Ryan Garcia has used Lupe Fiasco’s 2007 song Superstar as his entrance music several times in his career, first against Romero Duno, then for his bout against Francisco Fonseca. At the time, his relation to the song may have been more surface-level. Garcia was a fighter whose popularity vastly outpaced his achievement, a highly-touted prospect drawing numbers on television and at the gate comparable to established champions.
“If you are what you say you are, a superstar, then have no fear, the crowd is here,” sings Matthew Santos on the song’s hook. The 2019 and 2020 version of Ryan Garcia was indeed a fighter touting himself, as his promoters at Golden Boy were, as a superstar, and was fighting to justify the claims he’d made to both the audience and to himself.
Several years later, Garcia’s stardom has sustained, but the trappings of fame and notoriety, the inner conflict between the public facing figure and the private person that the song discusses have come along with it. Garcia’s private turmoil and a human and as an athlete has been very public—family issues, relationship issues, trainer changes, feuds with his promoter, battles with mental health.
For a man whose career has been tethered social media popularity, many believed that Garcia had reached both his peak and his nadir this past April when he was stopped by Gervonta Davis in a colossally commercially successful pay-per-view event. Garcia was still the subject of the viral memes, but this time on the wrong end of them. Despite the fact that he (and Davis) had insisted upon the fight that neither were required to make, “daring to be great” to use the term du jour in boxing, losing the fight instead produced the reaction that the audience always claimed an act of bravery would guard you from. For many, he wasn’t the daring fighter willing to risk it all, he was a “quitter” who didn’t want to continue after a body shot, another fraudulent triumph of marketing proven counterfeit under the black lights.
“They want everything back that they've paid. 'Cause they've been waiting since ten to see the lights get dim,” raps Fiasco at the end of the second verse.
When Garcia returned to the ring for the first time since the Davis loss on Saturday against Oscar Duarte, he enlisted Fiasco himself to perform the song as he walked to the ring. On one hand, it was a bit of a flex. Having a renowned recording artist perform during your walkout is a luxury reserved for the most monied fighters in the sport, and ones who can safely assume their income will continue rolling in reliably for a little while, otherwise, it’s a foolish investment. Having the DJ press play on Spotify is free. Having Fiasco perform is far from it. However, after several fights of coming to the ring to different songs, he came back to Superstar. Suddenly the song had a deeper relation to Garcia than just being a cheeky nod to wanting to live up to one’s hype. Garcia had now traversed the rocky ground that Fiasco rapped about between those catchy hooks.
As Garcia existed the Houston Rockets dressing room converted into his locker room for the night, Fiasco was in the midst of the song’s first verse. "The world brought me to my knees; "What have you brung? You? Did you improve on a design? Did you do something new?"
Garcia entered this fight with his third trainer in recent years, Derrick James, after splitting acrimoniously with Eddy Reynoso and amicably with Joe Goossen. James, renowned for his work with Errol Spence Jr. in particular, has been expanding his client list, and has welcomed wayward stars in search of stability and guidance like Anthony Joshua and now, Garcia. Away from the glamor of California, Garcia moved into a small condo in Dallas with few distractions, a modest abode with a gaming console and proximity to James’ gym.
At the post-fight press conference, Garcia would go on to discuss topics with a common theme: His search for identity through mentorship, his propensity to want to stray, and discovering the fruits of fidelity—to one’s mentors, and to oneself. Inside the ring on Saturday, we saw those struggles play out in real time.
Garcia began the fight looking like the best version of himself has looked in the past. He used his long reach and springy legs to keep Duarte at a distance where Garcia could land but his opponent could not, guiding a recklessly aggressive Duarte into his patented counter left hooks. Duarte proved to be durable however, and absorbed some shots that would have knocked out a large percentage of fighters in this weight neighborhood on the spot. By the third round, he was starting to find himself on Garcia’s chest, clubbing away on the inside.
To combat this, Garcia started to improvise, utilizing an exaggerated shoulder roll in which his back was nearly fully turned to Duarte at times. It made hitting Garcia in legal areas difficult (Duarte, perhaps through no fault of his own, found a target in the back of Garcia’s head quite often), but also sapped Garcia of his own offensive opportunities. Observers were openly questioning whether this was a James-taught method, or Garcia going into business for himself. It turns out it was indeed the latter, as James chastised Garcia in the corner during a period in which microphones were not airing their dialogue.
“Derrick told me never to do that. He's like, don't do that sh!t, you ain't Mayweather,” said Garcia at the post-fight press conference. “He'll never admit that, but he did say that. I was just doing it. I was like, lemme see if this works. It kinda did, he couldn't really hit me for two or three rounds, then he started figuring it out, and I was like okay, go back to being me.”
In the third verse of Superstar, Fiasco raps about longing for the days when he could simply be himself, when the work done in relative anonymity was more than enough to please the people who adored him the most. "So just take me home where the mood is mellow, and the roses are thrown, M&M's are yellow, and the light bulbs around my mirror don't flicker. Every song's her favorite song; and mics don't feedback. All the reviewers say, "You need to go and see that!" And everybody claps, 'cause everybody is pleased."
That era for Fiasco was during his time as an underground darling, when his flow and subject matter had found the perfect era and audience, and nothing more was asked of him. The equivalent for Garcia might have been in the family garage where he honed his skills, particularly his left hook, throwing it so quickly and so hard at the Cobra Bag he loves so much that the percussion sounded like an 808 drum beat reminiscent of the same hip hop era.
James noticed that Garcia was losing sight of himself, letting his gifts go to waste with his unrefined freestyle defense, and communicated it to him directly. In past partnerships, Garcia might have ignored this kind of dialogue, or rued the fact that he had to adhere to it. On this night however, he obliged, and perhaps in that moment discovered that the man tasked with looking out for his best interests was indeed doing that. Garcia returned to moving and pot-shotting, and in the eighth round, ran Duarte into what else? A check left hook on the temple that turned his legs into jelly. After a few more power shots, Duarte was down, and the fight was stopped.
“Derrick was pretty adamant, he was like come on man, why aren't you using your legs, he's gonna open up. And I was like okay, because I was trying to stay there and kind of smother him to try to stop his attack and kind of soften him up a little bit, because he was overly aggressive, so I was like, let me try to take some steam off his shots,” said Garcia. “But then I was like okay, he keeps throwing so I'm gonna start moving again, and then I just started locking in with my trainer, and yeah, he was right. It opened up a shot, and he fell into a hook.”
Following the fight, Garcia unknowingly drew parallels between his personal and professional struggles. A devout Christian, Garcia spoke of how religion helped him heal and improve as a human being after years of straying from the teachings he believes in. A devout athlete, Garcia also spoke of both discovering new aspects of himself, and rediscovering the positive ones, after years of searching for the ideal prophet.
“Like Shadow and Lavelle, I battle with it well, though I need a holiday like lady who sung blue. Go back, whatever you did, you undo. Heavy as heaven, the devil on me two tons too,” spit Fiasco in 2007.
“If I wanna be a champion, I have to go through moments, I have to go through adversity. My whole career, I haven't really had any real adversity, except, I guess the Tank fight. But for me, because I was dedicated this camp, this felt like a fight to me. You know like, I'm figuring myself out as a fighter, and it felt good to be in the ring. I'm excited to keep improving with Derrick,” said Garcia. “I'm just so thankful for God and what he did in my life. Even the hard years that I went through. I was lost for a long time. I took so many steps backward after COVID and just in life in general, as a boxer, as a person, the way I treated people, I lost a lot of myself. I fought hard to get back to where I'm at now.”