Rafael Garcia, a fixture on the Las Vegas boxing scene for more than four decades, passed away this past November at the age of 88. As a young man in his native Mexico, Garcia sparred with the legendary Mexican bantamweight Raul “Raton” Macias. After relocating to Nevada, he worked with more than three dozen title-holders as a trainer and cut man and then, late in his career, acquired a measure of fame as the man who wrapped Floyd Mayweather’s brittle hands. He was the godfather of leading welterweight contender Jessie Vargas, a former two-division titlist. Garcia was with Team Vargas from Vargas’s amateur days.
It turns out there was more than one Rafael Garcia. His son of the same name spends his working hours at the Mayweather Gym where he puts a gaggle of young boxers through their paces. Garcia, 57, grew up in Las Vegas but didn’t embrace the boxing game until he returned from Southern California in the late 1990s where he was involved in the music publishing business. The great LA earthquake of 1994, centered in the suburb of Northridge, was a “push factor.” When the Mayweather Gym opened in 2007, Garcia started going there just to be with his dad.
Speaking about his boyhood, Garcia recalls that the first boxer he ever met was Sonny Liston. “I was about four years old,” he said, “and I remember being very scared of him.” Liston was known for being great around kids, but Garcia was too frightened of the “big ugly bear” to give him a chance.
Garcia remembers that his father entertained many boxers in their home. He remembers seeing Roberto Duran, Alexis Arguello, and Wilfredo Gomez, among others. And he remembers meeting Muhammad Ali. “There was an aura about him,” says Garcia, “a glow.”
The meeting came when Ali was in Las Vegas preparing for his match with Larry Holmes. Garcia Jr. attended the fight. “When it was drawing to its conclusion, I actually cried,” he said. He wasn’t alone in being overcome with melancholy as it became obvious that Ali had devolved into a mere shell of his former self.
The death of the elder Garcia was hastened when he was attacked by a swarm of Africanized bees while working in his backyard. “His face turned into a pumpkin,” recalled his son. “It was puffy for two or three months. The swelling would go away and then come back. The bee stings took away his immune system. In fact, there was still some swelling when dad was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame.”
He was formally inducted on Aug. 12, 2017. His “classmates” included Thomas Hearns, Michael Spinks, Eric Morales, and Michael Carbajal.
Rafael Garcia Sr. had a great friend in Rafael Armendariz, an osteopathic physician in El Paso. Dr. Armendariz brought Garcia to El Paso and arranged for him to be seen by various specialists. They found leukemia.
Traveling with an attendant, Dr. Armendariz drove Garcia from El Paso to Las Vegas, a distance of 725 miles, so that Garcia could spend his end days with his family in his home. “I remember it was a Friday night when they finally got here and dad was all drugged up,” says Garcia Jr. “My father couldn’t have asked for a better friend than Dr. Armendariz.”
There’s a small boxing museum in El Paso, Armendariz’s handiwork. Named in honor of Rafael Garcia, it’s located at 1335 Geronimo.
Garcia was instantly identifiable by his hat, a beret festooned with a cornucopia of pins. “He acquired many of those pins on his journeys,” said Garcia Jr., “but his friends would send him pins from all over the world. He had far too many to fit on one hat. He actually had many hats, at least 10, each covered by a different set of pins.”
Rafael Garcia Jr. won’t carve out a legacy as deep as his father because he started too late. However, like his father he found his calling in a boxing gym and it just so happens to be a gym where there’s a picture of his father on the wall.
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