It’s easy to forget that Mikey Garcia’s dominant, title-winning dismantling of rugged former champion Orlando Salido was the first genuinely significant fight of 2013. As a humble and methodical champion, Garcia is not one to make headlines outside of the ring, even though the newly minted WBO featherweight champion is poised to one day become a pound-for-pound caliber fighter.
Long recognized as one of boxing’s most polished prospects, Garcia (31-0, 26 KO) embarked on an appropriate in-ring apprenticeship before earning his shot at Salido. Impressive wins over the likes of Matt Remillard, Bernabe Concepcion and Jonathan Victor Barros—all via stoppage—led to the utterly one-sided, four-knockdown rout of Salido (39-12-2, 27 KO).
But now, with WBO No. 1 contender Orlando Cruz and former two-division champion Juan Manuel Lopez bandied around as Garcia’s most likely opponents, who should the young champion seek to fight?
It is often common and somewhat forgivable for a newly minted titlist to select a middling challenger for their first defense. The very nature of the alphabet organization title rankings actually sanctions these underwhelming matchups, and the necessary credentials to becoming a mandatory challenger remain undefined.
If Garcia and his team are looking for a legitimate but fairly routine first title defense, Orlando Cruz (20-2-1, 10 KO) is the obvious opponent.
Orlando Cruz is the WBO’s No. 1 contender and official mandatory challenger to Garcia’s belt. Cruz has a quality amateur pedigree and represented Puerto Rico at the 2000 Olympics. As a pro, he has compiled a respectable record but has lost via stoppage both times he has genuinely stepped up in class—first to Cornelius Lock and then to two-time world champion Daniel Ponce De Leon.
Since losing those consecutive fights in late 2009 and early 2010, Cruz has gone 4-0 with three knockouts. During his current run he captured the WBO Latino featherweight title and also made headlines for announcing that he is a “proud gay man” (per ESPN.com), becoming the first active fighter to do so.
Cruz acknowledges that his decision to come out has given him a recognizable public profile (per ESPN.com), and his choice was refreshingly genuine. That said, from a utilitarian standpoint, Cruz’s newfound level of fame immediately enhances his profile and marketability as a title challenger.
Whereas Cruz would have been a relatively anonymous title challenger to anyone but the hardcore boxing fan, he has now acquired the public profile to complement his competent skill set. For Garcia, this means that fighting Cruz will likely generate more mainstream interest and network coverage, even if it isn’t a strong enough fight to headline a major card.
Cruz, however, possesses below average power and has been stopped twice. It is thus doubtful that he would pose a serious threat to Garcia. Still, Cruz must be respected for both his skills and public proclamation, and no one should complain if Garcia vs. Cruz comes to fruition.
That said, for Garcia to truly advance his career, he should seek a fight against Juan Manuel Lopez (32-2, 29 KO).
Lopez, a former two-division champion and one of the sport’s best all-action brawlers, presents a sterner in-ring challenge for Garcia than Cruz. And despite Cruz’s newfound notoriety, Lopez is a much bigger name and instantly turns a fight with Garcia into a viable main attraction worthy of the best network and promotional exposure.
Most importantly, Lopez adds that much more to the equation and remains a fight that Garcia should win—perhaps spectacularly.
Lopez, of course, engaged in two memorable slugfests with the aforementioned Salido. Both fights between Lopez and Salido had breathtaking exchanges and disproportionate acts of courage (largely due to the fact that both fighters possess little-to-no defensive acumen). The fact that Salido twice stopped Lopez certainly bodes well for Garcia.
Lopez’s pressure tactics and disregard for defense play perfectly into the hands of Garcia, a patient, precise and powerful puncher. Lopez, who was suspended by the Puerto Rican commission after suggesting that referee Roberto Ramirez Sr., the referee of Salido-Lopez II, had a gambling problem in a post-fight interview, is slated to have his second comeback fight on April 20 and should soon be ready to step up and challenge Garcia.
One potential obstacle for making a fight between Garcia and Lopez is that Lopez does not want to drop all the way down to 126 pounds. It might behoove an emerging fighter like Garcia to defend his belt so that he can potentially secure a unification fight. In fact, Cruz remaining Garcia’s mandatory challenger might force him to do so.
Ultimately, a spectacular win over Lopez does more for Garcia’s career than a mandatory title defense. While Garcia is mature beyond his years and more than ready for the challenge Lopez presents, there is no need to rush the 25-year-old Oxnard product.
All Garcia needs to continue his positive career arc is more exposure. The rest, it seems, is firmly in place.