By Jake Donovan
It hasn’t been an easy few months for Mikey Garcia. The unbeaten featherweight contender has watched two title shots go south, for reasons far beyond his control. Having waited more than a year for his mandatory title fight to come to fruition, Garcia will now have to wait just a few months longer.
A consolation prize is offered in an HBO showcase appearance this weekend. After watching separate fights with Celestino Caballero and Orlando Salido fall through, Garcia (29-0, 25KO) now faces former title challenger Jonathan Barros in the HBO-televised co-feature Saturday evening in Las Vegas.
There is no official hardware at stake, just for Garcia to simply endure yet another tough task and hope that a defending beltholder finally makes his way to the ring sometime in the early part of 2013.
“It was a letdown at first,” Garcia admits of the non-title status that comes with his latest assignment. “We were training to fight Salido, but he got injured. They found Barros and salvaged the date. Things like this happen all of the time. I’m just grateful to be back in the ring and on TV.”
The Californian was originally slated to face Caballero this past September. The fight was to have been presented by Sampson Lewkowicz, Caballero’s adviser whose promotional company won purse bid rights. Sadly, things went south between Caballero and Lewkowicz, leading to the fight’s cancellation.
At the time, the news barely caused a ripple among the Garcia camp. They accepted a tune-up fight in Mexico – stopping Mauricio Pastrana in two rounds this past September – and moved on to the next available major challenge, which was Salido. The fight was easy enough to make since both fight for Top Rank (Salido is co-promoted by Zanfer).
With that came the November 10 date, which was originally reserved for Manny Pacquiao’s ring return. When the wildly popular pound-for-pound star opted to instead delay plans by four weeks, Top Rank and HBO converted the pay-per-view date to a regular network broadcast.
A Salido-Garcia showdown represented yet another mouthwatering matchup between HBO and Top Rank, a few weeks after Brandon Rios’ Fight of the Year-level knockout win over Mike Alvarado.
Instead, it’s the latest road block for Garcia, whose entire prime has been of the hurry-up-and-wait variety. The positive outlook is that he’s remaining active rather than idling on the sidelines. The downside is that it’s par for the course for a fighter who has watched three potential title fights fall through since becoming mandatory challenger.
“We’ve been looking for a world title fight for over a year and ranked for two years,” Garcia explains. “I was (Yuriorkis) Gamboa’s mandatory and he vacated the title. A few months back, we were looking forward to fighting Caballero. They kept changing plans and we were stuck in the middle. Then Salido was ready. It was an easy fight to make, but now…”
This weekend’s challenge represents perhaps an even greater risk than what was previously planned. A win over Salido would’ve meant a first major title for Garcia, though there’s room to rebound in the event of a title fight loss.
The formula doesn’t necessarily apply here. The slot has already changed from a headlining title fight to a non-title bout as the evening’s chief support – Vanes Martirosyan and Erislandly Lara top the bill in a super welterweight title eliminator. Still, a win is a win and in this case means he keeps his place in line while still awaiting a title shot. A loss means back to the drawing board.
“He’s rugged and experienced. It won’t be an easy night,” Garcia acknowledges. “Things haven’t happened the way we wanted but it changes the way you view the fight. Once you get the opponent and the date is there, you’re motivated. If I lose I won’t get any title shot. I know this is it. I better make sure I win.”
Winning is all that Garcia has done since turning pro, and mostly in spectacular fashion. The rise to contention isn’t a surprise to anyone in the industry, considering his fighting roots. Garcia’s older brother Robert was a former 130 lb. titlist who now serves as his head trainer. Also in the corner is his father Eduardo, who trained Robert and also Fernando Vargas – among many others – during his heyday as a corner man in demand.
Despite boxing being in his blood, the sport wasn’t necessarily first on the list of things Garcia planned to do for a living as a grown-up.
“I didn’t really think about boxing as a career. It grew more little by little,” Garcia reveals. “Once I fought in the tournaments, I liked it more. I got pretty good at it. The fight itself is not that hard. If you train hard, the fight is not going to be that hard. You won’t feel the fatigue. It’s different in the pro ranks, but it still comes easy to me once I’m in the ring, thanks to the hard work done in camp.”
A win over Barros (34-3-1, 18KO) is the expectation, but by no means guaranteed. The Argentinean split a pair of fights with Caballero, both with a featherweight title at stake. Barros was also competitive in a points loss to 130 lb. titlist Juan Carlos Salgado earlier this summer and went the distance with Gamboa in their March ’10 title fight.
Assuming Garcia is victorious this weekend, the silver lining in a frustrating period is that his next targeted fight date means a quick turnaround.
“(Top Rank) is looking into a February show in Puerto Rico – me versus Salido and Juan Manuel Lopez against Juan Manuel Lopez against Wilfredo Vazquez Jr.,” Garcia reveals. “Nothing is confirmed but that’s what they have in mind.”
Garcia shared a card with Salido and Lopez in Puerto Rico earlier this year. Salido scored a stoppage win over Lopez for the second time in as many tries, while Garcia systematically broke down Bernabe Concepcion in the evening’s co-feature.
Even more memorable to Garcia than the fight that serves as his most recent win, was the provided backdrop. A return to La Isla Encanta isn’t at all a bad thing, whether for business or for pleasure.
If things finally work in Garcia’s favor, Feb. ’13 could represent the best of both worlds.
“It’s a beautiful place to vacation after a fight,” Garcia says.
Before he visits his travel agent, another task remains at hand.
“I can’t be looking at Salido now or any other champ, knowing that Barros is my opponent,” Garcia acknowledges. “I focus on one fight at a time and looking good for that fight. If you want to be on HBO you have to look good. If you look bad, they won’t call you back.
“HBO and Top Rank, they did something for me. They kept me on and are interested in showcasing. It’s a good night to show everybody what I have. It keeps me motivated.”
Though the wait has been lengthy, Garcia takes comfort in knowing that his career remains in good hands.
In addition to his corner truly being a family affair, he is fully confident that his promoter keeps his best interests at heart. Top Rank is the industry leader when it comes to developing a fighter, with Garcia storming to the top of the ranks merely the latest example of that statement.
“They did it with (Oscar) de la Hoya, (Floyd) Mayweather (Jr.) and Miguel Cotto before, and I’m happy with the work they’ve done with me,” Garcia states. “They know who I need to face, who to fight and beat in order to get better and take those little steps forward.
“It’s taking a little longer than we wanted, but it’s working out in the end. Now that we’re here they’re pushing for the world title fights. I believe they believe I’m ready. That’s perfect for me.”
All that’s needed now is for the right opportunity to come along – and actually materialize.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox