Abner Mares (30-2-1, 15 KOs) switched trainers and rediscovered his old boxer-puncher self Saturday night, scoring an impressive 12-round split decision upset win over defending champion Jesus Cuellar (28-2, 21 KOs) to capture the WBA Featherweight World Championship and become a four-time boxing titlist in the main event at USC's Galen Center.
The judges scored the bout 117-110, 116-111, and 112-115. Judge Kermit Bayless was the lone dissenter, as he scored the hard-fought match for Cuellar.
“I feel so good, it’s been a long time. I’m champion, baby,’’ said Mares, 31, a former WBC featherweight and super bantamweight world champion and IBF bantamweight world champion, who became Garcia’s 10th world champion. “We had the perfect game plan.
The competitive bout was highlighted by numerous electrifying exchanges between the two fast-handed opponents, but it was Mares' disciplined boxing and intelligent counter-punching that ultimately brought him the win. Mares in fact scored the bout’s lone knockdown in the 11th round off a counter right.
Mares, making his first start in 16 months and first with renowned trainer Robert Garcia, executed a technically sound game plan and was the more accurate puncher than Cuellar, who was under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Freddie Roach for the first time in his career.
“I never doubted myself," said Mares, who grew up locally in Hawaiian Gardens. "I felt it in my heart. When I fought Leo (Santa Cruz) I beat myself because I fought the wrong fight. I fought smart tonight. I thought it would be a unanimous decision, but at the end of the day I’m champion.’’
Cuellar, of Buenos Aires, had entered with an 11-fight winning streak, but he was unable to land his power shots or cut off the ring against Mares, who seemingly pocketed rounds with accuracy and a solid left hook.
When Mares floored Cuellar with a straight right in the opening minute of the 11th, it was only the third time the Argentine had tasted the canvas in his career.
“They said he was a power puncher, they said he was going to knock me out, but I proved that I have some power, too,’’ said Mares, who dropped a majority 12-round decision to Santa Cruz in his last fight on Aug. 29, 2015. “I want Leo, I want (Carl) Frampton, I want anyone. I’m a champion. I’m not afraid of anyone.”
Cuellar fought hard in the closely-contested bout, and stated his case for a rematch afterward.
“I thought the fight was pretty even until he threw me down, and that’s when he took control,” said Cuellar, who was making his third title defense. “He definitely had the boxing skills going today. I would have preferred a rough fight, but Mares had his skills today. I want a rematch. I gave him the opportunity and now I think it’s fair that he gives it to me.”
The bout was televised on Showtime.
In one of the fights streamed earlier Saturday on Facebook Live, Sergey Lipinets (11-0, 9 KOs) knocked out Lenny Zappavigna (35-3, 25 KOs) to become the mandatory challenger for the IBF Junior Welterweight World Title.
“Yes, this was my toughest fight, it's bloody and rugged but no problem for me,’’ Lipinets said. “This was an eliminator and now I want my next fight to be for the world championship. Julius Indogo has the IBF title and now I'm the mandatory."
After flooring Zappavigna midway through the fourth, Lipinets finished off the Australian with an overhand right in the eighth in a closely contested and bloody affair.
“I'm very happy with my performance," said Lipinets. We've worked on adjusting during fights and that worked very well for me tonight. I was hoping for the knockout but my trainer said to keep working and the stoppage will come.”
Zappavigna was gracious in defeat.
“I left it all in the ring,’’ Zappavigna said. “I fought my heart out and I came here to give it my best. Even though I'm disappointed with the loss, I am at peace with the result because I know I couldn't have done anything else. I wish Sergey all the best in his world title fight."
Zappavigna explained that he lost his poise during the fight.
“I know my fans are behind me and I'm bringing pride back to Australia," said Zappavigna. "I know I was in control of the fight, but my Australian 'white line fever' kicked in and I tried to take his head off.”
In the opening bout on Facebook Live, talented undefeated middleweight Erickson Lubin (17-0, 12 KOs) knocked out previously once-beaten Juan Ubaldo Cabrera (23-2, 15 KOs) at 2:09 of the second round.
“He was a little awkward in the first round,’’ Erickson said. “I set him up with my jab and I knew I hurt him in the second. That’s when I knew it was time for him to go."
He also mentioned some potential future opponents.
"I want to be undisputed champion," Erickson said. "I want all of the belts. Give me the Charlos, Julian Williams, any of them."
By Staff of TheDailySportsHerald.com and news services