Danny Garcia Must Embrace Underdog Role, Even as a Big Favorite

Elite fighters, which three-time former world champion Danny Garcia still considers himself to be, of necessity must be a curious mix of unbridled confidence and the quiet desperation of a perennial underdog. Those who make the mistake of becoming too comfortable, of presuming that every bout will end in victory because of their physical or tactical superiority, run the risk of suffering a blow to their egos that is not always easily repaired.

Garcia (33-1, 19 KOs), who has not fought since losing a 12-round split decision in his welterweight unification bout with Keith Thurman on March 4 of last year, ends an 11½-month period of inactivity when he squares off against former WBA lightweight titlist Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios (34-3-1, 25 KOs) on Feb. 17 in the Showtime-televised main event at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. In part because the high esteem in which Garcia was once held, and yet may be, and a sense in some quarters that the 31-year-old Rios is damaged goods, the Philadelphian is anywhere from a 16-1 to a 25-1 favorite in various sports books.

So the outcome is pretty much predetermined, right? The more versatile Garcia, 29, makes an “I’m back” statement to a national TV audience by bombing out the gritty but one-dimensional Rios, a come-forward type whose ring makeup is heavy on want-to but short on nuance. Just like that, Garcia insinuates himself again at or near the top of a stacked 147-pound division that includes WBC/WBA champ Thurman (28-0, 22 KOs), IBF titlist Errol Spence Jr. (23-0, 20 KOs), WBO ruler Jeff Horn (18-0-1, 12 KOs), old standby Manny Pacquiao (59-7-2, 38 KOs), former IBF king Shawn Porter (28-2-1, 17 KOs), undisputed super lightweight champ Terence Crawford (32-0, 23 KOs), who is moving up to welter, and maybe even fellow Philly guy “The New” Ray Robinson (24-2, 12 KOs), who takes on Yordenis Ugas (20-3, 9 KOs) on the Garcia-Rios undercard.

But Garcia’s history suggests that he has always been at his best when he actually is an underdog, and something less than that when the consensus is that he is pure chalk. His reputation as a pound-for-pound kind of guy was largely forged on the strength of his impressive upset victories over Amir Khan (a fourth-round TKO on July 14, 2012) and wide unanimous decision over Lucas Matthysse (on Sept. 14, 2013). Even before the points loss to Thurman, it sometimes seemed as if Garcia were fighting on automatic pilot; he escaped with borderline decisions over Mauricio Herrera and Lamont Peterson, and engaged in other tougher-than-they-should-have-been exercises with Paulie Malignaggi and Robert Guerrero, former champions who both were perceived to be well past their prime. He did flatten Rod Salka in two rounds, but Salka was rightly considered to be such a no-hoper that the bout was unable to be sanctioned for title purposes.

If Garcia were going against Thurman, Spence, Crawford and maybe Porter next Saturday instead of Rios, he almost certainly would be considered a longshot by the oddsmakers. No wonder his comments about his expectations for the Rios fight, and those from his father-trainer Angel Garcia, are a blend of bravado with a sprinkle of caution, an ingredient previously absent for Papa Angel’s recipe for his son’s success.

“He’s the same aggressive fighter,” Angel said in an uncharacteristically generous nod toward Rios. “He’s got that Mexican in him. He’s a Mexican warrior. But that’s OK. We’re gonna take care of that.

“The people that are saying it’s an easy fight probably never threw a punch in their life. They never been in a street fight. Boxing, bro, I don’t care who you fight. It’s not easy. Any time you fight anybody it’s hard. We’re not taking Brandon light.”

Said the son, in a 14-word admission that speaks volumes: “There’s a lot of dead weight on my shoulders I got to get off.”

Truth be told, the run-up to the showdown with Thurman, and its aftermath, affected the elder and the younger Garcia in ways neither had ever experienced. There was a dark period that enveloped both until they could muster enough enthusiasm to refocus on boxing.

“I was just restin’, man, just being a regular person for a few months,” Danny responded when asked how he spent his time during the second-longest hiatus of his professional life. “I spent more time with my family. That’s all I did. I didn’t even watch boxing.”

And now?

“I’m excited to get back in the ring after a little layoff,” he said. “I feel good. I feel rejuvenated. My body healed real good and I feel fresh. It’s time to get back in there and go to work. It’s definitely a new chapter in my life, a new chapter in my career. But I’m still me. I’m still Danny Garcia, who can fight his ass off. I’m going to show the world on Feb. 17 that I’m still one of the best fighters in the world.”

Angel said the atmosphere in the Garcia camp prior to the Thurman fight began to turn sour when Danny voluntarily chose to enter the ring second, saying “which is what champions do,” although both combatants held titles. In doing so, Thurman’s name was listed first on prefight posters and on TV ads, an accommodation that is usually reserved for the “A” side of a given promotion. “I told him that was a mistake,” Angel said.

That might have been a small thing, but mind games, which include preferential billing, are as important in boxing as they are in Hollywood. And what came next, if the outrageously chatty Angel – who might be described as the fight game’s answer to basketball dad LaVar Ball — is to be believed, exacerbated an already tense situation.

“Y’all didn’t see what went on behind the scenes,” Angel told reporters who made their way to Danny’s gym in the Juniata Park section of Philadelphia for a media availability session the day after the Super Bowl champion Eagles were feted at a parade that drew an estimated 700,000 spectators. “They didn’t even want me doing interviews. At the press conference before the weigh-in they took me off the (microphone). They said I was a racist and sent me to a corner like a little kid.

“I’m a grown man. I’m 53 years old. It messed me up mentally. I was zoned out in the corner (during the fight). I was somewhere else. I couldn’t wake (Danny) up like I usually know how to wake him up.

“It was a crazy week, a f—ed up week. But I’m not going to lose any more sleep over that. I already lost a lot of sleep over it. I’m not going to lose any more. Thurman got (the decision), they gave him the `W,’ everybody was happy. They got what they wanted. It’s over now. But I’m still gonna be me. I’m not gonna stop talking. But I’m gonna be a little more careful when I say things now.”

Is the Garcias’ version of what happened at least somewhat legitimate, or is it an excuse to cover the fact that Danny left the ring minus his title? Make of that that you will, but the plan does seem for father and son to rip a page from the Eagles’ playbook moving forward. An Eagles player, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, showed up at the Garcia gym along with his cousin, Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s promotional company, and he said it was the team’s embracing of the scrappy underdog role that carried it all the way to the Lombardi Trophy.

“I’ve seen a couple of Danny’s fights,” Dannell Ellerbe said. “He’s the same as us (the Eagles) in that we’re all hard workers and we have a vision of how we want things to work out. When you get a taste of what it’s like to be a champion, you do whatever you have to do to experience that again. I know Danny is going to be a champion again. Hey, man, Philly is a city of champions now.”

The first step apparently is to always think of yourself as a feisty outsider, even if you’re a 25-1 favorite.

“You got to understand, Philadelphia’s been waiting for this moment for over 50 years,” Danny said of the Eagles’ emergence as civic darlings. It definitely motivates me. Maybe if you’re from Philly you’re supposed to be the underdog.

“Every fighter from Philadelphia probably thinks of himself as the underdog. That’s just the image we have. I know I’m the favorite for this fight, but I want to be the underdog for life. I like that role.”

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