying to make his dreams come true and give him what he wants as well,” he adds.
At this point of the day, many of the things I thought I knew about Leo Santa Cruz have been confirmed. Not only does Santa Cruz motivate his team, but he also provides a strong support system for the people in his life who need someone to lean on the most. In less than one afternoon, I have observed this fighter tend to certain team obligations, sneak in a training session, meet with fans, and do an exclusive interview with our crew. And it never seems like a chore. Or an obligation. Santa Cruz truly enjoys everything about it.
As I made the drive that morning from San Diego to East Los Angeles, I was uncertain about how the day may turn out. I had been in contact with Santa Cruz’s friend, and business associate Rene Rodriguez, for two weeks in anticipation of the interview. I told Rodriguez that I wanted to do a story on “boxing” and “family” and how Leo manages it all. Before I knew it, I had a complete story on the ‘“family”’ aspect and it was time to sit back and focus on the one thing I enjoy as a Santa Cruz fan myself – boxing.
There is nothing more enjoyable to watch in person than the “sweet science.” From a technical boxing perspective, it is a joy to watch Santa Cruz move around the ring. To say he ‘“moves” is somewhat inaccurate as he actually ‘“glides” from side to side and back to front from what seems like varying angles each time. Like an Olympic sprinter whose feet barely touch the ground during a race, it is nearly impossible to hear Santa Cruz glide about the ring. His feet are quiet, just like he is.
The one thing I notice with Santa Cruz as he hits the mitts with his brother is that his feet, shoulders, hands, and head are always moving in synch with each other. Like a golfer who needs to move perfectly in synch throughout his swing, Santa Cruz operates like a highly-calibrated machine. His form is impeccable.
As you move up his slender frame, his torso dictates how his shoulders move, forcing his hands, which are held high and tight to his cheeks, into the perfect boxing position for an offensive attack. The technical skills Santa Cruz displays combine both natural boxing ability and a deep sense of mental fortitude that allows him to absorb information quickly and put it to use within seconds. It truly is the mind and body working together.
As Santa Cruz finishes up his workout and dries off, he continues to move around the gym, talking to his father about some issues from the workout and tending to some small obligations in front of him. At one point during his brisk walk through the gym, I notice that Santa Cruz is giving some advice to one of the younger fighters in the gym. Santa Cruz, a true leader by example is rarely vocal, but at this moment he appears to be more than willing to offer some advice to his teammate.
I quickly make a mental note to ask Santa Cruz what sort of advice he may have for young fighters.
“Never give up,” Santa Cruz says. He continues, “no matter all of the struggles…never give up…if they feel like quitting don’t quit…never give up.”
Santa Cruz tends to some final minor matters inside the gym, says goodbye to the fans who travelled to see him, and recognizes that his barber is setting up in the garage next door. I have been at the gym for a few hours now and quite frankly, I would’ve had no problem sticking around a few hours more.
We sit down for a few moments and Santa Cruz is happy with where his training currently is as he awaits word from his team on who he will face next.
“Training is going real good…right now we are taking it light,” says Santa Cruz.
After a historic 2012 that saw Santa Cruz fighting five times, which included winning the IBF Bantamweight belt and defending it three times, and a respectable 2013, Santa Cruz is anxious to find out who he will face next.
“They still haven’t told me when I am going to fight but we want to stay in shape so whenever they tell me, we can start the hard work…whenever they tell me we can start going hard,” says Santa Cruz.
At the time of this interview, the makings of Santa Cruz’s next fight were uncertain and an opponent was far from being finalized. For Santa Cruz, the hard work inside the gym doesn’t stop and the thirst for what is next, or better yet, “Who’s Next,” only gets heavier for the peoples champion. Opponent or not, one thing is certain…Leo Santa Cruz cannot wait to get back in action.
Like a true Mexican fighter, Santa Cruz looks forward to the future and embraces Mexico’s rich boxing history and the legends that fought before him. “I would like to become a Mexican boxing legend like Julio Cesar Chavez, Marco Antonio Barrera, Oscar de la Hoya, and Eric Morales…I want to be like all of those fighters,” says Santa Cruz. He adds, “Hopefully I make it and I can give the Mexican fans something to remember.”
I shake Santa Cruz’s hand, take a photo and express my appreciation for the day I was able to experience with him and the Mexican Tradition Boxing Team. As I pack my bag and check my phone, I notice that the temperature is close to 102 degrees outside. I have a two-hour drive ahead of me and rush to get back on the road so I can avoid the Los Angeles traffic.
As I am exiting the gym, I hear a voice. “Matt, you need a water for the road?” Before I can completely turn around, I see Santa Cruz himself jogging towards me with a cold bottle of water. The current Junior Featherweight champion with his signature smile graciously handing me a bottle of water…it didn’t surprise me in the least. That is Leo Santa Cruz just being Leo Santa Cruz – putting others in front of himself regardless of who they may be.
The career arc of a fighter from amateur to champion is defined not only by the belts, money, and accolades, but by how the fighter carries themselves inside and outside of the ring. There is nobody who embodies sportsmanship, gratitude, and professionalism better than Leo Santa Cruz. And in my opinion, Leo Santa Cruz represents what is currently missing in the sport of boxing.
An ordinary superstar who is enjoying the ride in the sport he loves, with the people who mean the most to him – Boxing and Family…the perfect “One-Two” combination.
See Mexican star, Leo “El Famouso Terremoto” Santa Cruz, get back into action live on September 13, 2014 on the undercard to “Mayhem,” featuring Floyd “Money” Mayweather versus Marcos “El Chino” Maidana II. Santa Cruz will face Manuel Roman in his second bout of 2014. You can follow Leo Santa Cruz on Twitter at @leosantacruz2 and like him on Facebook. TheFightVoice would like to thank Leo Santa Cruz and the Mexican Tradition Boxing Team for their time, input and access during our research for this article. You can follow Mexican Tradition Boxing @MTBOXINGTEAM and like them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MexicanTraditionBoxing.