Mikey Garcia's obligation to meet a boxing dream he never imagined

Mikey Garcia works out on the speed bag during a workout at Fortune Gym on July 10, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)
Mikey Garcia works out on the speed bag during a workout at Fortune Gym on July 10, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

ARLINGTON, Texas — Mikey Garcia wears a nice suit while he sits inside a largely empty AT&T Stadium.

Outside, it’s cold and rainy. Inside the billion-dollar stadium, everything looks and feels perfect. Most of the people there are in public relations, janitorial workers charged with keeping everything clean, or tourists who have paid to walk around the immaculate stadium. It’s about 90 minutes before a scheduled mid-day press conference where Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and the stadium, will join Garcia and his March 16 opponent, Errol Spence Jr. They will pose for pictures and answer questions related to their fight on Fox Pay-Per-View. They will talk of the fight’s importance and how it’s fitting that AT&T Stadium, which can seat upward of 105,000, will host it.

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In his first professional fight, in 2006, Garcia fought in front of a few hundred people in a Southern California ballroom. This is a long way from where he began. An even longer way from how he once saw boxing. And now, Garcia prepares himself to attempt what many see as foolish. He has not only chosen to fight Spence — a man that others who fight for a living seemingly avoid — but Garcia is entirely confident.

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Talk to Garcia and you soon see he’s convinced he can beat Spence. It’s a conviction beyond the usual things a boxer says when trying to sell what everyone else sees as a mismatch. There’s an audacity to Garcia. And you can’t understand it without knowing who and where he comes from.

Boxing comes easy for Garcia, the son of immigrants

It’s a common beginning for many parents of Mexican-Americans. Born into limited possibilities, any attempt to make something of themselves required them moving away from home.

“My dad had a third-grade education in Mexico,” Garcia says. He repeats himself. “Third grade. My mom had a fifth-grade education. They were raised in a poor home. ... They got married and they had their family, but there’s hardly any future.”

Like many before him, Eduardo — Garcia’s father — left the familiar for the United States’ unknown. He worked for as long as the produce he was picking required. When it ended, he returned home to Michoacán. When the picking season began again, he returned to the United States, again.

“He was able to finally bring his whole family to the States,” said Garcia, “… they were able to become residents here.” His parents worked different jobs at different factories until they moved to Oxnard, California. More back-breaking manual labor.

“I still remember my dad, my mom, coming home on certain evenings,” Garcia recalls, his tone slightly lowered. “Their clothes dirty, muddy. Red stains everywhere [on] their boots from working the strawberry fields.”

From time to time, Garcia drives by those fields. He sees people working the way his father and mother once did. He feels chills across his body. “Sometimes it brings tears to your eyes,” Garcia said of those visits. “You get emotional, like, ‘Damn, my dad was out here doing this.’ It’s hard, back-breaking labor. It’s tough. All with intent and the dream of one day giving us a better future. A better life.”

Decades after his mother and father first worked those fields, Garcia remembers, and it’s doubtful he’ll ever forget. He now feels a responsibility to add to the boxing legacy of the Garcia family, which his father also began. He feels that same responsibility to fight for his fans. It now feels like an obligation. And that feeling — so far as boxing is concerned — wasn’t always there.

“When [Mikey] started boxing we didn’t really think he was too serious about it,” remembers his brother and trainer, Robert, a former world champion. “He never really wanted to go to the gym at all.”

Mikey is the youngest of seven children. So young that he grew up closer in age to his nieces and nephews than to his sisters and brothers. It wasn’t until he was 13 years old that Garcia, almost as if by coincidence, first fought. He was at a local boxing event to cheer for his nephew. When a young boxer lacked an opponent, Robert had his little brother fill-in. With borrowed equipment and without formal training, Mikey fought.

“It came like a natural thing for me, and I liked it,” Garcia said. “That’s how my amateur career started. But again, no interest in a future in boxing. I just thought it was like a little pastime, something to do.”

Boxing came easy for Garcia. Something he could take or leave. And as he became a professional boxer and won world championships, that ambivalence remained. “Winning the titles or defending the titles, we got happy, the family was happy,” Robert remembers. “But for him it was just another win. Nothing special.”

