Leonard Garcia’s path in life was established early on, as he watched and listened to his father deliver pearls of hard wisdom that would never leave his brain or his heart.
“My dad was a horse trainer, so we had to bring up horses and we watched horses run,” said the native of Plainview, Texas. “And I used to think every horse was fast and every horse could run. But my dad would always be like, ‘if this horse right here will show you who he is whenever you push him, these are the horses that stand out. That would stick with me as a kid.”
And as an adult, as Garcia has compiled a 18-6-1 record over an 11 year career as a professional mixed martial artist that can easily be epitomized by his desire to always push back after being pushed. It’s just who he is, game plans be damned, and fight fans love him for it.
“If you get pushed and push back, then people are gonna recognize you for that,” said Garcia. “And that would be something I knew my dad would be proud of me for, if I got pushed and then pushed back. So whenever a guy hits me, I want to show him, you know what, you didn’t hurt me, but now I’m coming back to hurt you. Sometimes I get in trouble for it, and I get earfuls at the gym, but it’s just my nature, and coach (Greg Jackson) always says that. He says we’re gonna follow the game plan until you get hit, and then I know who’s coming out. Coach has learned to accept it, and I’ve had to accept it my whole life because that’s just all I’ve ever known.”
You could run down the list of action-packed Garcia fights and grow exhausted just from thinking of the wars of attrition he has survived, but when it’s all said and done, a hundred years from now when his name is brought up, one fight will be attached to it, his April 2010 battle with “The Korean Zombie”, Chan Sung Jung, a bout color commentator Joe Rogan described as “The Fight of the Decade”.
“Being part of a fight like that was something special all the way around,” said Garcia in the understatement of the century. For 15 minutes at Arco Arena in Sacramento, he and Jung threw all caution to the wind and simply slugged it out. Words simply can’t do justice to a fight that may not have been for technical purists, but that appealed to the other 95% of the population for its action, grit, and display of unyielding will. A lot of fighters say that they’re willing to stand and trade – but not for three consecutive rounds. And that’s what Garcia and Jung did, with the “Bad Boy” from Texas eking out a three round split decision win.
And though there are no world title belts in Garcia’s trophy case, the fight is something that he can show to his grandkids with pride one day and say ‘this is who I am.’ That’s heady stuff, and something that sometimes even the most decorated world champions can’t claim. It’s enough to walk away from the game and say, I’ve left my mark, but the 31-year old Garcia isn’t built like that. His goal – in addition to putting one of those belts around his waist – may be an impossible one…
“Trying to top that,” he says without hesitation. “There are guys in the gym who can stand toe-to-toe with me. (Lightweight contender) Cowboy Cerrone’s one of them, and he even says ‘I’m not gonna sit in there and trade with you.’ But every now and again, he’ll get in there, he’ll plant his heels, and he’ll just go. Coach asks us why we do that and why I’m always looking for that and I tell him because there’s gonna be another guy like the Korean Zombie, another guy who’s going to be able to take everything I’ve got and keep coming forward, and if I don’t have training partners like this to get me ready for that, I won’t be able to top it. That fight was great, but I know I can put on a better performance. I broke my hand in the first round of that fight and busted it really, really bad. There were times when I did hesitate to throw it, so I’m looking forward to the next guy who stands in there and doesn’t have a head as hard as him so I don’t break my hand and I see how that fight turns out. I believe I can top it.”
Well, you’ve got to give him credit for trying, and the fight world will undoubtedly want to see his efforts in doing so, but in the meantime, there’s a career to worry about, and just five months after their war for the ages, both Garcia and Jung returned to action at WEC 51 in Broomfield, Colorado. It was less than a triumphant return, as Jung got knocked out by George Roop, and Garcia dropped a split decision to Mark Hominick.
“I feel like I should have taken a little more time off after that fight, and after a war like that, you need a few months off. You need to get back and understand what you just did and give your body the time to heal and rest up,” said Garcia. “But of course we’re both fighters and we both jumped back into it as soon as we could because that’s just in our hearts.”
But it wasn’t all bad news for this dynamic duo, as both will now be entering the UFC’s Octagon following the WEC merge into their sister organization. For Jung, it will be a new experience; for Garcia, it’s a homecoming, as he returns this Saturday to the place where he first made his name on the international scene in 2006-07.
“To me it’s just the way it’s supposed to be,” he said. “When I left the UFC, of course I was under the same umbrella (with the WEC), but a lot of people would ask me, ‘when are you going back to the UFC?’ And I would always tell them that I have so many challenges at 145, why would I jump back up to 155 to get myself in deeper waters when I’m over my neck already. People didn’t understand that, but now that we’re merged, it’s gonna cut back on the explanations, the name of the UFC is a prestigious one, and it’s a comeback for me and I’m excited. It’s a second chance.”
In 2006, Garcia made an instant impression with – what else – a three round brawl; this one in a losing effort at lightweight against Roger Huerta. He would split his next two bouts in the Octagon, submitting Allen Berube and losing a decision to Cole Miller before resurfacing in the WEC, which was purchased by Zuffa.
Garcia, fighting at his optimum weight of 145 pounds, knocked out Hiroyuki Takaya and Jens Pulver in back-to-back bouts in 2008, earning him a shot at Mike Brown’s featherweight crown.
“For me, it was a fresh start,” said Garcia. “I was dropping down to my natural weight class and I felt like at 145 I was going to be more of a competitor. I wouldn’t be fighting bigger guys, and for me it was about making an impact right away. In my mind, what I was thinking going into the first fight (against Takaya) was, okay, now you have to show everybody your skill set at your natural weight class. You’re not having to carry around any extra weight, you’re not having to eat more than you’re used to, you’re not having to lift weights or any of that. You’re back to square one where you started, so now you have to come in and show ‘em why you think you belong here. I felt great again, I feel like my body reacts a lot better at 145, and my natural athleticism comes out a little more. It felt like a new start and that’s what it was.”
The Texan would lose his shot at the 145-pound belt via submission in March of 2009, and though his subsequent record of 2-2-1 has been spotty and filled with razor-thin decisions, it also includes Fight of the Night bonuses for his win over Jung and his draw with Roop, and when Garcia’s name is on the card, it’s a clue for all fight fans to tune in.
And tune in they will when he returns to the UFC to take on The Ultimate Fighter 12 semifinalist Nam Phan this Saturday. Will this be the fight in which Garcia tops his performance against the Korean Zombie? Time will tell, but if it doesn’t, Garcia has a clue about who he thinks can bring him – and the fight world – up to those heights again.
“I believe that Jose Aldo is the guy I can top that fight with,” said Garcia of the UFC featherweight champion. “I believe he’s got an amazing chin, great kickboxing, and he’s willing to stand with every single person he fights. In order for me to get to that goal I’ve got to beat a couple more people and work my way up the ladder to get to him. Nobody’s found a chink in his armor yet, but it’s a matter of time before somebody does, and I’m just gonna be sitting back, climbing my way up the ladder, and I believe that when me and him finally do meet each other, that will be the fight to top all fights.”
Garcia Seeking Fight to Top All Fights
"I’m looking forward to the next guy who stands in there and doesn’t have a head as hard as him so I don’t break my hand and I see how that fight turns out. I believe I can top it.”