While there is no world title on the line when Abner Mares and Leo Santa Cruz face off this Saturday night in Los Angeles, this fight is extremely relevant for the top of the featherweight division. The WBC “Diamond” belt will be up for grabs, so this matchup has the feel of being an eliminator for Gary Russell Jr.’s WBC world title, a belt previously held by Mares. Mares lost by stunning Round 1 KO to Jhonny Gonzalez in August 2013 and Gonzalez was crushed by Russell via Round 4 TKO last March.
Before losing to Gonzalez, Mares was one of the sport’s hottest rising stars. The week of that fight, his promoter, Richard Schaefer, was giving interviews where he claimed Mares deserved to be viewed as the sport’s No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter, behind only Floyd Mayweather Jr.
The veteran knockout artist Gonzalez sent Mares crashing back to earth, and it’s been a slow climb back for him. He never took advantage of a mandatory rematch clause with Gonzalez, instead taking a long break and then fighting what were essentially three straight tune up fights.
Santa Cruz is an all-action fighter who is overdue for a step up in competition. He’s technically a two-division world champion, having won belts at 118 and 122 pounds. But in neither case did he beat true elite fighters at those weight classes, as Mares did in besting Vic Darchinyan and Joseph Agbeko at 118 and Anselmo Moreno at 122 pounds.
Featherweight has some of the best young talent in the sport right now. Although he lost his WBA belt on the scale before his last fight, I still view Nicholas Walters as the top fighter at the division, until he officially announces that he is moving up. WBO featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko might be the most talented fighter in the entire sport. After winning two Olympic gold medals and compiling a 396-1 record as an amateur, he won a world title in just his third pro fight, capturing the vacant WBO strap with a decisive decision over Russell Jr.
A matchup with Walters and Lomachenko would be a super fight. After his outstanding performance against Gonzalez, it would be fair for Russell to get a rematch with Lomachenko. There’s also been talk this year about a potential fight between Lomachenko and former Olympic great Guillermo Rigondeaux, who is an undefeated world champion at 122 pounds.
IBF champion Lee Selby of Wales also deserves a mention in any conversation about the featherweight division. He looked very impressive in capturing an eight-round technical decision over Evgeny Gradovich last May.