LAS VEGAS -- Abner Mares continued to stamp himself as one of the best fighters in the world as he dominated and stopped Daniel Ponce De Leon in the ninth round to win a featherweight world title on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The fight was the co-feature on the undercard of the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Robert Guerrero welterweight title fight, but was the bout many of the Mexican fans in attendance on Cinco de Mayo weekend came to see.
Mares won his third world title in as many weight classes in the past three years, going through the bantamweight, junior featherweight and now featherweight divisions to claim world titles.
"I wasn't just fighting an opponent. He's my friend," Mares said. "When I dropped him the second time I hoped he would stay down because I didn't want to keep hurting him. You don't want to hurt a friend. I love you, Ponce."
Mares (26-0-1, 14 KOs), the quicker and more accurate fighter, landed a sizzling right hand just before the second round ended to drop Ponce De Leon, a southpaw, hard. He beat the count and the round ended. Mares rocked Ponce De Leon again with a right hand at the end of the third round.
The fight was all Mares. Although Ponce De Leon had a few brief moments in the middle rounds, Mares -- who dedicated the fight to his father, who recently had a stroke -- was never in trouble and he ended it impressively in the ninth.
"I had to mix it up. I had multiple game plans; he only had one game plan," Mares said. "We mixed it up and he got confused. He never hurt me with the left. He hit me with the left a lot. It's a learning experience. I demonstrated a more poised Abner."
In the ninth round, Mares caught Ponce De Leon (44-5, 35 KOs) with a crushing right hand to drop him. Ponce De Leon was shaky when the fight continued and Mares, 27, assaulted him with about a dozen unanswered blows, including three consecutive right hands, forcing referee Jay Nady to stop the fight at 2 minutes, 20 seconds.
"I want a rematch," Ponce De Leon said. "The ref stopped the fight too quickly. He stepped in too fast."
Ponce De Leon, 32, also a former junior featherweight titlist, was making the first defense of the title he won in September by way of eighth-round technical decision against Jhonny Gonzalez when Gonzalez was cut by an accidental head butt and could not continue.
Mares, who like Ponce De Leon lives in Los Angeles and is a former Mexican Olympian, had hoped to land a junior featherweight title unification fight with Nonito Donaire, but constant battle between his promoter, Golden Boy, and Top Rank, Mares' promoter, made it a nonstarter.
Donaire instead took on Top Rank-promoted titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux and lost on April 13, while Mares prepared to challenge Ponce De Leon, a friend and fellow stablemate of manager Frank Espinoza, who matched his two top fighters against each other -- a highly unusual move for a manager.
Santa Cruz dominates Munoz
Junior featherweight Leo Santa Cruz (24-0-1, 14 KOs), who vacated his bantamweight title to move up in weight, dominated former two-time junior bantamweight titleholder Alexander Munoz (36-4, 28 KOs) of Venezuela en route to a fifth-round knockout.
"I want to give a good show for the fans and that's what I did," Santa Cruz said. "I felt strong and confident."
Santa Cruz, known for his incredible punch output, put together about an eight-punch flurry of blows to drop Munoz just before the end of the third round.
Santa Cruz, 24, a native of Mexico living in Los Angeles, continued to do damage in the fourth round, badly staggering Munoz near the end of the round and nearly dropping him.
He dropped Munoz again in the fifth round and, with Munoz, 34, clearly hurt, his corner got into the ring and referee Vic Drakulich stopped the fight at 1 minute, 5 seconds.
"This weight was too much for me," Munoz said. "I have to go down in weight. Santa Cruz is very good, but he has room to improve. I landed a lot of punches."
Santa Cruz, who fought with his brother very ill and in the hospital, hopes to fight for a world title and could land a shot at Jonathan Romero.
"I'm interested in him and whoever the fans want to see me fight," Santa Cruz said.
• Middleweight J'Leon Love (16-0, 8 KOs) of Detroit survived a knockdown and escaped with a 10-round split decision against Gabriel Rosado (21-7, 13 KOs) of Philadelphia.
Judge Dave Moretti had it 95-94 and Herb Santos a surprisingly wide 97-92 for Love, while Glenn Trowbidge had it 95-94 for Rosado. ESPN.com also had it for Rosado, 95-94.
For Love, 25, of Detroit, the fight represented a major step up in competition, while Rosado, 27, of Philadelphia, was trying to bounce back from a seventh-round cut-induced knockout loss to Gennady Golovkin in a middleweight world title bout in January.
"I just fought a guy who has world championship experience," Love said. "I thought I put up a good fight. It was good experience for me to fight somebody like that."
It appeared to be an even fight until the sixth round, when Rosado leveled Love a few seconds before the end of the round, dropping him hard with a right hand.
"I got dropped with a shot I did not see," Love said. "He caught me but after that I stepped it up and had to fight back. I was proud of my performance. I knew I had to turn it up after that to win the fight."
Rosado poured it on in the ninth round, repeatedly rocking Love, who staggered back after eating several shots, and seemed to do enough to win. Love told Rosado to his face in the ring afterward that he would give him a rematch.
"I felt like I won the fight," Rosado said. "The fans and everyone here knows, but me and J'Leon can only get in the ring and fight. We don't control the judges. My performance speaks volumes tonight. I don't think I need to prove myself against him again but I'll fight him if I have to. I want a world title fight."
• Las Vegas super middleweight Ronald Gavril (4-0, 1 KOs), a Mayweather protégé, stopped Roberto Yong (5-7-2, 4 KOs) of Phoenix at 2 minutes, 12 seconds when referee Russell Mora stepped in to save him from more punishment.
• Super middleweight Luis Arias (5-0, 3 KOs) of Phoenix won a majority six-round decision against Donyil Livingston (8-3-1, 4 KOs) of Palmdale, Calif., in a tough, physical fight. One judges had the fight 57-57, but the two others had it for Arias, 58-56 and 58-55.
• Las Vegas-based light heavyweight Badou Jack (14-0, 10 KOs), who is from Sweden, stopped Ghana native Michael Gbenga (13-8, 3 KOs) of Silver Springs, Md., with a body shot in the third round. Jack, a former Olympian and one of the top prospects Mayweather signed to his promotional company, was dominating before dropping Gbenga with a right uppercut to the midsection. Gbenga got to his feet and complained to referee Mora of a low blow, but Mora was having none of it and waived the fight over at 2 minutes, 26 seconds. Replays showed that the punch was a legal blow.
• Super middleweight Lanell Bellows (4-0-1, 4 KOs) of Las Vegas opened the card with a fourth-round knockout of Matthew Garretson (2-1, 1 KO) of Charleston, W.Va. There were no knockdowns, but Bellows broke him down with body shots until referee Kenny Bayless called off the fight at 32 seconds of the final round.