When Mikey Garcia turned pro in 2006, he was expected to eventually win a world title, perhaps even multiple belts. He had obvious ability and maturity and came from a boxing family: father Eduardo is a noted trainer and older brother and trainer Robert is a former junior lightweight titleholder.
Garcia was brought along slowly, matched with all kinds of opponents to gain experience against, then finally, last January -- seven years into his pro career -- he had a shot at a featherweight world title and won big. He dropped Orlando Salido four times and won a lopsided eighth-round technical decision.
Now, Garcia, widely considered one of the best fighters in the world, is on the ultimate fast track that could culminate with a showdown -- sooner rather than later -- with welterweight star Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino icon who has won world titles in a record eight weight divisions.
Top Rank chairman Bob Arum has huge hopes for Garcia as one of boxing's future pay-per-view attractions.
"I believe that he is a top-10 pound-for-pound fighter right now and soon he will be universally accepted as the best pound-for-pound fighter in boxing," Arum said.
Garcia said: "I do feel I am at least top 10 [pound for pound]. I'm just starting as world champion and I still have a lot to prove. I had some good fights last year, but I am just here to do my job. I don't pay that much attention to ratings, to top-10 lists."
Garcia never defended the featherweight title -- he was stripped of it in June for failing to make weight the day before an eventual fourth-round knockout of former titlist Juan Manuel Lopez -- before moving up to junior lightweight in November to challenge titleholder Roman "Rocky" Martinez. Despite being knocked down in the second round, Garcia rolled to an otherwise dominant eighth-round KO and claimed his second world title in a year.
Garcia will return to action for a mandatory defense against Mexico's Juan Carlos Burgos on Saturday night (HBO, 9:45 ET/PT) at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York, the same venue where he defeated Salido. Although that's the fight in front of Garcia, he and his team know that bigger things -- much bigger things -- await him with a victory.
If things go as planned, it means a possible fight with unbeaten lightweight Yuriorkis Gamboa, who holds an interim belt and has been taunting Garcia on social media, and potentially a showdown with Pacquiao, who currently fights three weight classes north of Garcia.
In the scheduled 10-round heavyweight co-feature, Philadelphia's Bryant Jennings (17-0, 9 KOs), 29, will square off with 24-year-old Artur Szpilka (16-0, 12 KOs) of Poland in a meeting of undefeated rising contenders. The fight nearly fell through two weeks ago, when Szpilka was turned away at the airport in Chicago and sent home to Poland because his visa wasn't in order. A few days later, things were worked out and he flew back to the United States.
Arum is close to finalizing Pacquiao's April 12 rematch with welterweight titlist Timothy Bradley Jr. If Pacquiao wins, the pool of notable and available opponents is shallow. The long-awaited showdown with pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr. remains a fantasy, and most of the other top welterweights are aligned with rival promoter Golden Boy.
That means Arum must be creative, and that's where Garcia comes in. Arum would be taking a page from the same playbook he used in 2008, when he had a prime Pacquiao move up two weight classes to face aging star Oscar De La Hoya. Pacquiao beat him down and launched himself to stardom.
"[Garcia] was over in Macau [in November] when his stablemate, Brandon Rios, fought Pacquiao, and he mentioned to some that down the road he would look forward to a fight with Manny Pacquiao," Arum said. "I am a big Mikey Garcia fan and I thought that would be good.
"It's one fight at a time. A lot is happening in boxing and it happens really quick. Mikey is one of the few American stars in boxing. We have Mikey and Andre Ward, Floyd Mayweather and Timothy Bradley, and there are not many other Americans who qualify as superstars. Mikey is taking on a lot of these non-Americans in really big fights, and where that takes him I am not sure. Does it take him up in weight to 135 or 140, then a fight with Pacquiao?"
Garcia (33-0, 28 KOs), 26, of Oxnard, Calif., claims he is not in a rush.
"We will have to look at the options after this fight," Garcia said. "Hopefully, everything turns out well and we can move forward with our plans. We'd have to look at the top fighters in the next weight class, and if I do that I have to grow into the weight class. I would like to unify the titles before moving up, but if there is something better at 135, then I will go there. Then I can unify the titles there or move up to 140 if the right fight is there.
"It's not easy to put a fight together, and in this business you've got to look at everything before you can move up in weight class."
Of course, before any of this can take place, Burgos (30-1-2, 20 KOs), 26, of Mexico, is in Garcia's way. Although he is coming off back-to-back draws, Burgos is one of the top 130-pounders in the world. To many, he got a raw deal in a draw challenging then-titlist Martinez on the Garcia-Salido undercard last January. In July, he moved up to lightweight to accommodate short-notice opponent Yakabu Amidu and wound up with another debatable draw.
"I know he will be difficult," Garcia said of Burgos. "He has had great accomplishments in the boxing ring. After [the Martinez] fight, a lot of people thought he should have been the champion. It's going to be a good fight and it's going to be a good card."
Burgos has heard the talk of Garcia moving up in weight to take on bigger names after their fight. He said he isn't insulted by it, rather he is motivated by it.
"I know they are talking about [Pacquiao], but it is not a reality. He is not there yet," Burgos said through an interpreter. "Pacquiao? Gamboa? He is not there yet. He has a long way to go.
"[The talk] motivates me, and I am here to prove that he is not ready for that yet. Garcia first has to beat me before he can think about guys like Pacquiao and Gamboa. I respect and admire Garcia as a fighter, but he has to try to get by me first before he can think about fighting those other guys."
Garcia said that the constant discussion of higher-profile fights hasn't caused him to lose any focus on Saturday's fight.
"That talk about Gamboa and Pacquiao doesn't affect me," Garcia said. "Right now I am concentrating on Burgos. That's who we have to beat and that is our focus, on Juan Carlos Burgos."
Still, Garcia addressed the prospect of each fight, unusual for a fighter just days away from another bout.
"Why not?" Garcia said of the prospect of fighting Gamboa, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist from Cuba who is unbeaten as a pro but fought only once in 2012 and once in 2013. "If the fight gets put together and all parties agree to terms of a fight, of course we are never going to say no to an opponent. They would have to put it on paper with his promoter [Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson] and he can talk to my promoter. Gamboa can talk all he wants in Instagram and social media, but that's not going to get him the fight."
Garcia also admitted that hearing his name linked to Pacquiao's is exciting.
"It means that I am in consideration for that, but that's not right now," he said. "It will take time to get there before it could happen. He looked good, he looked sharp [against Rios]. He was bobbing in and out and side to side with good footwork and good speed. It was definitely a good performance for Pacquiao. Down the road, maybe I could face him and it would be a good fight as well."