LOS ANGELES — It’s the end of the last day of training camp and Leo Santa Cruz has leapt into the ring and gathered everyone around for Team Santa Cruz’s traditional “last-day-of-camp” group photo.
Jerry Perez and Ivan Redkach are in the shot. The two fighters are as sweaty as Santa Cruz, their friend, the WBA super featherweight champion, who has given spots on his undercard to Perez, a 10-0 super featherweight, and Redkach, a gutsy Ukrainian who is trying to stay relevant in the super lightweight division.
Leo’s brother Antonio is in the photo, too. Leo’s right-hand man and assistant trainer, Antonio always seems to be close by, in silent, loyal service. Leo’s father and head trainer, Jose Santa Cruz, is also there, but until a few days ago his presence was not a given. The family patriarch has missed large chunks of this camp. While Leo has been preparing to face Rafael Rivera (26-2-2) on Feb. 16, Jose has continued battling the cancer that for the last three years has snaked its way around his lower spine.
These are the characters in the Leo Santa Cruz story, which weaves three proven Hollywood formulas into one vibrant movie, without an ounce of fiction or creative liberty.
First, there is the rags-to-riches tale of Leo and his brothers, three little boys walking to the gym with their dad because they had no money for the bus. This fable’s payoffs include the fleet of Bentleys and Lamborghinis that sit garaged in the suburban mansion where the entire Santa Cruz clan lives today.
A second, more sobering storyline asks: How much longer will Leo fight? He recently turned 30, after all, and he has a fiancée and three small children with whom he’d like to have intelligible conversations when he’s old. Over his 37 career fights, Santa Cruz hasn’t absorbed nearly as many punches as he’s landed, but he’s endured enough to wonder how many more opening bells he’ll answer before hanging ‘em up.
Layer onto these two tales a third one about the battle that his father and trainer is waging against cancer—an expensive conflict that Leo is financing with his boxing purses—and you start to wonder whether a Latino movie star like Oscar Isaac or Jay Hernandez is hunting for his next project. If so, he’d be well advised to head to Team Santa Cruz headquarters, which isn’t in a remote mountain hideaway, but a storefront gym in the City of Industry, where there’s a homeless man on the stoop, a stack of discarded office chairs on the sidewalk, and two brothers and their wheelchair-bound dad inside, arms wrapped around each other, smiling for the camera with their closest friends.
If it ever comes to pass, the movie’s opening scenes would have to be shot in Compton or Lincoln Heights, the gritty L.A. neighborhoods where Jose used to promise his sons—Jose Armando, Roberto, Antonio, and Leo—that one of them would become world champion one day. With his next breath, Jose would tell the three who fell short, whoever those three might be, that their job would be to support the kid who made it.
Leo ended up being the chosen one. His rise through the ranks of the world’s best 126-pounders enabled him last year to buy a six-bedroom castle in Corona, Calif., where his longtime partner, Maritza Amador, who has been with him since they were kids, rested during her pregnancy before delivering their third child, a daughter.
Those bright skies turned dark around Christmas 2018, when Jose had to be fitted with an apparatus that injects pain medication into his torso. Just last week, he began a grueling round of intravenous chemotherapy. “I feel very strong,” he said (in Spanish) on the last day of camp, as gloves popped and ring-clocks beeped around him. Watching Leo train, he said, helps him forget about the fever, nausea, and cramping that accompany the chemo drip.
Jose’s health situation inspires Leo to prolong his career, even as it occasionally robs him of his most trusted coach. Leo says he wants to fight three times in 2019. That’s a lot. (He hasn’t fought three times in a calendar year since ’15.) But his career clock is running. Saturday’s opponent, the 24-year-old Rivera (26-2-2, 17 KOs), presents an arguably stronger challenge than the man he replaced, Miguel Flores (23-2-0, 11 KOs), who injured his ankle last month while training. Should Santa Cruz defeat Rivera, he’d like to schedule a rubber match against Northern Ireland’s Carl Frampton, who in ’16 handed Leo his only pro loss. Jose wasn’t in Leo’s corner for that defeat—the bombshell of his multiple myeloma diagnosis had just landed—but he was there for the 2017 rematch in which Leo defeated Frampton by decision to regain his belt.
These movie scenes are all laid out, waiting for a screenwriter to come along and add bilingual dialogue. The only thing missing is swagger in the main character. Leo Santa Cruz doesn’t strut or preen. If he sticks with his usual m.o., he will arrive at L.A.’s Microsoft Theater on Saturday wearing a humble smile, holding the hand of the woman who knew him long before he became champion (his first date with Maritza was at McDonalds), with at least one of their three children in tow.
When the first bell clangs, Maritza will sit ringside, confident yet scared—as riveted to the action as the debilitated trainer in the black dress shirt and wide-brimmed cowboy hat, the man punching the air and imploring his son: Sigue golpeando, seguir luchando. Keep punching, keep fighting.