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For Los Angeles boxers Mares and Santa Cruz, it was fight or fight

Boxers fight. Seems like an obvious statement, but it's not. The fight, the desire are ingrained long before the athlete enters a ring in an arena.

Los Angeles can be the backdrop for developing fighters, many of them from the Mexican-American community, where a love for the fight game runs deep.

Abner Mares and Leo Santa Cruz battled for all 12 rounds in 2015, with Santa Cruz winning a majority decision. Harry How/Getty Images
Before most of the boxing world knew their names, coach and gym manager Armando "Mando" Huerta watched two of them -- Abner Mares and Leo Santa Cruz -- square off as teens at the Maywood Boxing Club in Maywood, a small city in southeastern Los Angeles.

"When they sparred, it was pretty even," Huerta explained, recalling their practice rounds in the ring back then. "You could see how good they were and they were only going to get better. It's not like I knew they'd be world champions, but I knew they would be up there, both of them."

Mares, now 31, and Santa Cruz, 28, did become world champions, holding multiple titles in different weight classes. One of Mares' (30-2-1, 15 KOs) only two defeats came at the hands of Santa Cruz (33-1-1, 18 KOs).

In 2015, the duo galvanized the local boxing community when they fought each other in a bout billed as the "Battle for Los Angeles." Huerta recalled the regulars at Maywood Boxing Club being split with their support.

"It was kind of crazy," Huerta said of the multiple interview requests asking him to predict a winner. "I actually thought Leo would edge [Mares] out."

Santa Cruz won a majority decision. And now, two years later, a mandatory featherweight rematch is likely.

Mares entered the ring …

At 7, Mares arrived in Southern California from Guadalajara with his family -- which would eventually include 10 siblings. While their parents worked long hours, Ismael, the oldest, found refuge from the streets of their Hawaiian Gardens neighborhood in a local boxing gym.

"I would come along with him and watch him train," Abner Mares recalled.

For amusement one day, the older boxers in the gym laced up gloves on Mares and another young boy hanging around.

"I beat the guy and made him bleed," Mares remembered. "Ever since, I fell in love with the sport."

As Mares was progressing with his boxing skills, the gym closed down because of money issues. He ended up training with Joe Olivo at the Norwalk Sports Complex, only around 10 miles away, but it wasn’t easy for Mares to get there.

"My parents didn't have a car," Mares said. "There was no money. So I would take the bus from Hawaiian Gardens to Norwalk, every day after school."

His father went with him at the start to show him the route, and then young Abner was on his own, rain or shine, sometimes getting splashed with dirty water by passing cars while waiting at his stop.

"It was a good 45-minute bus ride to the sports complex," Mares remembered. "I would end up finishing at 7, 7:30, 11-, 12-year-old me taking the bus around that time. I would get scared sometimes. There was a lot of gang activity."

A low point in his life came when his family sent him back to Mexico when he was 15. Since he was undocumented while in the United States, Mares couldn’t travel abroad to compete and it was limiting his career. Once outside of the country, he could apply for residency.

"Being an immigrant, with no papers, during that time, I would win nationals and I would not be able to fly to another state or another country," Mares explained of his family’s decision. "It was hard. I would cry every day, call my mom, ask them to bring me back. But it worked out."

Fighting out of Mexico, Mares was able to compete in and win world tournaments. He met and married his wife, Nathalie, in Mexico and was finally able to legally return to the United States when he was 20.

Santa Cruz entered the ring …

Twelve miles away from where Mares grew up in Hawaiian Gardens, Santa Cruz was dealing with his own issues.

"My first memories are from Compton, in South Central L.A., with all the gangs."

Santa Cruz recalled being around 4 or 5, when one incident in particular took place. He was at home with his mother in the family's apartment when they heard gunfire. "A bullet got stuck in the wall. If it had gone through, it would have hit my mom. She was so scared. She called my aunts and was crying, telling them all about it. I was right there, all scared."

Santa Cruz's father tried to keep his four sons safe, bringing them regularly to Resurrection, the legendary East L.A gym converted from a former church.

"At first, I didn’t go to train. I would just play," said Santa Cruz.

One day, when he was 8, he was judged old enough. "My dad said, 'You want to spar?' I didn't know anything, I just said 'Yes.' and started sparring this other kid."

Onlookers could see Santa Cruz was a natural and easily able to integrate skills he watched his older brothers learn. He was on his way.

Resurrection Gym nearly closed down in 1996 for lack of financial support, but was saved by another former boxer of the gym -- Oscar De La Hoya.

Santa Cruz and his family were on the move again, anyway, fueled by various incidents.

"We were really poor and suffering," Santa Cruz described one event. "My mom was pushing a cart with cans, and we were walking with her. These people, I think they were on drugs, they slapped my mom."

The family ended up in Monterey Park, where Santa Cruz trained at the Eddie Heredia Boxing Gym, with his father always by his side.

Perhaps it wasn't surprising, when Leo Santa Cruz lost for the first, and so far, only time to Carl Frampton in July 2016 while his father was battling cancer and unable to guide him much.

"I didn't really train as hard as I did before, because I was thinking about my dad," said Santa Cruz of his loss.

This past January, Santa Cruz, coached again by his father, won the rematch against Frampton and credited better preparation for the win.

… and their sport

L.A.'s boxing community trained their skills in the ring. The challenges both faced in life taught the fighters to appreciate how far they've come.

Mares looks back with pride, while noting sadly some childhood friends haven't been as fortunate, with a few even in jail.

"I want through a lot and it made me the man I am today." Mares stated. "It definitely helped me in my career to make me stronger, mentally. Nothing was given to me."

Santa Cruz is also thankful.

"I can't believe everything I have now," he said of his boxing success. "Now, we can buy whatever we need. I'm very grateful."

Mares believes he has more at stake in a rematch against Santa Cruz.

"Coming off a loss against him already, if I lose, it's 'He beat you again and you're not that good.' It's a must-win for myself. I'm definitely ready to prove to people that I fought the wrong right the first time."

Huerta expects another all-out battle between the former occasional sparring partners. "It's kind of awkward, but there's always mutual respect. They're friends, but once the bell rings, that goes out the door."

He isn't picking a winner yet this time.

"Abner looked so good in this last fight with a different trainer. I think he’s going to make it a lot more interesting fight and has a better chance to come out with a "W" than he did last time."

Santa Cruz is wary of Mares, but confident with his father back in his corner.

"[Mares] is going to come for revenge,” Santa Cruz noted. “We have to be smarter, be patient and I’m going to train really hard."

Regardless of whose hand will be raised, Mares and Santa Cruz have already fought the hardest battles far away from the cheers. Whether in a Maywood gym sparring a tough peer, on a lonely bus ride to a new gym in Norwalk, the drive to overcome difficulties is what makes champions.

"People don't know," observed Mares. "People don't see the struggle."

Source: http://www.espn.com/blog/onenacion/post/_/id/7663/for-los-angeles-boxers-mares-and-santa-cruz-it-was-fight-or-fight

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