Santa Cruz and rival champion Carl Frampton were in the North for the first press conference of a promotional tour head of a January 28 rematch at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Undefeated Frampton (23-0) took the WBA world featherweight title off Santa Cruz (32-1-1) with an impressive majority-points win in a Fight of the Year candidate in Brooklyn last July.
And Santa Cruz was treated to an imposing but fairly respectful atmosphere in front of Frampton’s home Belfast crowd, who were in their hundreds at the Europa Hotel yesterday.
And after suggesting that a vocal Irish crowd in New York may have swayed the judges last July, this promotional event may have opened his eyes to the fact that Frampton’s support has become ever-present with 3,000 to 4,000 Irish fans expected to travel to Vegas, according to the champion.
“I was a little bit nervous - scared of the people, of the fans,” admitted Santa Cruz. “But all the people treat me with respect and I’m very thankful for that. Hopefully if I get the win then I’ll be very happy to come here [to Belfast] for the rematch in the trilogy.”
Before that hypothetical encounter can become a reality, Santa Cruz must first win on January 28.
While the California-based Mexican will enjoy something close to a “home” advantage on the US west coast, he claimed he will need a career-best performance to see off the undefeated champion.
“Carl Frampton is a great fighter, a great champion and I know he’s not going to lose that belt easily. He’s going to come in with everything, even better than the first fight so, me, I’ve got to give my best performance and I’ve got to go out there and do everything almost perfectly to get the win.”
In the build-up to the first bout, the 28-year-old’s father and trainer, Jose, was diagnosed with cancer. With Jose now on the mend, Santa Cruz said: “It’s a great comfort because for the first fight we’d only just been told that he had cancer and he had to get surgery.
“Every time I went to the gym my head wasn’t really in the training. It was more with him, like how he was doing, if he was going to be able to surpass cancer, be able to beat it.
“[This time] nothing like that is happening… The cancer is almost in remission, he’s doing a lot better.”
Frampton hopes a successful title defence will help him kick off 2017 in much the same style of a glorious 2016. The 29-year-old became a unified world super-bantamweight world champion with his win over Scott Quigg before victory over Santa Cruz saw him become Ireland’s second two-weight world champion (after Steve Collins) , claiming the same 126lb featherweight previously owned by mentor Barry McGuigan.
“It  could top 2016,” said Frampton. “I’m fighting so early in the year that I’m hoping to get three fights. I want to fight in Windsor [Park] in the summer and then we’ll fight wherever it may be before the end of the year.
“[I’ll] still be a world champion at the end of the year... and I’ll still probably not be nominated for Sports Personality of the Year,” he added.