Ryan Garcia was troubled by Oscar Duarte's mauling tactics but found the fight-ending shot in Round 8, a check left hook followed by a barrage of punches that earned him a knockout Saturday night in Houston.
Garcia, in his first fight since an April TKO loss to Gervonta Davis, heard boos in Round 8 and appeared to have the fight slipping away from him. That's when he unleashed the left hand that wobbled Duarte and eventually sent him to a knee.
Duarte gathered his feet just as the referee's count reached 10, giving Garcia the knockout win with nine seconds left in Round 8.
"I just had to slow his momentum down," said Garcia, 25. "He was building momentum, momentum, and I was like, 'Man, I got to cut this off somehow.' ... He was a strong fighter. He took a good punch. ... I hit him with some hard shots, and he just kept coming.
"It was tough. It was very tough. ... I have the killer instinct. Sometimes when I hurt somebody that bad, I just be cracking them."
Duarte, despite taking the big knockdown punch, said he was upset by the ref's 10-count.
"I feel like it was unfair because I still got up," Duarte said in remarks translated from Spanish. "I still felt like I could keep going."
Garcia (24-1, 20 KOs) was ahead 68-65, 69-64 and 68-65 on the judges' scorecards at the time of stoppage. He lost Rounds 5 and 6 on two of three scorecards, and Duarte (26-2-1, 21 KOs) was coming on strong when Garcia clipped him in Round 8.
The bout was Garcia's first with Derrick James, ESPN's 2022 Trainer of the Year, who replaced Joe Goossen following the loss to Davis.
"Derrick said, 'Start using your legs a little bit, it's going to open up the shot,' and it literally did that," said Garcia, who earned approximately $30 million for the bout with Davis. "It's our first fight together. We're going to build off this, and we're just going to get better. I'm committed to becoming a world champion."
Garcia looked uncomfortable at times in the ring coming off his first loss. He unveiled a shoulder roll during the matchup, but it wasn't all that effective as he turned his back to Duarte's thudding body shots.
Garcia's two bouts in 2022 were contested at 140 pounds before his 136-pound catchweight superfight with Davis, which included a same-day rehydration clause that didn't allow him to weigh more than 146 pounds. The fight with Duarte was contested at 143 pounds.
Duarte, a career 135-pounder, was the smaller man, but he was relentless in his pursuit of Garcia, stalking him with body shots, while Garcia flicked a jab and routinely connected on a powerful left uppercut.
Duarte, 27, entered the bout riding an 11-fight knockout streak and outlanded Garcia 62-55. But it was Garcia who landed the far bigger punches and possessed the far quicker hands.
Garcia moved around the ring without throwing many punches in Rounds 7 and 8 before the only shot he needed connected. Despite his protest, Duarte couldn't beat the count.
With the comeback victory behind him, Garcia called out 140-pound titleholder Rolly Romero, who also owns a stoppage loss to Davis.
"If Rollies wants that, bring it on, Rollies," Garcia said. "Let's keep building, and then we can go after Devin Haney and all the other dudes -- Teofimo. But you know, we gotta take our steps."
There are also steps for Garcia to take on the business side. He sent a demand letter in June to his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy, alleging violations that breached his contract. Golden Boy responded with a lawsuit to enforce that promotional agreement.
The case has yet to be resolved, but fighter and promoter put their differences aside to allow Garcia to fight one more time in 2023. However, it all came to a head at Thursday's news conference, when he called out De La Hoya and Golden Boy executive Bernard Hopkins.
"One thing that's been on my heart is the statements that Bernard made where he'll decide if I'm going to finish or if I should continue boxing after this fight," Garcia said Thursday. "He don't decide that. ... Nobody was telling him when to stop boxing."
Garcia continued: "Another thing I want to touch on is Oscar saying that we misinterpret what they say. It's plain English. I didn't hear anybody speaking any language I don't know."
On Thursday afternoon, De La Hoya, in a since-deleted social media post, questioned Garcia's "state of mind."
"Considering his history of mental instability (which he's documented himself) his current erratic behavior shows he's clearly not focused on Saturday's fight," De La Hoya wrote in his post. "You won't take my calls, Ryan I hope you're OK."
After Saturday's fight, the two seemed to put aside their differences once again -- at least momentarily -- as De La Hoya congratulated Garcia.
"It just comes with the territory," Garcia said regarding the drama with his promoter. "I'm a person about moving forward, having a kind heart, showing forgiveness. ... I have no hard feelings towards nobody. I just hope the truth prevails, and that's it."