Leo Santa Cruz finds pride and inspiration in dad's fight against cancer

Leo Santa Cruz, left, and his father and trainer Jose Santa Cruz inspire each other in their own battles. Amanda Westcott/Showtime

LOS ANGELES -- Whenever Leo Santa Cruz's father sets eyes on his son, he is not thinking as a trainer looking at the WBA featherweight champion sweating through every punch. He is a strategist finding the strengths in his son.

"He is truly battling cancer. The real champion here is my father," said Santa Cruz when asked about having his father, Jose Santa Cruz, who is facing multiple myeloma cancer, right in his corner. "He has been fighting. Despite the fact he is constantly in pain, he always goes to the gym, he never gives up, and even if he doesn't feel well, he is always there for me.

"It is a huge source of motivation for me. I'm glad to have him here, to look at him. If I notice he's not at the gym, it is a huge disappointment for me. It's not the same. I feel something's missing. Whenever he's there, I'm training happily," Santa Cruz said.

Santa Cruz (33-1-1, 18 KO), nicknamed "Terremoto" (Earthquake), who defends his "super" featherweight title against Abner Mares on June 9 at Staples Center, finds himself in the final stages of his training for the bout. It will be a rematch of their first contest almost three years ago, when Santa Cruz edged Mares by majority decision in a fight of the year candidate.

"We have done [sparring sessions of up to] 13 rounds. My dad always tells me that we have to be as well prepared as we can, that we have to fight an extra round just to make sure", Santa Cruz said while hosting the media during one of his regular training sessions at the City of Angels Boxing Club at South Central L.A.

Santa Cruz shared some details of his training and pondered about what he thinks will make the difference in the rematch.

"We are smarter this time around. On the first bout, we got a little carried away because of what people said. This time we'll throw some perfect punches and the right combinations," said Santa Cruz.

"It is a huge source of motivation for me. I'm glad to have him here, to look at him. If I notice he's not at the gym, it is a huge disappointment for me. It's not the same. I feel something's missing. Whenever he's there, I'm training happily." Leo Santa Cruz on having his father Jose as a trainer.

His words are echoed by his father, who firmly states that his son won't allow himself to be punched as much as in the first bout, and that he will take care of that, teaching him how to avoid dangerous blows.

"It is important to be here. I'm the one instructing him, I'm telling him how to move, how to defend himself, how to attack," José Santa Cruz said.

Leo Santa Cruz confirmed that in the event he wins the rematch against Mares (30-2-1, 15 KO) of Jalisco, he will remain a featherweight if he can. He said this division is enjoying huge momentum thanks to the amount of talent at 126 pounds.

"Yes, I would remain in this division. There are some good fighters around, some great opponents. I want to unify my titles, but if that can't be done, I'll go up in weight, get into the 130-pound division and look for another crown there," Santa Cruz said.

He did not rule out the possibility of a bout against fellow featherweight world titleholder Gary Russell Jr., who recently defended his title against mandatory challenger Joseph "JoJo" Diaz. Both fighters faced each other when they were amateurs, and Santa Cruz lost the contest.

"I'm ready to unify titles facing any featherweight champion," Santa Cruz said. "Gary Russell Jr. and I have already fought against each other as amateurs. He did beat me, but it was a great fight and I think I can beat him. I hope I can have a rematch."

Santa Cruz, who regained his title last year in a majority decision against Carl Frampton after losing it to the same Frampton in 2016 by the same result, defended it once in a KO victory in October against Chris Avalos. Santa Cruz credits his camp for a new perspective, which has helped him put his career back on the right path.

"For me, [fighting for a title] is a dream I've had ever since I was a kid. I used to watch those great fighters in Las Vegas, or here in Los Ángeles. I never thought I'd make it, but I did, thank God," Santa Cruz said.

That dream is now bigger and larger than ever and is being fully enjoyed at don José's place. The proud father is thrilled and excited because he knows his son will dedicate a victory to him. Don José has only been absent from his son's corner for the first Frampton fight, when he started his own fight against cancer.

"If someone says to you that this is all because of you, how would you feel about it?" a visibly emotional José Santa Cruz said. "It brings me so much happiness, because he is making a huge sacrifice, and we are still here going strong."