Spence vs Garcia: Weight of expectation

Ron Borges
11/03/2019 8:49pm

Photos: (top to bottom) Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images; Al Bello / Getty Images

Even though high-tech training has been employed to turn him into a ‘real’ welterweight, Ron Borges explains that Mikey Garcia is attempting to do something remarkable in ring annals by taking on Errol Spence Jr...

With 17 weight classes now in boxing, moving up in weight doesn’t mean what it used to. Up until a half century or so ago, there were only eight divisions, so any move from lightweight to welterweight to middleweight to light heavyweight to heavyweight often carried with it double-digit weight increases and significant size disadvantages for the lighter man. For the most part, that is no longer the case.

Today’s fighters inch their way up in weight, moving through junior divisions that often mean little weight difference. But there are always exceptions in boxing and the latest is undefeated lightweight champion Mikey Garcia, who is old school in every way, including how he is approaching his quest for a fifth world title.

Garcia, who holds the IBF and WBC lightweight belts and previously won world championships at featherweight, super
featherweight and super lightweight, has chosen to challenge IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr without the benefit
of having fought at 147lbs.

Many ringside observers have concluded this is a noble suicide mission because Spence (24-0, 21 KOs) is a natural welterweight who many see as holding daunting physical advantages beyond the obvious 4ins in reach and 3½ins in height he will have on fight night.

“Spence is a real welterweight,’’ Hall of Fame trainer and broadcaster Teddy Atlas says when asked about the wisdom of jumping two weight classes to face the best welterweight in the world. “He looks like a middleweight. He’s young. He’s fast. A lot of people are comparing what Garcia is trying to do with when Manny Pacquiao moved up to fight Oscar De La Hoya. No! That’s wrong. It’s not the same situation.

“First, De La Hoya was never a real welterweight. He started at 130lbs. Spence has been at 147 his whole career. Second, Oscar was old. He was already on the way out the door. Spence is on his way in the door! That’s a big difference, believe me.

“I give Mikey Garcia a lot of credit. He’s trying to be great. I know what he is. I have him in my top five pound-for-pound. He believes in himself, so I don’t count him out. He’s a real champion, an all-time type of guy. But Spence is relentless and, at the end of the day, too big.’’

Atlas is far from alone in that opinion. Veteran trainer Freddie Roach, who has worked with Pacquiao for most of his career, including shepherding him up the weight scale from junior featherweight to the night he destroyed the ageing De La Hoya and beyond, has great admiration for both Spence and Garcia but when he pondered the step Garcia is taking his
conclusion was simple.

“It’s too much of a jump,’’ Roach said of moving from 135lbs directly to 147lbs. “Spence is not just 147. He’s a big 147. And he can really hit.’’

Yes, there is that too.

Even those closest to Garcia, his father Eduardo and his brother Robert, who have trained him for most of his career and will
prepare him for this fight, tried to dissuade him from moving directly to Spence. They favoured Garcia attempting to unify the lightweight or junior welterweight divisions first, but if he did insist on making the move directly to welterweight at least take the more conventional course of choosing a lesser opponent or two first.

They favoured selecting a shopworn warrior or a lesser belt holder so Garcia could get adjusted to the strength, staying power and punching power of bigger men while learning to cope, if necessary, with a possible reduced effect on his own punches on bigger opponents.

They were all logical arguments. They fell on deaf ears.

“We tried to talk him into fighting someone else first,’’ Robert Garcia admits. “He’d still make a lot of money regardless of who he fought, so we thought he should take his time, maybe unify titles at lightweight or super lightweight first and when the time was right, move to 147.

“That’s how Mayweather and Pacquiao did it. But Mikey is different than everyone else. He wouldn’t feel right fighting opponents that didn’t mean that much, or guys past their prime. In Mikey’s case, he’s moving up to fight the best welterweight in the world. He wants that challenge. Mikey wants to do something very few feel he can do. He wants to be known as the best and we have no doubt he can become champion in a fifth weight division. Mikey is special.”

If boxing history is a judge, he will have to be. Many fighters have made these moves with varying degrees of success. Pacquiao is one of the few who seemed to carry his power with him as he advanced from flyweight to become the only fighter to win titles in eight weight classes ranging from 112lbs to 154lbs.

But a power outage seemed to strike nine years ago after he knocked out Ricky Hatton at 140lbs and then stopped welterweight champion Miguel Cotto, who agreed perhaps unwisely to fight at a catchweight of 145lbs instead of the division’s 147lbs limit. It was clear Pacquiao’s punches no longer had the same effect on consistently larger opponents.

Three great fighters who successfully made a big jump in weight to welterweight to beat Hall of Fame opponents were Henry
Armstrong (actually the featherweight champion when he defeated 147lbs champion Barney Ross), Roberto Duran and Shane Mosley. But Duran fought several times at 147lbs and Mosley had two bouts at welterweight before beating Sugar Ray Leonard and De La Hoya, respectively.

Armstrong, on the other hand, did something not even Garcia would consider. In a 10-month span from October 1937 to
August 1938, Armstrong won the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles. He jumped directly from 126 to 147lbs to beat Barney Ross and then went back down to 135 and defeated Lou Ambers to capture the lightweight championship.

