At 25, unbeaten featherweight titlist Mikey Garcia is on the verge of breaking out as one of the brightest young stars in boxing.
Fresh off facing rugged veteran Orlando Salido in January, a fight in which Garcia (31-0, 26 KOs) captured his first world title by eighth-round technical decision after having his nose broken on an accidental head-butt, the Oxnard, Calif., native is primed for the biggest fight of his career.
Trained by older brother Robert and their father Eduardo, Garcia will make his first title defense against former featherweight and junior featherweight titlist Juan Manuel Lopez (33-2, 30 KOs) on Saturday (HBO, 10:45 p.m. ET) at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
Garcia recently took time away from training camp to talk with ESPN.com:
Did you surprise yourself by how easily you handled such a tough veteran in Salido?
It's not that I surprised myself. I always knew that I could perform just like I did that night. Most people were surprised because they had not had the opportunity to see me fight so effectively and with fighter the caliber of Orlando Salido. But I always knew and my brother and my dad knew that I could do stuff like that and fight that effectively. I did expect the fight to be a little tougher in the earlier rounds and I thought that I would slowly start to control the fight later. But I was able to connect early on in the first round and just dictate a pace. That was a little bit of a surprise that I was able to be so effective so early. But I knew I could do that kind of a fight.
Salido was unable to lure you into a war and you've proven throughout your early career to be very selective in regards to when you open up and let your hands go. Has it been your strategy to box as long as you can each fight and only mix it up if you have to?
It depends on who I am fighting. If it's in my best interest to stay on the outside and just box my way to a decision, I'll do that. If the best I can do is maybe pressure a guy or walk forward, I'll do that. With Orlando Salido, the plan was to stay on the outside and just box, box, box and not to engage in a firefight with him because he is a dangerous fighter on the inside. So why give him that opportunity on the inside? I was going to stand on the outside and let my punches hurt him little by little and I was able to drop him early on and dictate the pace. I can do a lot of things.
At age 25, you've already proven to be one of boxing's most well-rounded fighters. Do you think you have hit your prime yet and how much do you think you have left to grow?
I think right now I'm in the best age to show everybody [what I can do]. I'm not too young and I'm not too old -- I'm just in my prime right now. I could probably grow a little more, and there's always room for learning more, but I think with what I have right now with my brother, my dad and my coaches, this is a perfect time to show everybody what kind of fighter I am.
Your technique might be the most impressive part of your skill set. How much of that comes from the environment you grew up in, where boxing was essentially the family business?
It probably has a lot to do with it. Growing up around boxing at the gyms, even though I wasn't fighting or training, I was always messing around with my nephews and cousins in the backyard with a pair of gloves all the time. You kind of grow into it and you learn a little bit even though you are not training for it. I don't know how much or the extent of it, but it definitely has helped.
How comfortable are you at featherweight and which weight class do you believe you'll spend the majority of time competing in over the course of your career?
Right now, I'm still pretty comfortable at featherweight. I was planning on staying here for another year, but according to my manager and promoter, they are thinking of maybe moving me up to 130 [pounds] sooner. Those are just options that have more to do with the business side than actually me growing out of the division. I told them that I could actually fight at 130 and I don't have problems doing that, but I would like to have the opportunity to stay back at 126 and defend the title that I currently have. If that's a possibility, then I may do that. If in a year I move up to 130 because I just outgrow the division, than that's just something natural that happens.
You have such a fun matchup coming against Lopez. What kind of a fight do you anticipate?
I think it will be a really exciting fight because he brings everything every single time he steps into the ring. He comes in and gives very exciting fights. He probably understands that this is one last opportunity for him to skyrocket his career back to the top with one victory. He knows what it is to be on top and he also knows what it is to lose everything. So he will be determined and hungry to get his career back on track. I'm expecting a very good fight from him, and that only makes me fight harder and perform better.
Lopez showed a lot of what makes him so exciting in his two losses to Salido, but he also showed a ton of vulnerability. What did you take away from watching those fights?
I think the first fight he had with Orlando, he probably wasn't in the best shape and probably wasn't in the best moment to take on a fight like that. He had some distractions, according to what some people have said. He had other personal problems outside of the ring that he had to deal with and he might not have been in the best shape or 100 percent mentally prepared either. Orlando took advantage of the opportunity that was in front of him and he definitely went out to win. In the rematch, Lopez was probably better prepared and he had a better game plan in moving around a little bit more -- until he started to get a little excited trying to knock out Salido after he dropped him. He tried to go toe-to-toe with him, and that was his mistake there. You shouldn't go toe-to-toe with a banger like Orlando Salido. You don't take that risk. He was willing to take that risk and he came up short.
Do you think Lopez is now the type of fighter who, if the opportunity presents itself to fight, is destined to forget the game plan and just go for it?
He might be. He got a little excited there with Orlando after he dropped him and probably walked away from his game plan. But as a fighter, sometimes you do get excited and you see an opportunity to knock your opponent out and stop him, and sometimes you want to take that chance and end the fight early. He took it and it just didn't work out for him.
Nonito Donaire is a big-name fighter who recently moved up to your division. Could you ever see yourself fighting him in a big marquee bout?
I doubt that we'll be fighting any time soon as long as he's with my brother [trainer Robert Garcia] and we are both managed by Cameron [Dunkin] and promoted by Top Rank. We have a different relationship, so it's hard to say that I want to fight him or that he wants to fight me. [HBO] might be interested in something like that because that might generate a lot of attention and a lot of viewers, but there are so many variables that you have to look at. It's one of those fights that could be like a dream matchup, but it's probably not going to happen. We have a friendly relationship. I support him in every way and he supports me. It's different than fighting someone else that you don't really know. It's not something that you want.
If you can get by Lopez in this test, you'll continue to build your pound-for-pound credentials. Do you think a win should put your name on that list, and is it something that matters to you?
It doesn't really matter that much to me right now. I just need to make sure that I perform the best that I can and to the best of my abilities. [Lopez] is definitely a very good fighter and a good opponent to have on my résumé, but I don't know if that's enough to get to the top 10 pound-for-pound or whatever. I just want to do my job and keep winning.