By Jake Donovan
Building a path towards superstardom for unbeaten super featherweight titlist Miguel Angel ‘Mikey’ Garcia is high among the list of priorities for Top Rank Inc. in the not-too-distant future. Just don’t expect the fighter to ever begin thinking he can walk on water.
“I do my job one day at time, and that’s it,” Garcia insists. “I don’t pay attention to how the media views me or any of that stuff. Whatever my promoter and my team has planned for me, my role is to do my job and keep winning fights.”
Garcia does it as well as just about anyone else in the game these days. A banner 2013 campaign saw the 26-year old Californian claim championships in two weight classes and also score a highlight reel knockout over another former champ in between those achievements.
As was the case in 2013, his year will once again kick off at Madison Square Garden Theatre in New York City. Precisely 53 weeks following his first title win, Garcia returns to the world’s most famous arena on January 25, this time as a defending titlist as he takes on Juan Carlos Burgos.
The bout will air live on HBO, his fifth straight appearance on the premium cable network.
Garcia and Burgos appeared at the same Garden party last year, in separate fights bookending an HBO-televised tripleheader. Garcia scored a landslide win over Orlando Salido to win the featherweight title, with the only downside to the fight that it came to an abrupt end after eight rounds when an unintentional headbutt left Garcia with a busted nose and unable to properly breathe or continue.
Burgos’ night wasn’t quite as memorable. It should have been, as many believed the Mexican contender did more than enough to unseat defending super featherweigh titltist Roman ‘Rocky’ Martinez in their HBO-televised opener. The three ringside judges failed to see the same fight, with Burgos forced to settle for an unpopular three-way draw.
Had one more round been scored in favor of Burgos on the scorecard of local judge John Signorile (who had the bout even at 114-114), this matchup would’ve played out considerably sooner. Instead, Garcia went on to beat the man that Burgos functionally beat, though coming right back to provide some semblance of justice in the aftermath.
“I’ve only seen a couple of rounds of that fight, but a lot of people believed he got robbed,” said Garcia (33-0, 28KO). “I was getting ready for my fight at the time they were in the ring, and never had a chance to watch that fight. But they say he should have won, so now he gets his shot.”
The bout will mark the first official defense of any title Garcia has held. His featherweight reign lasted only five months, or until he arrived at the scales for his showdown with former two-division champ Juan Manuel Lopez last June. Garcia learned the hard way that his body was quickly outgrowing the featherweight division, reduced to vomiting during fight week as he was unable to make weight.
While he went on to knockout Lopez in four rounds, the title was vacated at the scales. Garcia never looked back, immediately moving up in weight and surviving a flash knockdown to tear through Martinez before stopping the Puerto Rican in eight rounds last November.
Nobody would have blamed Garcia had he elected to take off the rest of the year to properly celebrate. Between a breakout campaign and the winter holidays, there were plenty of reasons for which to be in a festive mood.
Instead, it was business as usual for a hungry young champion who knows the best is yet to come.
“There will always be time to celebrate, but there’s still too much to be done for me,” insists Garcia, who for the second straight year was forced to avoid Christmas feasts and holiday treats while preparing for his forthcoming title defense. “I’m honored by all the kind things everyone says about my career.
“But I know even as they praise me, people still want to see more. My team expects the best out of me every time, no matter how good I looked my last time. I just keep working to get better.”
The showdown with Burgos (30-1-2, 20KO) comes just 11 weeks following his win over Martinez, a pattern similar to last year’s ring campaign. Garcia’s title win over Salido came 10 weeks after making his HBO debut. His Nov. ’12 knockout win over Jonathan Barros was actually supposed to be the Salido fight, only for the then-featherweight titlist to suffer an injury and postpone to Jan. ‘13.
Nevertheless, the timeline makes the forthcoming title defense his 5th HBO appearance in a span of just 14 months. Knockout wins over Lopez and Martinez both pulled in well north of one million viewers, a trend believed to carry over into the Jan. 25 telecast, which marks his third appearance at Madison Square Garden.
“I love coming back here,” insists Garcia, whose trips 3,000 miles east to New York City have progressively gained significance. His first appearance at Madison Square Garden came in Oct. ’11, when he was still a rising featherweight contender. The next trip to town was his breakout party, claiming the featherweight title with the aforementioned win over Salido.
