Garcia Bests Vargas, Ponders Next Big Thing

For more than a year now, the conversation around Mikey Garcia’s prospects at 147 pounds could be summed up with a single theoretical question: skills or size? Even with the relatively recent proliferation of divisions and titles in boxing (not to mention meat-slab-building performance-enhancers), the goalposts can be moved only so far. At some point, brilliance is snuffed by sheer bulk. So in the case of Garcia, who won a featherweight title in 2013 and was fighting at lightweight only three years ago, it’s more than fair to ask whether the journey to welterweight will be a bridge too far. Can his prodigious talents outweigh, in a manner of speaking, his lack of size in a loaded 147-pound division?

The answer, if you use as a barometer the pillar-to-post thrashing Garcia took at the hands of Errol Spence Jr. last March, is a resounding “abso-fucking-lutely not.” Spence dwarfed and disarmed Garcia in that contest — Mikey’s first at welterweight — and the public sentiment in the immediate aftermath was that Garcia should pack his things and promptly return to the 140-pound ranks. Instead, on Saturday night at the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas, Garcia (40-1, 30 KO) made a run at welterweight beltholder Jessie Vargas (29-3-2, 11 KO) in the main event of a DAZN card. Ultimately, Garcia provided an answer, if not the answer we’d been searching for: Jessie Vargas is decidedly not Errol Spence.

The initial returns for Garcia on Saturday, though, were alarmingly similar to those in his welter debut against Spence a year ago. The 32-year-old from Ventura, California, required an extended feeling-out period, during which he gave away multiple rounds while struggling to find a route inside, before dialing up the precise timing and distance to drop Vargas in the fifth, then more or less stave off a wobbly opponent to ease into a unanimous decision.

It was a fitting end to an entertaining card, and it theoretically drew Garcia a step closer to the sort of Brinks truck fight that brought him to welterweight in the first place. But the important takeaway depends almost entirely on which side of the fence your confirmation bias lies: Garcia is either 1) a masterful technician whose combination of footwork, punching accuracy, patience, and resilience transcend his inferior reach and diminished power at welterweight, as seen against Vargas; or 2) a puffed-up 147-pound pretender whose alligator arms will prevent him from generating offense against the division’s big hitters. The truth, of course, is more nuanced.

On Saturday, Vargas fought a near-perfect fight for four and a half rounds, stymieing Garcia with a sharp jab and punch combinations that kept him from settling into a rhythm. He blinked just long enough for Garcia to slip in his first eye-catching 1-2 combination, and that opened up Vargas for a pole-axe of a lead right hand that sent him to the deck. It was a dazzling sequence from Garcia that spun the direction of the fight, but it was also the last conclusive moment of the evening. Vargas rose to gut out the last minute or so of the 5th, and he periodically weathered choppy waters over the last half of the fight. But that pretty much sums it up. Whether Garcia was practicing risk management or just lacked the necessary firepower to end it, the officials were allowed to decide the outcome. One scorecard had Garcia winning the decision by just a point — the same 114-113 score recorded by TQBR (so you know it’s accurate).

Garcia was impressive in his own way. He showed great durability and patience in the early rounds, probing for openings and never panicking while Vargas handed his ass to him. Garcia’s odd karate chop of a jab was nothing on its own — a cartoonish downward stab that would pose his opponent a threat only if he’d stashed an icepick in his Everlast. But when delivered in combination with his right hand, the effect was a game-changer. Garcia obscured Vargas’ vision, or possibly just occupied his attention, for an instant with that funky left hand — long enough to lower the boom with the straight right so suddenly behind it, a gentle incoming tide followed by a body-dropping undertow. Skeptics would have preferred to see Vargas swept out to sea. Instead, Garcia just soaked him for more rounds than he didn’t.

That makes the sales job for a Manny Pacquiao fight a bit more challenging — though hardly impossible. (Never underestimate the fickle nature of boxing fans, who can shit-talk a fight six ways to Sunday before growing bored, throwing their hands up and ordering the pay-per-view.) Against Spence, Garcia’s bright spots were rare and brief. But for a fighter who began his career at 130 pounds, extending a dynamo like Spence for the full 12 speaks to an impressive floor at welterweight. And because Pacquiao is nine years Garcia’s senior and something closer to his natural size than Spence, the matchmakers have the narrative to win over the mob.

In any case, Garcia says he’s at 147 to stay. Me? I’d prefer to see him spend the remaining days of his prime taking on Josh Taylor, Jose Ramirez, Regis Prograis and Maurice Hooker at 140, where his powers could be viewed in full flourish, against ball-busting competition. But, look, it’s his career. And isn’t that what fans are always asking of the top fighters — to nut up and make the biggest and best fights? If Garcia wants to test the farthest reaches of his abilities and add a couple more zeros to the end of his fight checks, I say pay that man his money.


(Photo by Ed Mulholland for Matchroom Boxing USA)