by Hamilton Nolan
The first thing you may notice watching Mikey Garcia fight is that he is calmer than you are. He is calmer than the fans, and his corner, and, always, calmer than his opponent. He has no reason not to be. So far, patience has never failed him.
At the age of 25, Garcia's record stands at 31-0 with 26 knockouts. He is a case study in how to properly manage a young fighter's career. (And he should be, given the fact that his brother, Robert Garcia, is one of the world's best trainers.) Garcia has been brought along slowly. He has not taken too much punishment. His level of competition has increased gradually and steadily. And now, in his physical prime, he gets his first real world class fight, against the somewhat battered but still dangerous puncher Juan Manuel Lopez.
Lopez himself is a prime example of a career that was not properly managed. Just two years ago, he too was undefeated, and, along with Yuriorkis Gamboa, one of the two most hyped fighters in the lightweight division. So well hyped, in fact, that his managers thought it was a good idea to squeeze a few more stepping stone fights out of him before making the big match with Gamboa that the world wanted to see. But as often happens in boxing, the script was derailed by a determined underdog; Lopez found himself TKO'd by the hard-headed veteran Orlando Salido. What could have been a minor setback turned into existential disaster for Lopez's career when he was TKO'd once again by Salido in a rematch last year. Now, "JuanMa" -- who was oh-so-recently mentioned as one of the most exciting and dangerous fighters in the world -- finds himself with one last chance to salvage his reputation as a true A-level boxer. His fight against Garcia is a real shot at redemption. It might be his last shot, before he is shuffled off into the dreaded category of "tough opponent," rather than "world-class contender."
So then, we have the classic Young Contender on the Rise vs. Veteran Desperate to Prove He's Still Got It. But that's reductive to a fault. Until now, Mikey Garcia has only fought in mismatches. This fight is not a mismatch. That means that anything can happen. The betting public will take note of the fact that Orlando Salido beat Lopez twice, but was thoroughly battered and defeated by Garcia in January. And indeed, Garcia will be the favorite in this fight. But it's useful to remember that past performance is not always a reliable guide when a young fighter gets his first real taste of top-level competition. Especially -- as Lopez will provide -- top level power.
Stylistically, Lopez resembles Mike Tyson, without the peek-a-boo defense. He's short, he ducks, he looks to get low and come in on his opponents. He's a hooker with knockout power who prefers to aim for the head, rather than grinding on the body round after round. His boxing skills are good enough to qualify him as better than a brawler, but less than a technician. His game plan is knockouts, period. If (as Orlando Salido did) you can stand up to his power, he will be right there to be knocked out himself.
This presents some threat and a lot of opportunity for Garcia. While Lopez likes to press straight forward all night, Garcia is the most terrifically patient fighter you'll find among lightweights today. He thinks nothing of spending the first round, or two, or three, merely sticking a jab out occasionally and watching what his opponent does. This is not laziness; it is scouting. At some point in every fight Garcia decides that he has seen all he needs to see, and that he has his timing down, and he begins throwing his strong right hand, which has knockout power, and which, most of the time, knocks his opponent out. (It must be said that Garcia's left hook, once a secondary tool, is also coming along quite nicely.) The only thing that matches Garcia's patience is his guilelessness. He is completely unsurprising. That's not to say that he is not a world class fighter; it's simply to say that you know more or less exactly what he will be doing before he steps into the ring. He will wait, and watch, and time, and then attack. As simple as it sounds, no one has been able to trump it so far.
And this is where Lopez's opportunity lies. He is far from crafty, but he is more experienced than Garcia, and he's faced boxers far slicker than Garcia will ever be. A short, neckless bulldog like Lopez must be salivating at Garcia's ramrod-straight back, long neck and high chin, which sticks up high over his shoulders, just begging for someone fast and aggressive to duck inside and catch it with a hook. To this point, Garcia's power has kept all of his opponents too far away to live out this fantasy. But Lopez has power, too. And one or the other man will almost certainly see his career's arc change after a single punch on June 15.
Terence Crawford is living proof of the value of seizing an opportunity. An amateur standout, Crawford (20-0) seemed mired in the netherlands of little-watched undercards, until a last-minute chance to fight Breidis Prescott opened up for him in March. He took it, and dominated Prescott so thoroughly that people immediately began talking of Crawford as a serious contender at light welterweight. He is a sharp (though not devastating) puncher with above-average speed. But what distinguishes him is his skill and footwork, which enabled him to get inside and damage the bigger Prescott, and escape unscathed. Alejandro Sanabria is 34-1, but he has never fought outside of Mexico. He's picked a tough introduction to America. Crawford will be looking to produce another performance dominant enough to help him cut in line towards a 140-pound title fight.