The latest appearance comes as he’s now established himself as one of the hottest fighters in the game, and among its emerging stars.
“Each trip means more to me, and it shows with the fan support,” Garcia humbly admits. “People (in the New York area) show me a lot of love whenever I fight there. This time I’m coming in as a champion who has to defend instead of a fighter in search of a title. The stakes will be even higher than the other times I’ve fought there, and I know the fans will expect more.”
The viewing audience can also expect more of Garcia in the coming months.
No fewer than three fights are expected for Garcia’s 2014 campaign, one that may or may not include a foray into the lightweight division in pursuit of a world title in his third weight class. Such a jump would fall in step with what Top Rank has in mind for the rising star, hoping to build him up enough – in status and eventually in weight – to follow a similar blueprint to that of the current biggest star on their roster.
Manny Pacquiao was an icon in his native Philippines long before reaching superstar status in the United States. It was his leap up to welterweight, however, that brought his career to new heights after picking apart what was left of worldwide star Oscar de la Hoya in their Dec. ’08 crossroads bout.
Unofficial plans call for Garcia – providing he continues to win – to subtly move up in weight and collect more titles. The hope is that it leads to similar potential for a passing of the torch moment with a possible showdown with Pacquiao somewhere down the road.
There are a lot of variables to get to that point, however; none of which seem to interest Garcia or his team at the present moment.
“We’ve heard people mention it, but doesn’t mean it’s in the works, nor is it our focus,” Garcia insists. “I feel very good at (130) right now. I’m bigger now (in size) than when I was making weight for featherweight and for my first fight here, and it’s a good weight for me.
“I’d like to get another title here, and then maybe move up to lightweight if there’s a fight worth pursuing and my team believes I’m ready to move up. For now, I’m good where I’m at and just locked on getting this win over Burgos.”
The sentiments are echoed by those closest to him – his corner and his family, who happen to be one and the same.
“When the time is right for (a Pacquiao) fight, I honestly believe Mikey has the perfect style to beat him,” says Robert Garcia, Mikey’s older brother and head trainer.
There’s promotional motivation for such a fight to eventually play out; Garcia the trainer is presently 0-2 versus Pacquiao, the most recent setback coming with Brandon Rios coming up way short in their 12-round bout last November, the first fight in nearly a year for the Filipino superstar.
Garcia was also in the corner for Antonio Margarito when the former welterweight champ faced Pacquiao in Nov. 2010. Margarito was one fight removed from a year-long suspension and on the downside of his career, while Rios was moving up to welterweight after just two fights at 140 following a career spent at lightweight.
In his younger brother he has - from a technical standpoint - the perfect fighter to match up with just about anyone in the game, within reason.
“He has the same intangibles as Juan Manuel Marquez [1-2-1 in four fights with Pacquiao, with a strong case for having won at least three of the four] – a smart counterpuncher who takes his time before taking out his opponent. So when we’re ready for that fight, if that’s the fight that has to happen when Mikey reaches that point, we know he will win.
“But a fight like that will come on our terms, when he’s ready to move up in weight,” the trainer continues. “We’re not going to just rush up in weight so he can be the opponent. We’re going to take our time. Our goal for this year is to get Mikey four fights, with Burgos up first.”
There are precious few left in the industry who manage to look before they leap. Garcia was part of a small circle of fighters in 2013 who managed to remain active while collecting premium cable network-sized paychecks. Many others in his position would claim such a path as their own entitlement to something bigger, holding out for one giant payday while letting several others pass by.
Mikey Garcia is not – nor ever intends to become – that fighter. It’s why he remains as active at the championship level as he was while on the rise. It’s why he accepts assignments at a time of year when he has the right to kick back and get as lazy as a top fighter’s body and frame of mind will allow.
“This is my job,” Garcia bluntly states. “We can celebrate big after this fight, just like we waited to celebrate until after (the Salido fight) last year. We can look at bigger fights at higher weights when we know we’re ready for them. I’m not going to chase a payday just to help out another fighter because he’s running out of opponents. That’s not my problem.
“All I need to focus on is what’s in front of me. That’s my responsibility to my team and to my fans.”
Spoken like a true star that knows where his feet always land – firmly on the ground, always ready to move forward.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox