To let external parties, especially boxing’s understandably cynical reporters and fans, co-opt the narrative of one’s career is a dangerous enterprise. So, when Mikey Garcia seemingly dropped off the face of planet earth for two-and-a-half years during a bitter contract dispute with former promoter Top Rank, assumptions were made — and not just about the legal proceedings. Garcia’s reputation, which prior to his layoff had been burnished by winning world titles in two weight classes and earning a spot on several pound-for-pound rankings, was badly damaged and his integrity was questioned.
But just as it seemed Mikey Garcia had completely faded into boxing’s collective unconscious, he legally earned his release from Top Rank and was, in principle, vindicated. And yet, despite the welcomed news that Garcia, who is still in his athletic prime, was set to return to action, many opted to focus on the time he had lost, and questions still lingered about his love for the sport.
At this point, though, any doubts about Garcia should be put to rest. Instead of selecting a pushover opponent for his comeback fight, he willingly faced former world champion Elio Rojas (who, it must be noted, was coming off a layoff as well). Although Rojas had ring rust of his own to contend with, his experience and tricky style hardly made him an easy mark, as evidenced by Garcia’s early attempts to find optimal punching range; however, once Garcia got into rhythm, he emphatically ended the fight in round five after compiling four knockdowns.
“Rojas was a former world champion who couldn’t be taken lightly,” Garcia says. “He was moving around the ring well, giving me angles, giving me something to think about. But once I started to close down the distance and find the right range and timing I started to take over and show everyone that I’m as good as I was before.”
For Garcia, the win represented more than just a return to fighting form; it also marked the conclusion, the one that fans needed to witness, of his protracted dispute with Top Rank. According to Garcia, after defeating Juan Carlos Burgos in 2014 and then vacating his title, Top Rank offered him a fight against Yuriorkis Gamboa at the cost of extending his contract under the same terms as when he signed in 2009. Garcia, a two-division world champion already, felt he deserved the right to renegotiate and was understandably displeased.
After turning down the Gamboa bout, Garcia claims Top Rank refused to offer him fights but at the same time would not release him. Naturally, Top Rank and Bob Arum had a different version of events, which included a reported contract to face Terence Crawford, which Garcia supposedly priced himself out of. But Garcia’s attorney, Bryan J. Freedman, was adamant that Arum’s version of events was a flat out lie. When matters finally went to court, Garcia and his team won a preliminary hearing, after which Top Rank threw in the towel and agreed to settle, thus ending Garcia’s ties to the promotional outfit.
“Some people were misinformed,” Garcia says. “Or they were informed based on what Top Rank or Bob Arum was saying about me. A lot of that was inaccurate or just not true. I had to keep quiet. I didn’t want to jeopardize my case.”
Indeed, Garcia was exculpated, but it took years and significant legal costs. What it came down to was a battle of principles, and for Garcia, that has allowed him to move forward without any regrets. In fact, the entire ordeal, excruciating as it was at times, ended up being an invaluable learning experience. With the Rojas win under his belt, and his challenge of WBC lightweight champion Dejan Zlaticanin looming, Garcia remains a promotional free agent and is plotting that aspect of his career with the utmost care. He’s also been pleased with how his team has been able to secure him meaningful fights and opportunities without binding, longterm deals.
“But eventually, after this fight, we’ll sit down with the right people and work something out that works for everybody – not just for myself or the promoter, but for everybody involved,” Garcia says.
What comes first, though, is an appealing match-up against the undefeated Zlaticanin, Montenegro’s first ever world champion boxer. Garcia is adamant that this second act of his career will be his most distinguished, and his mindset is oriented towards giving fans the types of fights they crave. Fan recognition, he argues, is what matters most now, and he doesn’t give credence to his former pound-for-pound standing or trying to live up to some standard of himself that was hyped and defined by the media during his first go ’round as world champion. In fact, as long as he’s winning and participating in meaningful bouts, how he’s ranked and assessed, frankly, doesn’t mean anything.
This relates to how he views the Zlaticanin fight, which to Garcia is less about winning the WBC title than it is about what the match represents. “You beat the champion to be recognized,” Garcia says. “That’s what this fight is. I need to beat a champion. I’m not fighting for a vacant title. I’m fighting a legitimate, undefeated world champion. And that’s what’s going to allow me to step up and get the recognition I want.”
So, winning boxing’s iconic green belt is secondary to being in the kind of fight fans are eager to see. This is encouraging because if Mikey Garcia is truly intent on chasing marquee match-ups as he moves forward, clearly fight fans and the sport will benefit. Garcia says he would ideally like to unify titles at 135 pounds before moving up to junior welterweight, but he’s also not going to linger if politics get in the way of the matches he wants; while plenty of fighters say this, Garcia’s free agent status imbues his claims with genuine substance.
— Team Mikey Garcia (@mikeygarcia) January 25, 2017
It’s easy to forget that Garcia is still only 29, which is why his assertion that his (partly) self-imposed layoff came “at just the right time” is initially jarring. However, it’s also easy to forget that Garcia has been deeply immersed in boxing since infancy, a fact that helped him deal with this fiasco but could also lead to him burning out. Garcia never let himself go during those two-and-a-half years, but he admits to needing a break of sorts. Ultimately, he matured.
“I’m a little hungrier than I was before, actually,” Garcia says. “I was starting to get a little bored and tired of the same things over and over. Training camps were getting redundant.”
A mentally rejuvenated Mikey Garcia is a terrifying prospect for any elite fighter hovering around 135 or 140. It may seem like an exaggeration to say this, but in 2014 many viewed Garcia as a flawless fighter: intelligent, methodical, powerful, and technically brilliant. And it’s for this reason that Garcia hasn’t really needed to change anything in his actual boxing. The test now will be to see whether he can continue to seamlessly impose his skills against increasingly difficult foes, and up to this point, he hasn’t given a shred of evidence that would lead one to question him.
Garcia doesn’t wish his ordeal on any fighter, but he also acknowledges that it’s important to see evidence that boxing’s somewhat rogue power structures can be taken down, at least a notch or two, even if the process is draining and costly. That said, patience and finances are required, which many fighters don’t possess; however, there was important symbolism in Garcia’s victory that mitigates his privileged position of having the resources to stand his ground. Although he was put on the shelf, he didn’t submit, even as Top Rank continued to put on fight cards and make money. And in the end, his freedom, and the foresight it might give other fighters, was greater.
“I’m in control,” Garcia says. “I’m in charge. The ball is in my court. I have the leverage to dictate what I want to do with my career and who I want to work with. It’s a great feeling.”
— Zachary Alapi