LAS VEGAS – Mikey Garcia was in fourth or fifth grade when he suddenly became extraordinarily popular among his classmates. It was, however, for nothing he had done.
Garcia grew up in the boxing-mad community of Oxnard, Calif., and his older brother Robert had won a world super featherweight championship. Though Mikey had no desire to box, it made him something of a celebrity among his classmates.
"They'd all come up to me and ask me if I could get them an autograph or get them a picture [with Robert]," Garcia said, beaming. "My father [Eduardo] was training [ex-world champion] Fernando Vargas and they would ask me about them, too."
Vargas was a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team and quickly turned into a professional star. He won a world title in 1998 in just his 15th professional fight and was known for his fan-friendly style and close relationship with Eduardo Garcia.
Vargas considered Eduardo Garcia a father figure and, to this day, refers to him as "El Jefe." He'd stop at the Garcia home and see Mikey playing video games or horsing around with friends. Never, though, would he see him fight.
"I'd ask him about boxing and he just had no interest in it," Vargas said.
That changed when Mikey turned 14 and opted to give boxing a try. And though he wasn't a natural at first, Robert had a sense that his little brother would be pretty good.
Robert is now one of the sport's elite trainers and his gut instinct from a decade ago has proven correct. Mikey Garcia has developed into one of boxing's elite prospects and will get a major title shot next year should he defeat Jonathan Barros in an HBO-televised featherweight bout at the Wynn.
Promoter Bob Arum said Garcia will fight WBO featherweight champion Orlando Salido on Jan. 19 in New York should he beat Barros on Saturday. He was supposed to fight Salido, but Salido injured a finger and had to pull out.
It will be a huge challenge, because Garcia hasn't faced the kind of stiff competition that Salido will present. But Arum said Garcia remains a rare type of prospect.
"It's one thing to get a guy to win a title," Arum said. "In boxing now, it's not that hard to do that. But it's hard to really get a guy to a point where he can have some big fights and where he as the fighter and you as the promoter can make money. Those guys are very few and far between.
"Mikey, in my mind, is one of those guys. He's got the boxing skills, and you need to have that, but he can also punch. He's a well-spoken kid who really appeals to that Mexican, Mexican-American and even Filipino fan base that is so huge."
The youngest of three brothers, Garcia, 24, was immersed in boxing from as long as he can remember. He didn't put on the gloves until he was 14, but it was natural to him because he spent so much time watching and talking boxing as he grew up.
His oldest brother, Daniel, was a fighter and has become a top trainer. Robert was a champion of some note and is now one of a handful of the best trainers in the sport. And Eduardo, who is known affectionately by many in boxing as "Papa Garcia," is one of the greatest teachers of his era.
"It was boxing this and boxing that," Mikey said. "I couldn't get away from it if I wanted to."
One of Robert Garcia's tenets as a trainer is to immerse his guys in the sport. He trains Brandon Rios, who on Oct. 13 defeated Mike Alvarado in the runaway leader for 2012 Fight of the Year.
That fight plays over and over in Garcia's gym. Many see it because Robert Garcia never closes the gym. Many top-level fighters like to train in private, but Garcia's door is always open.
As a result, whether it's Rios or Marcos Maidana or Garcia or one of any number of other elite fighters, there is always something happening.
"They get to see what it takes to be a champion," Robert Garcia said.
His brother has the God-given physical attributes and the sense of the sport from being around the game for so long. But what is so significant to him, as well, is his competitive streak.
Robert saw that in Mikey long before Mikey ever fought.
"Around the house, whatever Mikey was doing, he had to win," Robert said. "Had to. Video games, fooling around, whatever it was, Mikey was so intense and he has to win."
That's carried over into his fight career. He's poised enough that while he wants to win badly, he never loses sight of the game plan.
That, Vargas said, is a direct result of Eduardo's teachings.
"He always taught us brains before bravery," Vargas said. "… You see that with Mikey."
Mikey appreciates all the lessons he's learned, but he's poised to make his own mark in the family business.
And while he has a major opportunity down the road, he knows he doesn't get it if he doesn't do his thing on Saturday.
"Hey, it was a disappointment [when Salido was hurt], but I put him out of my mind as soon as he was out," Garcia said. "If I've learned anything in being around boxing for so long, it's that the most important fight is the one you're fighting now."
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