What major fight lies ahead for Leo Santa Cruz? Here are some options

Leo Santa Cruz, left, has a long list of potential big fights in front of him, Andy Samuelson/Premier Boxing Champions

Opening Bell: Santa Cruz sweepstakes

Leo Santa Cruz, as expected, easily retained his featherweight world title for the third time, outclassing late-replacement opponent Rafael Rivera on Saturday night at the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live in Los Angeles. Then the conversation picked back up about whom he might fight next.

Even before the three-division titlist Santa Cruz soundly beat Mexico's Rivera (26-3-2, 17 KOs) -- 119-109 on all three scorecards -- Santa Cruz and most everybody else interested in his career were already discussing potential major fights for him.

Santa Cruz was vocal during the buildup to the Rivera fight about wanting a unification bout or even a possible title shot at junior lightweight. Here's my view of the potential fights for Santa Cruz, in order of my perception of their possibility. These are opponents Santa Cruz, who said he hopes to be back in the ring in June or July, has said he is interested in fighting:

  • Gary Russell Jr. (29-1, 17 KOs): This is the natural fight for division supremacy. It's a unification bout between men who are both with Premier Boxing Champions and it's a fight for which Showtime has pushed. Russell defeated Santa Cruz in the amateur ranks and they have both said they want to unify with each other, although Russell generally only fights once per year. Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza told me he thinks the fight will happen but said it is more likely to take place in the third quarter of this year, meaning Santa Cruz would likely have one more fight first.

  • Carl Frampton (26-2, 15 KOs): Northern Ireland's Frampton and Santa Cruz have already split a pair of excellent featherweight title fights, and both have said they want the trilogy bout. Frampton is coming off an action-packed decision loss to titlist Josh Warrington in December, but it was competitive, and a third bout with Santa Cruz would still be significant and fan-friendly. It's also makeable, because of Frampton's PBC ties.

  • Josh Warrington (28-0, 6 KOs): It's a good fight on paper and politically makeable. England's Warrington has also said he wants to unify titles, but it seems unlikely this bout would be next as Warrington first is supposed to deal with his mandatory defense against Kid Galahad.

  • Gervonta Davis (21-0, 20 KOs): If Santa Cruz can't get a featherweight unification or a third fight with Frampton, he has mentioned interest in pursuing a fight with junior lightweight titlist Davis, who also fights under the PBC banner. However, it is unlikely to happen, at least not next. Davis is headed for a homecoming fight in Baltimore this summer, and there's no way Santa Cruz will be the opponent. It is more likely that this fight won't happen, as Davis will probably be at lightweight before Santa Cruz goes to junior lightweight.

  • Oscar Valdez (25-0, 20 KOs): Santa Cruz-Valdez is a can't-miss action fight and a unification bout to boot, but there's virtually no chance this happens. Santa Cruz is with PBC and Valdez is with Top Rank/ESPN, and this is not nearly a big enough fight commercially for the entities to have any reason whatsoever to work together. The only way this fight happens is in the vivid imaginations of fight fans debating fantasy bouts.


Brant defeats Baysangurov via 11th round TKO

Rob Brant defeats Zaurbek Baysangurov by way of TKO in the 11th round to retain his WBA middleweight title.

Brant wins big

Rob Brant's first defense of his secondary middleweight world title against Khasan Baysangurov on Friday night was a worthy homecoming performance at the Grand Casino in Hinckley, Minnesota.

Brant, who grew up only about 90 minutes away in Saint Paul, was fighting at the Grand Casino for the 12th time, but this was by far his biggest fight, as he headlined a Top Rank on ESPN card. Brant was excited to be at home coming off his biggest win, a tour de force performance in a surprising near-shutout of Japanese star Ryota Murata, who was favored, to win a belt in October in Las Vegas.

Brant (25-1, 17 KOs), 28, dominated Ukraine's Baysangurov (17-1, 7 KOs), 21, the younger brother of retired former junior middleweight titlist Zaurbek Bayasangurov. Brant threw a tremendous number of shots against Murata -- 1,262 -- and didn't throw that many against Baysangurov, but still wore him down with his volume and looked good doing it. He landed 227 of 846 punches (27 percent), according to CompuBox, dropped Baysangurov with a right hand in the second round and with an onslaught of shots in the 11th, then finished him moments later when he badly rocked him with a right hand and referee Mark Nelson properly stopped it at 1 minute, 42 seconds. Brant was way ahead at the time of the stoppage, 99-90 on two scorecards and 98-91 on the third.