Mikey Garcia (R) in action against WBO featherweight champion Orlando Salido on Jan. 19, 2013, in New York. Garcia won the title via technical decision in the eighth round after an accidental head butt broke Garcia's nose. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Mikey Garcia (R) in action against WBO featherweight champion Orlando Salido on Jan. 19, 2013, in New York. Garcia won the title via technical decision in the eighth round after an accidental head butt broke Garcia's nose. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

The way the youngest Garcia explains it, back then, he boxed only for the money. Through boxing he could buy a house, a car, perhaps even gain some financial security for his young family. He had grown up with dreams of being a lawyer or a police officer, but never a boxer. And, in fact, in the spring of 2014 when he found himself in courtrooms, battling his former promoter, Top Rank, over a contract dispute, Garcia even welcomed the break.

“Honestly, I didn’t really care for the sport like that, so whatever, it can take as long as they want,” Garcia remembers thinking, hardly worried he was losing prime years of his athletic career inside a courtroom. “I don’t care. I’m having a good time, I’m enjoying my time off. I’m finally living. I’m not worried about training, I’m not worried about diet.”

But with no end in sight and already a year into litigation, something changed. From home, he watched as other boxers won titles and achieved success. Suddenly, he worried that if he never boxed again, he’d never get to show his full potential. Garcia missed boxing.

“I just [wanted] to fight,” he said, having felt that competitiveness burn. That feeling that isn’t quite jealousy but still makes your stomach feel a certain way. “I wanted to prove to everybody that I’m much more than what they had seen.”

As he said, the lawsuit against Top Rank became personal. It dragged on for over two years before he secured his freedom and gained control of his career. But by the time he fought again, in July 2016, thirty months had passed. He returned with a sense of urgency and a different mindset. “I felt like I owed it to my fans, like I owed it to my people, to show that I’m much more,” Garcia said of his return and seeking legacy-building challenges.

Counting Spence, the combined records of the six opponents Garcia has faced since coming back to boxing is 137 wins and only four losses. Four of those opponents hadn’t lost. Counting Saturday, those fights will have taken place across three different weight divisions.

“Now that I came back I was no longer interested in just the economic, financial dependency from the sport,” Garcia said of his increased level of opposition.

“I know what I’m capable of. My dad, my brother, know what I’m capable of. They’ve seen me in the ring sparring. They know me better than anyone else. … I have all these other tools and people still haven’t seen that. So that’s why I decided to push for this fight. … I knew that when I moved up to welterweight, [this] was the man I wanted: Errol Spence.”

Only Spence stands in the way of boxing glory for Garcia

Errol Spence and Mikey Garcia will go head-to-head on Saturday for Spence's IBF world welterweight championship belt. (Getty Images)
Errol Spence and Mikey Garcia will go head-to-head on Saturday for Spence's IBF world welterweight championship belt. (Getty Images)

The press conference begins. Security turns away a few fans, holding gloves, at the door. Jerry Jones wears a blue-colored suit that makes the color of his eyes look like the purest ocean. Spence wears a dark blue turtleneck, fitting of the weather. At times, during his introduction, Garcia stands at the podium and seems uncomfortable with everyone staring at him. He looks a bit out-of-place; as out-of-place as a billion-dollar stadium nestled in between some businesses with storefront signs written in Spanish.

If you didn’t know who Garcia was, you wouldn’t immediately think he’s a world-class athlete. You wouldn’t know that he’s a victory away from a boxing glory that, until recently, he never sought.

“I want to be great,” he said. “I want to prove to everybody that I am great.”

Already highly regarded, if he beats Spence, many will consider Garcia the best boxer in the world.

“It’s unbelievable that we are here,” he tells me, between us talking about our fathers. We stop just short of our sentimentality becoming overtly clear. By here, he means boxing in front of tens of thousands in person and millions more worldwide. Here, boxing, for the sort of money that adds immeasurable distance between him and those strawberry fields. This is, without question, a different place than where Garcia’s from.

Sometimes you see a life that could have been yours: a produce picker out in the sun, a construction worker out in the rain, or someone, inside, cleaning the mess you made. If you think about it too long, it makes little sense how you avoided it. But you did. You end up in a place you never imagined. You understand how fortunate you are and because it was hardly realistic to have even gotten this far, you think you may as well go for it all.

“Of course, we’re never going to forget from where we come from,” he said. “I just …,” he pauses briefly, thinking of something to justify what he just said. Something. Anything to help explain what motivates him to attempt the improbable. “I won’t,” he finally said.

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