Mikey Garcia Leads New Wave of Inland Empire Fighters

Dozens gathered at a small eatery in Ontario, California, a suburban city that once was home to oranges and dairy farms and is one of dozens of small towns located in the area known as the Inland Empire.

Among those present were a smattering of young prizefighters helping to raise money for a fallen fellow warrior. They were also interested in watching on large TV screens the fight between Adrien Broner, a four-division world champ, and local hero Mikey Garcia.

Garcia represents one of many prizefighters who picked up and left their previous homes to find a place in the Inland Empire. The former Oxnard native chose Moreno Valley and trains in the nearby city of Riverside.

These are all towns that have seen populations expand as quickly as a Mikey Garcia combination.

Until the 1990s most of the land was covered in grapevines, orange trees and dairy cows for miles and miles. But a population boom due to less expensive housing saw the Inland Empire population explode from 2.5 million to 5.5 million by 2010.

But unlike nearby Los Angeles County or Orange County, the range of activities available to youths is limited to outdoor activities and restaurants. Not much else.

That’s where boxing fits in.

Since the 1990s the number of boxing gyms has erupted and dwarfed even those in L.A. and Orange counties. Fighters are coming from all over the world to train in a number of gyms located in the Inland Empire or “I.E.” as it is called by locals.

One of the first gyms to attract international attention was located in San Jacinto in Gillman Springs where greats like Muhammad Ali, Jerry Quarry, and others trained in their day. Today, the Soboba Casino is located in that area.

In the early 1990s Big Bear became a destination for boxing with Dan Goossen and his brother Joe Goossen establishing a foothold for their fighters Rafael and Gabriel Ruelas. Then came Emanuel Steward with his Kronk Gym establishing a foothold on the west coast. Other gyms sprouted up in the mountain resort such as Big Bear Fitness where Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson trained for their coming bouts. Oscar De La Hoya bought property and made his own gym and was soon followed by Fernando Vargas and Shane Mosley.

By the 2000s one trainer, Abel Sanchez, a construction contractor, was busy building his own training facility with his own hands. I would stop by after visiting Mosley to see Sanchez hard at work. Around 2011 he brought in Gennady Golovkin and a number of boxers from the former Soviet Union followed. His place, called “The Summit,” is now like a United Nations of boxing and has prizefighters of various ethnicities.

Pomona, the gateway to the I.E., has been home to a number of boxing gyms for decades and saw a number of its residents advance to world titles in the 1980s such as Alberto Davila, Mike Weaver, Richie Sandoval and Mosley. Most of them would later train at the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles but Pomona was their home.

Riverside had three gyms in the early 1990s and Fontana had one gym. San Bernardino had one gym and Coachella’s always baking hot gym existed in the desert region. Palm Springs also had its gym though it mostly went unnoticed till the 2000s.

Golden Boy Effect

 Boxing in the I.E. survived its driest period in the 1980s until 1993 when a kid from East L.A. made the U.S. Olympic team and won gold in Barcelona. His name of course was Oscar De La Hoya and the massive success by the fighter dubbed “The Golden Boy” had a golden effect on youths throughout not only California, but the entire southwest region of the country.

Previously it seemed you had to be born in Mexico to become famous like Julio Cesar Chavez, but De La Hoya showed it could be done in the U.S. too. Suddenly gyms became overcrowded and new gyms sprouted all over the area.

Backyards were converted into boxing training locales with wanna-be trainers building homemade boxing rings on their back lawns. Others built metal hangars and placed boxing rings in the middle of neighborhoods. Everybody seemed to get the boxing bug and families were taking their sons and daughters to the nearest gym.

If a gym wasn’t close by, some fathers, mothers and uncles would drive 40 miles each day to have their son train, such was the case with one young boxer from Hemet whose father would drive to Mira Loma on a daily basis to get some ring work.

Other gyms that had suffered disinterest for several years suddenly mushroomed from enrollments of a dozen or so to four-times that number.

“Everybody wants to be another De La Hoya,” said the late Bennie Georgino, a boxing trainer/manager who had moved to Riverside in the 1990s from Los Angeles. “They see all the success he’s had and they want it too.”

By 2008, when De La Hoya officially retired, the Inland Empire saw more than 30 boxing gyms open up doors and though some have gone away, others sprouted up and took their place.

Mikey’s Move

Around late 2011 the youngest of the Garcia family of fighters, Mikey Garcia, moved from Oxnard, Calif. to Moreno Valley, a distance of 120 miles. Instead of the cool ocean breezes of Oxnard there was the intense desert heat of Moreno Valley. Perfect for boxing. Also making the move was the father Eduardo Garcia who many consider one of the finest boxing trainers in the world.

With no boxing gym of their own, the transplanted Garcias trained in Riverside in the backyard boxing gym constructed by popular boxing cornerman Willie Schunke who passed away two years ago. Official trainer Robert Garcia, the older brother and former world champion, would drive more than 200 miles a day to work with his brother and local prizefighter Saul “Neno” Rodriguez who lived in Riverside.

It was a daily grind that would have caused an early grave for even the stoutest. But Robert Garcia did it several times a week.

“I enjoy the drive and get to think things over,” said Robert Garcia. But soon, after seeing the abundance of boxing interest in the area and his constantly growing crew, he decided to move to Riverside and built a gym in the hillside known as Orangecrest.

Robert Garcia is not only a trainer but also a boxing manager and has a growing number of young professional fighters in his crew such as Hector Tanajara, Joshua Franco and Jonathan Navarro. He also works with Abner Mares, Josesito Lopez and Mikey Garcia among others.

It’s a boxing powerhouse that is rivaled by Abel Sanchez’s blockbuster camp in the Big Bear Mountains and Indio’s desert boxing club run by Joel Diaz.

Of all the boxers currently training in the I.E. the most prominent are Gennady “GGG” Golovkin in Big Bear and Tim “Desert Storm” Bradley in Indio. But with Mikey Garcia’s performance last weekend, suddenly he’s the newest proponent of the I.E. style of fighting.

The boxer-puncher is back and no one represents that style more than Mikey Garcia who simply out-boxed Adrien Broner last weekend. It was watched by every prizefighter in the Inland Empire with great interest.

“It showed that boxing on the west coast isn’t just come-forward brawlers,” said Saul “Neno” Rodriguez a super featherweight contender from Riverside. “We can box and think in there too.”

Next Wave

In Ontario, at the function to raise money for severely injured fight Daniel Franco, a number of young prizefighters gathered to help raise money. Youngsters like Ryan “Kingry” Garcia, David Benavidez and Maricela Cornejo represent the new wave of prizefighters with a boxer-puncher mentality. Brawling is good for entertainment but 50-50 styles don’t win world titles for everyone.

Garcia’s win was also significant because it snapped a losing streak by west coast fighters in the state of New York. A west coast fighter had not won a decision in the “Empire State” in decades.

“Mikey Garcia does everything right,” said Errol Spence Jr. the talented welterweight world champion of Texas on Twitter. “One of the best fundamentally sound boxers today.”

Another skilled champion who could possibly face Garcia had equal observations.

“Mikey fought a great fight,” said Terence Crawford, the super lightweight world champion from Nebraska.

Boxers-punchers are being grown and cultivated in the Inland Empire like the many oranges and grapes that once covered the vast landscape. You could say it’s the I.E. area’s newest product specialty.

Photo courtesy of JP Yim

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