Mikey Garcia is a man on a mission.
If the thirty-year-old Mexican-American boxing star were to retire tomorrow, he would do so on the back of a professional career that any fighting man would be proud of. His record stands at an undefeated 39-0 (30 KO’s) and he has captured world titles in four weight divisions. He is regarded as one of the most accomplished boxers at any weight in the world today and is a lock for most current pound-for-pound lists. He has not only defeated numerous world-class opponents along the way, but done so convincingly.
Yet, as it stands, it’s hard to believe that his resume would qualify him for a place alongside boxing all-time-greats in the Hall of Fame. Orlando Salido, Roman Martinez, Adrien Broner and Robert Easter are or were world-class fighters when Garcia defeated them, but no-one would pretend that they were elite fighters. Garcia has never been in a fight where he has been the clear underdog heading into the contest. All that will change on 16th March next year when he moves up two weight classes to challenge IBF welterweight champion, Errol Spence Jr.
Garcia will be facing an uphill battle not just against the extra weight of Spence but that of boxing history. While it is replete with fighters who have risen in weight in pursuit of glory, with mixed success, no man has ever ascended from lightweight and captured the welterweight championship in their first fight at 147 pounds.
The legendary Roberto Duran, after ruling the 135-pound-division for seven years with his hands of stone, toppled fellow ‘Hall of Famer’ Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980 in the best-known instance of a former lightweight champion claiming honours at welterweight. However, he did so on the back of two fights to acclimatise himself to fighting at the heavier weight, one of which came against former welterweight champion, Carlos Palomino, who himself is now enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Shane Mosley repeated the trick in 2000 against Oscar De La Hoya, but likewise took two tune-up fights at 147 pounds, one of which came against welterweight mainstay and former world title challenger, Wilfredo Rivera.
Spence has a long way to go before he finds himself being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Ray Leonard and Mosley. However, he has a good case for being the best welterweight in the world as we speak. Like Garcia, he is unbeaten, with a record of 24-0 (21 KO’s), and in the pound-for-pound conversation. He has also largely blown through his opposition to date and shown little by way of weakness in doing so; ripping the IBF belt from Kell Brook in the champion’s backyard of Sheffield, England, last year and defending it twice against former titleholder Lamont Peterson and overmatched mandatory challenger Carlos Ocampo, all via brutal stoppage.
Spence is a slick, skilful pugilist in his own right, and is a natural athlete endowed with power, speed and stamina. He will be the first man that Garcia has faced with the technical boxing ability to rival his own. In terms of physical talents, he has the clear edge.
There is, however, a bigger problem facing Garcia in this match-up. When he and Spence faced off for the first time yesterday at the fight announcement, the size disparity was striking. Compared to Garcia, Spence looked, well, exactly just how a man two weight divisions heavier should look; simply huge. I recently saw a respected boxing writer scoff at the notion that size is the main issue in this fight. In my opinion, it is so obvious as to be insulting to even point it out. Weight divisions exist in boxing for a reason, period. Yes, historically many boxers have risen through these divisions to become multi-weight world champions, but the overwhelming majority did so with the right timing and conditions, just like Duran and Mosley.
Lest we forget, Garcia first won a world title at featherweight, or 126 pounds. Truth be told, he is not even particularly big at 135 pounds; witness his fleshy appearance at the weigh-in for his last fight against Robert Easter Jr. He now has four months to get in optimum physical condition before he jumps straight into the deep end. In contrast, Spence is a career-welterweight – and a big one at that. He has admitted that he finds it difficult to make the 147 pound limit and could quite easily fight at junior middleweight where he will probably be forced to move to eventually.
If we are measuring effectiveness relative to moving up in weight, the tale of the tape for Garcia’s two fights at 140 pounds – the heaviest weight at which he has fought to date – against Adrien Broner and Sergey Lipinets, should provide the best barometer. Against Broner in a non-title bout, Garcia impressively outboxed ‘The Problem’ en route to a unanimous decision victory.
Garcia had a tougher time, however, against the much-less-fancied Lipinets for the IBF light welterweight title. Garcia outlanded Lipinets overall by 169-144 and knocked him down in the seventh round, but had to dig deep as the game Russian landed enough leather to make each round a competitive affair and hung with him right to the end. Garcia demonstrated against both opponents that he hits hard enough to keep world class 140-pounders honest, but not hard enough to cause serious damage. In both fights, it was his superior skill set and ring smarts which made the difference.
Garcia’s boxing brain, along with his shot timing and selection, is one of the few areas in which he is clearly superior to Spence, but it will count for little if he finds himself being simply overwhelmed physically. Unlike Broner, Spence is a forward-moving high-volume-punching machine. He is much bigger and stronger than Lipinets and hits far harder. One of his few weaknesses in the ring is that he has proven hittable, but he has only been visibly hurt once, early in his career against Emmanuel Lartei Lartey in 2013, when a big overhand right buckled his legs and forced him to hold on near the end of the seventh round. Otherwise, he has demonstrated a reliable chin. Against Brook, a big puncher at welterweight, he took some good shots without flinching.
Lipinets enjoyed some success in targeting Garcia’s body and Spence is a devastating body puncher – arguably the best in the sport. If he doesn’t take you out with a single body shot, he will wear you down over the course of the fight. Garcia employs excellent movement and while it is conceivable that he could use this to give Spence fits early on, it is hard to see him maintaining this in the face of a concerted Spence body attack. Certainly, if Spence can land as often as Lipinets did, Garcia has zero chance of winning the fight and every chance of being stopped inside the distance.
Garcia deserves immense credit for seeking and securing the fight with Spence at a time when few world-class welterweights seem keen to get in the ring with ‘The Truth’.
In attempting what no boxer has managed before, Garcia is daring to be great. When he first touted the idea of moving up in weight to challenge Spence, barely anyone took him seriously. Some accused him of vainly using Spence’s name to seek attention. Now that the fight is official, one would hope that those people would have some respect for him. His chances of winning the fight and making history are, however, another matter entirely.
Boxing heads dismissing the role that size plays in this as a glib point are out to stir up controversy for the sake of it, fuelled by their own pomposity or quite simply deluded. Call me clichéd or patronising if you will, size may not be everything in boxing, but it makes a difference. A big one.
Article by: Paul Lam
Follow Paul on Twitter at: @PaulTheWallLam