They didn’t call Armstrong “Homicide Hank” for nothing. But to be fair, Armstrong is probably one of the top five fighters of all
time, so the standard he set is an unfair measuring stick, nor is it predictive of how Garcia might fare against Spence. What it is, though, is someone accepting the kind of challenge only great champions seek out. Because Garcia wants to be in that company, he accepts that big risks must be taken.

When Robert Garcia was told of Armstrong’s movements up and down divisions in 10 months, he said: “Henry Armstrong must have been a very, very talented fighter.’’ But he quickly added: “So is Mikey.’’

Indeed so, but just as importantly he is also a smart one. He’s smart in the gym as well as in the ring, which is why he began his training not with his brother but with Victor Conte at Conte’s Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning (SNAC) facility in San Carlos, California.

Conte was once convicted of dealing steroids and being at the centre of a Federal probe that led to prison time for himself and Olympic gold medallist Marion Jones, and outed major league baseball’s all-time home-run leader, Barry Bonds, among others in baseball and boxing, as a steroid abuser.

After serving jail time in 2005, Conte turned his back on steroids and began his high-tech nutrition and conditioning programme, successfully working with world champions such as Andre Ward, Nonito Donaire and others, including Garcia. He is like a reformed alcoholic, adamant about cleaning up sports while developing high-tech ways to mould great athletes.

In the past, Garcia has used Conte’s supplements. But to prepare for Spence he trained with Conte’s staff for a month, not
only to add weight but also what Conte calls “explosive power and endurance”.

“Mikey is a genetically gifted guy,’’ Conte said. “Whatever limitations there may be for most fighters, I don’t think they exist for
him.”

The concern with any fighter moving up 12lbs is that he will lose speed, agility and perhaps even power. He will be bigger but not better. Garcia himself puts it simpler.

“We don’t want to be fat,” he said during a break in his training at SNAC. “That’s why we decided to move to San Carlos for a few weeks and work with the SNAC team. I wanted to be sure I’m strong without losing speed or reaction time. We’re doing strength and conditioning things that change my regimen but it’s not that different. It’s just more high intensity. To be able to compete [with Spence], I had to be stronger than I’ve ever been without losing my speed.”

Garcia’s regimen included non-traditional things such as bungee-cord work, sprinting on the beach, hitting the pads and
conducting core workouts in both low and high-altitude simulation domes that, according to SNAC, can create the low-oxygen equivalent of 10,000ft elevations. It is basically high-altitude training at the beach.

Henry Armstrong knew nothing about such things when he won titles at 126, 147 and then 135lbs in the space of 10 months in 1937-1938. He is the proof that such things can be done the old-fashioned way if you have the heart and the skills. But can it also be done from inside a high-altitude simulation dome? Mikey Garcia is about to find out.

Robert Garcia jokingly put what his fighter’s goal is in starker terms when he explained why the decision was made to
train first with Conte before the traditional boxing training at Garcia’s gym east of Los Angeles in Riverside, California.

“We wanted him to look like a real welterweight, not a fat lightweight,’’ Robert said. “We’ve been working with Conte for
four or five years, using his supplements. He sends us everything we need. For this fight, I felt something else was necessary.

“He’s doing some exercises he’s never done before but he feels very comfortable. He was there for a month and then two months training here in Riverside, but he’ll continue to do a lot of [Conte’s] exercises.”

GettyImages 908128044While Garcia trains not only to fight but to transform his body, Spence need only worry about preparing for who he concedes is the best opponent he’s faced while also facing the added pressure of defending his title in his hometown. It is a different kind of pressure than Garcia is dealing with, but pressure all the same.

“As you rise up the ranks, the competition gets harder,” Spence said. “Adjusting to those changes is all about being a great champion.

“I give him a lot of credit. He’s daring to be great. He wants to be great. So do I. It’s definitely a goal of mine to be mentioned with the all-time greats and I feel I have the right opponents available to do it. Mikey Garcia is one. So is Terence Crawford, Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter. I’ve got the talent pool [of opponents] to be great. I can definitely be that type of fighter if I beat those guys.”

That process begins 16 March at AT&T Stadium, the legendary $1.6 billion home of the Dallas Cowboys. Upwards of 100,000 people can be jammed in that domed stadium. Because of Texas’ heavily Latino population, even Spence wonders who the crowd will be rooting for when the opening bell tolls.

“It’s been a dream of mine to fight in Cowboys Stadium,’’ Spence said. “You fight there, you know you’ve made it. I felt one day I’d fill it up but I didn’t think it would happen this soon. If you sell out that place, you’re an iconic figure. If I can do that, then I made it to the pinnacle of the sport but it will be interesting to see how the crowd will be. [More] Mikey Garcia fans or my fans? That will be interesting.”

Everything about this fight is interesting. Most interesting of all will be the weighty question hanging over Mikey Garcia’s head. Can he do what so few believe possible, but what he believes is necessary to be remembered the way he hopes to be?

“I want to be remembered with those kind of fighters like Armstrong,” Mikey Garcia said. “To do it, I needed to take a fight like
this. Staying at lightweight wouldn’t improve my legacy. This fight will.”