Mikey Garcia: Rise to Stardom Shows Featherweight Champ's Refreshing Humility

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Mikey Garcia: Rise to Stardom Shows Featherweight Champ's Refreshing Humility
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

With a perfect 31-0 record and 26 wins coming by way of stoppage, WBO featherweight champion Mikey Garcia has one of the best knockout percentages among current beltholders. But unlike some big KO artists, who brashly overwhelm their opponents, Garcia works with a more methodical approach. 

His style is not the ego of the big slugger. It is the humble pride of the craftsman. 

On Saturday in Dallas, he will defend his belt against former champion Juan Manuel Lopez, an opponent who would seem ideally suited to show off Garcia's skill. The fight will be broadcast live, on HBO.

Now 25, Garcia's resume has been built up with patience and calculated risk. In March of 2011, he captured the NABF and NABO featherweight titles by stopping fellow unbeaten contender Matt Remillard in 10, knocking him down three times along the way.

Since then, Garcia has faced a mix of fellow contenders, like Rafael Guzman and Jonathan Victor Barros, along with experienced journeymen, like Mauricio Pastrana and Juan Carlos Martinez. Entering his January of 2013 title challenge against Orlando Salido, he had won eight straight by stoppage.

If Garcia entered the Salido fight as a promising contender, he left that night as an unquestioned world champion. Salido was a well-traveled veteran, who had suffered numerous tough losses early in his career before developing into a world-class prizefighter. His record since 2008 was 8-1, with his only loss coming against Yuri Gamboa.

Going into his defense against Garcia, Salido was widely considered the top featherweight in the world. The ease with which Garcia handled him was shocking, even to many who had been tagging Garcia as a future star. He knocked Salido down four times, en route to a one-sided technical decision.

Garcia's march from prospect to unbeaten world champion has been among the most dominant and methodical of recent years. But he has received far less hype than some young champions such as Adrien Broner or Saul Alvarez. While Garcia's record is glitzy, his personality outside of the ring is businesslike and humble.

I interviewed Garcia by phone last week and found him to be the same thoughtful and soft-spoken fighter I have seen in interviews on YouTube. Perhaps the most fascinating thing I found out about him is how slowly his boxing ambitions developed.

This is a guy who grew up in a great boxing family. His current trainer, older brother Robert, won a world title when Mikey was still in grade school.

Yet the young Mikey Garcia never assumed such glory in the ring was necessarily waiting for him:

I didn't consider a career as a kid. I've been around it my whole life, and grew into it, but I never pictured it as something that could happen for me, just because it did for Robert...it was great when Robert was the champion. All my friends would ask for his autograph, and he'd come to my class. It was nice to be able to show him off to my friends, but I didn't think about boxing for myself then.

Garcia's modest, down-to-earth approach to his sport has remained in place, even as his stock has soared to the championship level. In promoting the fight, he has reached out to fans at the grassroots level on Twitter, inviting the public to open-sparring sessions and frequently engaging fans one-on-one:

The impulse to take nothing for granted is obvious when Garcia talks about his upcoming opponent, Juan Manuel Lopez. Once among the hottest stars in the sport himself, Lopez was stopped twice by Salido, in 2011 and 2012, his defensive shortcomings fully exposed. Few observers give him much of a chance against Garcia.

But Garcia himself is the last one who would look past Lopez. “Lopez is very dangerous at this point in his career for anybody,” Garcia told me. Adding:

He understands what it's like to be at the top and lose it. He knows if he beats me, he gets everything he had back. He's going to be willing to risk getting in close against me because he's confident in his own punches. I think he'll be more dangerous. He's learned from those two losses.

Nobody can deny that Lopez has explosive, fight-ending power. He has a record of 33-2, with 30 career KOs. I can remember a time, not that long ago, when Lopez-Gamboa was one of the fights that every fan wanted to see.

When I talked to Lopez last week by phone, it was clear that he was hungry for this opportunity and the leg up that it represented for his stalled career. He agreed with Garcia's assessment of himself.

“If I can beat a guy at the top who has looked as great as Mikey Garcia," he said, "everything I lost comes back to me.”

That's the stage Garcia has reached in his own career. A win over him really means something now. In boxing that makes you a star, no matter how humble you remain.

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