Hernández: Ryan Garcia knows what it takes to be great, but he ends up running away

HOUSTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 02: Ryan Garcia exchanges punches with Oscar Duarte.
Ryan Garcia, right, punches Oscar Duarte during their super lightweight fight in Houston on Saturday night. Garcia won the fight, but is he capable of becoming a transcendent fighter? (Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

He ran, and ran, and ran.

Ryan Garcia was in a full retreat Saturday night, so much so that Oscar Duarte didn’t consider the possibility he might actually throw a meaningful punch.

Garcia uncorked a left hook that landed on the temple of the advancing Duarte, and soon afterward, the fight was over.

The eighth-round stoppage probably will make casual observers forget how amateurish Garcia looked at times, how he practically turned his back to Duarte when rolling his lead shoulder, how he looked as if he were running laps around the ring at Toyota Center in Houston.

The verdict on the 25-year-old Garcia remained the same as it was before the knockout: He might be a transcendent personality, but he’s not a transcendent fighter.

If Garcia is the future of boxing, boxing has no future.

But the stakeholders of this dying sport have no choice but to back Garcia, who is the only fighter today who understands the dynamics of stardom.

Read more: Ryan Garcia brushes off boos after sluggish start and knocks out Oscar Duarte

He understands it in ways that similarly aged fighters, such as Devin Haney and Shakur Stevenson, don’t.

He understands it in ways current pound-for-pound king Terence Crawford doesn’t.

This isn’t just about his model looks — Garcia is literally a model — or his 10 million Instagram followers or his candidness that makes him extremely relatable.

This is about his willingness to gamble.

He understands he can’t fight a bunch of nobodies and wait until he is 35 to have a signature fight, as Crawford did.

Crawford’s career-defining stoppage of Errol Spence Jr. earlier this year was for the most part ignored outside of boxing circles because nobody knew who either of the fighters were. They hadn’t given the general public any reason to notice them before.

Ryan Garcia stands in the ring with his arms hanging down.
Ryan Garcia celebrates defeating Oscar Duarte on Saturday night. (Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

Crawford might be more marketable now than he was before the Spence fight, but how much time does he have to capitalize off it? Crawford turned 36 in September.

Haney, 25, looks as if he’s following Crawford’s career blueprint. Stevenson, 26, does too.

Garcia doesn’t want that. He knows that to have a chance to do what Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya did — to have big fight after big fight after big fight — he has to secure a major win relatively early in his career.

The victory would grant him legitimacy, turning his next fight into a bigger event, and the one after even bigger than that. Unlike Crawford, he would have the time to repeat this cycle enough times to where his name would carry beyond his sport’s diminishing audience. He could become the boxer that non-boxing fans would pay to watch.

That was his thinking in April when he went into his showdown with Gervonta Davis. Garcia knew what he had to do. He just wasn’t good enough to do it. Davis doubled him over with a body shot, and boxing’s next big thing was revealed to be boxing’s most recent pretender.

Garcia returned Saturday with a new trainer, which is the sort of cosmetic change often made by fighters who lose.

Read more: Nobody pities the King: Inside Ryan Garcia's doomed fight for boxing credibility

The first couple of rounds were promising. Garcia moved better. He showed an ability to throw punches while moving backward.

Just when it looked as if Garcia might have actually evolved, he suddenly tired and longstanding questions about him resurfaced. A couple of years ago, former training partner Canelo Álvarez criticized him for his lack of dedication. His promoter, De La Hoya, raised concerns this week about how Garcia asked for the weight limit for the fight to be increased to 143 pounds from the originally advertised 140.

Garcia reverted to his old habits of standing flat-footed and jerking his head straight back, offering Duarte a welcoming target. Garcia attempted a peculiar variation of the Mayweather defense, which many times resulted in his back turned to his opponent.

Once he’d taken too many punches to his face — and the back of his neck because of his faux Mayweather defense — Garcia jumped on his imaginary bicycle. His flight-or-flee response was to flee, and flee he did. He did what De La Hoya did in the 12th round of his shameful defeat against Félix Trinidad. He did what Héctor Camacho did against Julio César Chávez.

Fortunately for the quick-handed Garcia, Duarte was as careless as he was slow, and presented him with an opportunity to create another highlight to circulate on social media.

The uneven performance was alarming, but Garcia will be given every chance to succeed. The sport’s powerbrokers know Garcia will at least take the chance. The same can’t be said about anyone else.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.