LAS VEGAS – Rafael Garcia grins widely, a smile that seems to say, "Something good is going to happen soon," and pats his flat belly. He runs his fingers through his full head of hair and leans in toward a visitor to the boxing gym.
"How old," he asks, stretching the boundaries of his grin, "do you think I am?"
Without waiting for an answer, he says, "I've been doing this longer than most of the people here were born. Or before a lot of their parents were born."
The Mayweather Boxing Club is a beehive of activity on this late summer afternoon. Its star attraction, unbeaten Floyd Mayweather Jr., has yet to arrive for his workout that will help prepare him for his Sept. 19 comeback fight down the street at the MGM Grand Garden Arena against Juan Manuel Marquez.
There are aspiring fighters hitting the bags, a couple of men skipping rope. Roger Mayweather, Floyd's uncle and lead trainer, is gesturing animatedly to a woman on a treadmill, apparently trying to demonstrate the proper technique for a three-punch combination.
Assistants for Floyd Jr. scurry around, preparing the place for his imminent arrival.
Garcia pulls up a chair and glances around. He's 81 and he's been involved in boxing in one form or another for 69 years.
He first walked into a gym nearly seven decades ago in Puebla, Mexico, when he tired of going several blocks out of his way in an effort to avoid a bully while headed to school. He learned to box and hasn't stopped since. He was 5-0 as a bantamweight until his mother begged him to quit. He acquiesced, but the lure of the gym was too strong. He assumed the name Guadalupe Limon, fought and won twice more and then gave up his fighting career for good.
That led him into the corner, though, and into a lifetime of working with some of the biggest names in the game's history. He has made the long walk to the ring with legends like Mayweather and Hall of Famers Roberto Duran and Alexis Arguello, as well as dozens of other champions, and hasn't lost an ounce of passion for either the sport or his job.
He has worked for Mayweather for about the last 10 years, concentrating on wrapping his hands, taking care of his cuts and offering advice culled from his vast experience.
Mayweather's hands are brittle and he was having frequent problems with them for much of his career. He heard about Garcia's wizardry as a hand wrapper and made a call.
"My hands were bothering me and when a fighter doesn't have confidence in his hands," Mayweather says, shaking his head and not needing to finish the sentence. "I finally had to find the best wrapper out there. And that is Rafael Garcia. I won't let anyone else touch my hands."
Garcia is recognizable for the Kangol caps he wears that are adorned with pins from places he has traveled. He has seen the world, the big cities, the small cities, the major markets and the out-of-the-way places few have heard of.
He has worked for boxers who didn't have the talent to stay out of their own way and he has assisted generational talents.
In all of those years, though, as a fighter, manager, trainer and cut man, he has never met anyone quite like Mayweather.
Garcia declines to name the best fighter he has ever seen because he says comparing fighters in different generations is next to impossible. He has no doubt that Mayweather is the most gifted fighter of the current generation and he's even more sure that he's never seen anyone who works as hard as Mayweather does.
"There's no one close to him and I'm telling you the honest truth," Garcia said. "Every day, and I mean every single day, he works as hard as he can possibly work. I've never seen anything like it. People come to the gym all the time and they want to see him and talk to him and take a picture. And Floyd, he loves the fans. People don't know how good he is to the people. He's a good man and he has time for everyone.
"But when he's working, he is only concentrating on that. The gym is where he does his work and when he gets to the gym, he puts every bit of himself completely into what he is doing."
Garcia was recommended to Mayweather by promoter Bob Arum. Arum had once sent Garcia to Southern California to work with the late noted orthopedic surgeon Tony Daly. Daly explained the structure of the hand to Garcia and inspected his wrapping technique.
Garcia only had to wrap one hand and Daly was satisfied.
"He said, 'Perfect. If you wrap all the hands like that, no one is going to have any problems,' " Garcia said.
There are few boxers who haven't had pain in their hands. It's an occupational hazard when you spend much of the year clubbing someone upside the head.
Garcia, though, said many problems are exacerbated by poorly wrapped hands. The most common mistake trainers make when wrapping a fighter's hand, Garcia said, is that they wrap it too tightly.
"It gets purple and then there is no circulation," he says. "That's when there are problems."
The Nevada Athletic Commission thinks so highly of Garcia's abilities it asked him to put on a clinic to demonstrate the proper technique.
He's far more than a man who just knows how to put tape and gauze on a fighter's hand, but at 81, he's thrilled just to be involved in the game and around a boxer who he believes is one of the best who has ever lived.
"I just love coming out every day and being here to see this, because this is history I'm watching," Garcia said. "People always want to know, 'Rafael, who is the best?' It's so hard to say. Different times, different styles. Floyd is the best now, without a doubt. I have respect for Marquez and his trainer, [Nacho] Beristain, is one of the best.
"Floyd is just different. Watching him fight is just like watching the guys like Duran and Arguello. That's the kind of level he's at."
- Roger Mayweather