Robert Garcia is widely considered one of boxing's best young trainers, cornerman to current and past champions Nonito Donaire, Brandon Rios, Marcos Maidana and Antonio Margarito, and owner of a successful gym in Oxnard, Calif. But like so many involved in the sport, his beginnings were decidedly humble.
Born in San Pedro, Calif., Garcia was barely 2 years old when his family resettled in Oxnard -- about a 1½-hour drive along U.S. 101 up the Pacific Coast -- where he has lived ever since.
"I grew up in the neighborhood of La Colonia," Garcia said. "My parents worked picking strawberries, which was the basic economic activity in Oxnard for years. In those days, my father, Eduardo, who also had a boxing gym, would wake up at 6 in the morning and wouldn't stop working until 5 in the afternoon. My mother, Virginia, also had to work a lot."
Talk to Garcia for a few minutes about his upbringing, his community and his heritage, and you're left with the impression that he considers them to be interwoven, all part of a fabric of hard work, family and his Mexican roots.
"When I was a boy, this town was all Mexican," Garcia said of Oxnard. "So when we talk about Hispanics and what they can contribute to the community, it's something very close to me."
Garcia, 37, is keenly aware of the problems faced by Hispanics -- particularly the young and impressionable -- in Oxnard and beyond. His family, which includes four sisters and two brothers, Daniel and Miguel Angel (an undefeated featherweight who will fight for a world title next month), has endured its share of hardship.
"We suffered the pain of having my brother Daniel going through serious addiction problems with alcohol and drugs," Robert said of his older sibling, who is also a trainer. "He would disappear, and we had to go with my father to search for him in cantinas, and sometimes he was gone for days. Bad company led him to that, and the family suffered for that. This happened about 15 years ago, but we all remember it because he suffered from the influence of bad friends."
"Today he is better, and he is training only a few fighters," he added. "But we lived complicated moments, and in fact we now see each other only occasionally."
Robert and Daniel's relationship remains strained, in large part because of a family feud over the handling of former welterweight titlist Victor Ortiz, who once was trained by Robert and Eduardo but now works exclusively with Daniel. But it was Daniel's running with "bad company" all those years back that also took a toll. It's those sorts of difficulties that Robert hopes to spare other families through his work at the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy.
"My gym is open from 4 in the afternoon until 8:30 at night for the kids, and I am talking about boys and girls who are 9 or 10 years old on average. And I have 150 of them in my gym -- some of them come on their bikes -- and they are in a family environment that keeps them away from the temptations of today."
Garcia's gym is located in a section of Oxnard known as Colonia El Sur. You can find it just a mile or so south of La Colonia -- a highly strategic setting.
"It's a sort of neutral terrain because, regrettably, every day there are more gangs and more shootings," Garcia said. "That's why I tried to place the gym between two neighborhoods, so that whoever comes to my gym knows that gangs do not exist here. Here, we only care about boxing."
Garcia says he and friends at the gym think back on their own childhoods, which he admits were complicated by some of the same troubles he sees in the community now -- but which he also recalls as being full of marbles and slingshots, and when the best part of the day was riding bikes.
"Of course, this was a different era," he said. "Drugs existed, but not as much as today. Today, everything has changed. And boxing can help, without a doubt, getting kids off the streets. The temptations today are big, especially because many people think that heroes are those being sung about in corridos, people who go around armed, on drugs, drinking alcohol and driving fancy cars. It's a temptation to embrace a bad life.
"Today, a 12-year-old can be playing marbles one day, and then he tries alcohol and cigarettes, and wants to start dating girls. Not all of them, obviously, but there are a few who have their role models backwards and prefer the easy money [rather] than the quiet, hard work."
Garcia, who was an undefeated junior lightweight champ in the late 1990s before retiring a few years later with a 34-3-0 career record, speaks from firsthand experience when he says boxing can provide the opportunity for a better life. It has helped lift and sustain his whole family, including 24-year-old Miguel Angel -- "Mikey" -- who will challenge 126-pound champ Orlando Salido for his belt Nov. 10 in Las Vegas. Robert admits he's anxious about the fight.
"Salido is the best featherweight in the world, and for us to have this fight in Las Vegas will allow my entire family to go and see it," Robert said. "When I became world champion, it was in Miami, Fla., and I was away from home. This time we will have the full support of the entire family."
With wife Carla and four kids of his own (Robert, 17; Eduardo, 14; Isabella, 8; and Alexis, 4), Robert
has never been more certain of the positive role that something so seemingly simple as a boxing gym can serve for a family and community. He says his oldest son "is all day in the gym" and probably will follow in the family footsteps to a career in boxing. Eduardo likes football, but "the fact that he is in the gym with us is a way of having him integrated into the family."
"Today -- and this also occurred before -- parents had to work hard, and sometimes they weren't at home all day, and this could push children to the streets sometimes. Of course, this happened to me and many of my friends, and even though our parents had a lot of work, the family and the brothers would look after each other.
"That's why we feel that if you have a gym, an important gym where great fighters come over -- like Brandon Rios, Antonio Margarito or Kelly Pavlik or Marcos Maidana -- you can't pass up the fact that there will be a lot of young guys who want to follow those examples. And that's our responsibility: not only a matter of having world champions, but rather to help them raise good people, good athletes."
Garcia offers as a prime example Maidana, a fighter whose only career loss before winning an interim welterweight title in 2009 and making three successful defenses came in a controversial split decision defeat on enemy turf. Although Maidana had since stumbled to two losses in four fights, those dropped decisions came against then-champion Amir Khan and former titlist Devon Alexander. Maidana knew he needed a change, joining Garcia after the Alexander loss, but he had obviously done something right before arriving in Oxnard. Would he have trouble reevaluating his old ways and embracing a new routine?
"He came to the gym to learn, in silence, and accepted all my guidance," Garcia said of Maidana.
"I feel very comfortable with Robert because he doesn't only teach you, he explains everything," Maidana said. "And when you get an explanation, you learn how to apply it better."
On Sept. 15, in his first fight under Garcia, Maidana toppled Jesus Soto Karass by eighth-round TKO in the sort of scrap fans were accustomed to seeing from "El Chino." But Maidana also showed off some newfound boxing skills, especially early on, that could pay off handsomely against other fighters who aren't so eager to brawl. Garcia was impressed by the improvements he saw in Maidana.
"But," Garcia said, "don't forget that he came to our gym with a humble mindset, ready to improve."
It's that humility and drive to bring out the best that Garcia sees as the key to what he does -- not only honing the edges of superstar fighters in the ring, but also providing focus and a path for kids who easily could be lost to their sometimes-treacherous Southern California neighborhoods.
"Boxing provides grit and character," Garcia said, "and that's our greatest contribution to the community: to teach boys and girls that there are a lot of values that don't have anything to do with money but rather with loyalty, family and personal achievements.
"Not everyone is born to be a champion, but we all can be champions in life, living clean, without the help of drugs or alcohol. There are other values, such as family, friendship, work, effort. I try to instill that every day in my academy. And each boy that I can get off the streets is a huge victory for me."