Leo Santa Cruz and Leigh Wood are set to fight this fall.

Just not against each other.

The two claimants to the WBA featherweight title were instead granted permission to enter separate fights, with each of their belts at stake. As announced by Matchroom Boxing, Wood will defend his secondary WBA featherweight title against streaking contender Mauricio ‘Bronco’ Lara on September 24 in his hometown of Nottingham, England.

Santa Cruz (38-2-1, 19KOs)—who holds the WBA ‘Super’ featherweight belt—will seek a title unification bout with WBC claimant Rey Vargas, in a bout likely to take place in November. The WBA claims that the two winners will have to meet in the first quarter of 2023, though coming after repeatedly insisting that the title consolidation bout was to precede any other opportunity for either fighter.

“The World Boxing Association (WBA) Championships Committee approved the joint permit requested by Matchroom Boxing and TGB Promotions to allow featherweight super champion Leo Santa Cruz to face Rey Vargas in a unification fight and featherweight champion Leigh Wood to make a defense against Mauricio Lara,” the sanctioning bout revealed on Wednesday. “Both fights were approved with the condition that the super champion will face the champion to define the sole champion of the category within 120 days after the fight between Santa Cruz and Vargas. 

“It should be noted that the WBA, in the midst of world title reduction plan, ordered the Santa Cruz-Wood last April 6, 2022. On July 11, TGB requested a permit to make the Santa Cruz Vargas, which was denied on July 15 by the championships committee, which called for a purse bid for Santa Cruz-Wood. On August 12, both companies sent a communication stating that they had reached an agreement and the purse bid was suspended. Subsequently, on the 22nd of that same month, the joint permission was requested in which the Santa Cruz-Vargas and the Wood-Lara were requested, with the commitment that both winners would face each other in the established term to define the only champion.”

The declaration effectively allows both fighters to claim championship status and for the WBA to double dip in sanctioning fees. Featherweight remains one of seven weight divisions where the sanctioning body boasts two titlists, more than a year after being forced to commit to a title reduction campaign.

Most of the low-hanging fruit was gathered by the WBA, though with significantly less progress in divisions boasting higher-profile titleholders.

Closure seemed to come with this matter, as the WBA sent Santa Cruz-Wood to a purse bid hearing after spending months deliberating over a request by Wood (26-2, 16KOs) and Matchroom to receive closer to a 50/50 purse split rather than settle for the standard 75/25 split in favor of the ‘Super’ champion. The WBA denied the request, along with one from Santa Cruz seeking to unify with Mexico’s Vargas who’d just dethroned Mark Magsayo in their July 9 WBC title fight in San Antonio.

The latter is now back in play, which will mark Santa Cruz’s first fight at featherweight since February 2019. The four-division titlist was required to commit in writing his plans to return to the division and to face the reigning secondary titleholder. Wood claimed the WBA ‘World’ title in a 12th round knockout of Xu Can last August. The streaking Brit also defended his title via the result, though having to climb off the canvas and rally from a scorecard deficit to score a dramatic last-round knockout of Michael Conlan in their Fight of the Year contender on March 12 in Nottingham.

Santa Cruz has twice held the WBA ‘Super’ belt, regaining the title in a twelve-round, unanimous decision win over Carl Frampton in January 2017 to avenge his first career defeat from six months prior.

Just three title defenses have followed for Santa Cruz, whose last three fights have taken place at junior lightweight. He was granted permission to retain his title while facing and beating Keenan Carbajal in a non-title fight outside of featherweight on February 5 in Las Vegas. It came with the requirement of his committing to next face the Wood-Conlan winner, though the sanctioning body ultimately softened its stance on the subject.

Mexico City’s Lara (24-2-1, 17KOs) will enter the fight with Wood riding a 14-fight unbeaten streak, including 11 wins by knockout over that stretch. Included in that run is a ninth-round knockout of then-unbeaten Josh Warrington last February 13 at Wembley’s SSE Arena. The career-best win put Lara on the map as a top featherweight contender, not losing any steam even in a two-round No-Contest with Warrington in their rematch last September 4 in Warrington’s Leeds hometown.

It hasn't, however, earned him a spot in the WBA featherweight rankings. That will likely change by the next ratings update, though still doesn't excuse the WBA violating its own by-laws in approving the secondary title fight.

Warrington has since regained the IBF featherweight title, with talks at one point of facing Wood in an all-British showdown. Such a fight would have required Wood to upgrade to WBA ‘Super’ title status or to have vacated his secondary belt, the latter which is not recognized as a valid title by other sanctioning bodies.

In his most recent start, Lara throw caution to the win in a third-round knockout of Emilio Sanchez in their all-action shootout on March 5 in San Diego. The fight with Wood will mark Lara’s third trip to the UK within his last four fights.

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox