Mikey Garcia carrying tons of pressure into Jessie Vargas fight as he continues to dare to be great

If there’s a downside to taking the path of most resistance, it’s dealing with the questions that follow when things don’t go your way. 

Former four-division champion Mikey Garcia (39-1, 30 KOs) knows the scenario all too well after defying the advice of his own family and team and daring to be great last March in a one-sided welterweight title loss to Errol Spence Jr. on pay-per-view

Despite all that he previously accomplished at smaller weights as a slick boxer and heavy counterpuncher, the fact that Garcia, 32, was never in the fight against Spence and was forced to lean on his chin late in order to survive means the jury is still out regarding whether he’s a legitimate 147-pound fighter. 

With big options across three divisions as a promotional free agent, Garcia has chosen instead to double down on the idea that welterweight is his rightful place by taking on a difficult challenge Saturday against former champion Jessie Vargas (29-2-2, 11 KOs) at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas (DAZN, 8 p.m. ET). 

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“The main reason why we landed on Jessie is not only for the marketability and selling point, it was more about how do I test myself and prove to everybody that there is a lot more from Mikey Garcia than what they last saw out of me,” Garcia told CBS Sports’ “State of Combat” podcast in December. “I think Jessie does that. A former two-division world champion who is always here to fight. Stylistically, I think it’s great. It could be a 12-round war and I think fans will be excited about that most.”

Vargas, 30, had been most recently campaigning at 154 pounds in search of a title in a third division. The native of Las Vegas is excited to use his natural size advantage in a fight that could set up a big opportunity for the winner, especially if current WBA champion and Filipino legend Manny Pacquiao — who outpointed Vargas in their 2016 title bout — ends up taking his business to DAZN.

“I think [size] is definitely a huge advantage,” Vargas told CBS Sports. “When it comes to size and speed, they are something I possess as an advantage on my side. With a fighter as technical and talented as Mikey is, I need to be sure I use every detail in my arsenal to come out victorious.”

Garcia’s decision to come back to 147 pounds was met with surprise, especially considering the punching power advantage he holds at lightweight and the current crop of big-name fighters who operate there. But Garcia has always been the captain of his own ship when it comes to decision making and has long valued the fulfillment of his legacy as his most important objective. 

That means challenging himself in a division he’s far from established at and staying on course to seek a world title in a fifth weight class. It also means pushing back at his critics who suggested that welterweight was a bridge too far after Spence was able to control distance so easily and surgically dissect Garcia before walking him down late. 

“We talk about how we don’t know if he’s a true 147-pounder. He’s not, he’s not. He’s just not and that’s the facts,” Promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sport told CBS Sports on Tuesday. “But he’s such a stubborn little fellow that if you tell him he’s not, he wants to prove you wrong. Everyone has told him he shouldn’t have gone to 147 pounds to fight Errol Spence and that he’s not a welterweight. ‘You can’t do it at 147 pounds.’ He just goes, ‘I’ll show you.'”


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Garcia, who sat out nearly three years of his prime in order to settle a court case against former promoter Top Rank, now operates on a fight-by-fight basis with his promoter of choice. He decided on Hearn and DAZN this time around, in part, because the lure of a Pacquiao fight has always interested him. 

While the Vargas fight is simply a one-bout deal for Garcia and Matchroom, Hearn said he holds options to match offers for Garcia’s next fight. Hearn has also been in close contact with Pacquiao’s new management team, Paradigm Sport, and claims he’s under the impression Pacquiao has fulfilled his contract with Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions. 

“[Garcia] is a very smart business man and we are looking to gain his trust,” Hearn said. “It felt like the right fight at the right time. Mikey feels like he still wants to make a statement at 147 pounds. Jessie Vargas was one of the first guys to sign with DAZN. I thought it was our responsibility to land him that big fight and since then, I have not seen Jessie Vargas look or work like this before. He is so up for this fight.”

Hearn echoed the statements uttered of late by many how the ho-hum reaction to the fight announcement in December has only increased with the expectation of a competitive duel between elite Mexican-American fighters. Not to mention how much the unknown surrounding whether Garcia is in the wrong weight class could lead this to be an all-action affair and potential trap fight for the native of Ventura, California. 

“When it first got announced it was, ‘Oh, good fight.’ Now people are texting me — journalists, trainers, fighters — and [saying], ‘You know what? I think Jessie Vargas is going to win this fight,'” Hearn said. “It’s a fascinating fight and I think a win for Mikey Garcia could take him to the Manny Pacquiaos and Danny Garcias, and maybe even the Errol Spence rematch, which he wants and has got to prove himself.” 

Garcia remains on the fringe of most pound-for-pound lists thanks to his success in winning titles between 126 and 140 pounds. It’s because boxing operates so heavily on a “what have you done for me lately” ideal, however, that doubt has so heavily crept in — mixed with his 11-month layoff — to make Garcia the fighter entering Saturday shouldering the most pressure to succeed. 

“I just feel like I have to get back and show my people that there is a lot more to Mikey Garcia,” he said. “Last time I was in the ring, it was just not my night. It was one of those nights where things just didn’t go my way and it happens. That’s boxing. Most importantly is what you do after and how you bounce back and take on different challenges and keep moving forward.”

Garcia considers himself largely done at 135 pounds and plans to look for the biggest fight available at 140 or 147 should he defeat Vargas. He also believes his shrewd business decisions and steady one-fight deals have made him a bit of a pioneer in this modern era dominated by politics and network deals that have so often prevented big fights from happening. 

“I think if more fighters do this, we will get to see more attractive fights that fans are excited about and want to see,” Garcia said. “I am going to be a front-runner for this new movement and I’m just excited. I value the freedom. Even there’s no monetary or longterm value in freedom, I value being able to look at different fighters and weight classes and that gives me freedom to explore the fights that I want and not just the ones offered by a particular network. 

“There is value in that. If I did a multiple-fight deal, I could probably get more money but it’s not always about the money. I want to give my fans great fights to remember me by. I want to add to my legacy because, in the end, that’s going to be the most valuable for my career.”

With freedom, however, comes great responsibility. He showed last year the downside of what daring to be great can do to your value and reputation. Now, Garcia must dig deep and prove he really is one of the best in the world regardless of weight.  

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