The next step: Brant would be a tough out for any of the top guys at 160 pounds because he throws so many punches, is in top shape and seems to take a good punch. He wants any of the big names: unified champion Canelo Alvarez, former champion Gennady Golovkin or a titleholder like Daniel Jacobs, Demetrius Andrade or Jermall Charlo. One problem: None are likely opponents, because none of them fight for Top Rank on ESPN, as Brant does (unless the unsigned GGG ends up there).

Fights you might have missed

Saturday at Los Angeles

Strawweight DeeJay Kriel (15-1-1, 7 KOs) KO12 Carlos Licona (14-1, 2 KOs), to win a world title.

Licona, 23, of Westminster, California, won a vacant world title by split decision over Mark Anthony Barriga on Dec. 1 on the Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury card. Licona returned in short order for his first defense against Kriel, 23, who was fighting outside his native South Africa for the first time. Fighting after the Leo Santa Cruz-Rafael Rivera main event, Licona was the boss through the first half of the fight until Kriel got going. As Kriel upped his punch output, Licona was fading and taking shots. In the 12th round, he took many of them until Kriel dropped him with a right hand. Kriel knocked him down twice more in the round before referee Wayne Hedgpeth waved off the fight at 2:16. Licona was ahead 108-101 on two scorecards and down 105-104 on the other at the time of the knockout.

Junior featherweight Ryosuke Iwasa (26-3, 16 KOs) Tech. Dec. 10 Cesar Juarez (23-7, 17 KOs), title eliminator, scores: 98-92, 97-93 (Iwasa), 95-95.

Former titlist Iwasa, 29, of Japan, who lost his belt by disputed decision to TJ Doheny in August, earned another shot by topping Juarez, 27, of Mexico, in their action fight. Both suffered cuts from an accidental head butt in the second round, but Juarez took the brunt of it and the cut got worse as the fight went on until referee Jack Reiss stopped it in the 10th and sent it to the scorecards for a majority technical decision.

Lightweight Karlos Balderas (7-0, 6 KOs) TKO3 Jose Cen Torres (13-11, 1 KO).

Balderas, 22, a 2016 U.S. Olympian from Santa Maria, California, had no trouble with Torres, 27, of Mexico. Balderas dropped him with a body shot in the first round, and Torres's corner threw in the towel following the third round. Torres lost his seventh fight in a row and suffered his fifth knockout loss overall. Balderas is an excellent prospect, but it's time for him to face at least slightly better opposition and to fight more often.

Friday at Mulvane, Kansas

Junior welterweight Shohjahon Ergashev (16-0, 14 KOs) W10 Mykal Fox (19-1, 5 KOs), scores: 98-92 (twice), 96-94.

Ergashev, 27, a former amateur standout (202-14) from Uzbekistan, now fights out of Detroit and is trained by Javan "Sugar" Hill, the nephew of the late, great trainer Emanuel Steward. Ergashev had been a knockout machine, but he took a bit of a step up in competition against fellow southpaw Fox, 23, of Forest Hill, Maryland, in the main event of the ShoBox: The New Generation card, and he struggled a bit even though he clearly won. Ergashev overcame a 5½-inch height disadvantage against Fox, the younger brother of middleweight Alantez Fox. Mykal Fox is massive for the division at 6-foot-4, has an awkward boxing style and didn't want to engage much, making it hard to look good against him. Although it wasn't a very good fight, it probably will go down as a good learning experience for Ergashev, who is one of boxing's top prospects but landed only two of more than 100 jabs.

Junior featherweight Thomas Ward (26-0, 4 KOs) W10 Jesse Angel Hernandez (12-2, 7 KOs), scores: 100-89, 99-90, 98-90.

Ward, 24, fought for the first time outside his native England and cruised to a lopsided win over Hernandez, 28, of Fort Worth, Texas. Ward knocked Hernandez down with a clean left hook in the final seconds of the fourth round and was never threatened. Referee Bill Clancy nearly stopped the fight in the sixth round and at the beginning of the ninth because of the punishment Hernandez was taking.

Flyweight Nico Hernandez (7-0, 4 KOs) W8 Victor Trejo Garcia (16-10-1, 8 KOs), scores: 80-72 (twice), 79-73.

Hernandez, 23, a 2016 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist and a hometown draw from nearby Wichita, Kansas, fought on the UFC Fight Pass portion of the card and romped past Garcia, 26, of Mexico, who lost his third fight in a row and fourth of his last five. Hernandez did as he pleased other than score a knockout.