Episode One: Mikey and Al and Me
Spence-Garcia – like any potentially great fight – flashes more angles than Georgie Benton when you try to nail it down, even once. So you try as many approaches as you can.
It's an old Hollywood star emerging from a restaurant, shot up, from every side, by the flashes of the tabloid photogs. A mob fink before a firing squad, a body convulsed every which way via Tommy guns.
It's the greatest lightweight alive (if not that, then the second best) against the best welterweight, in a stadium that seats 100,000 people, available for PPV viewing at home and for considerably less in myriad bars and 300 movie theaters. In a week.
Let’s go back and let’s go deep (and by deep, I mean, as an example, Al Haymon's senior college thesis and the real reason Mikey Garcia sued Top Rank and left boxing for two years). Cue the Liev-Ray-Schreiber-Donovan voice:
This is Spence-Garcia Numerator-over-Denominator.
Mikey Garcia never really wanted to fight – but don’t stop me if you’ve heard this. There’s more.
Despite his being the much-younger brother of ‘90s IBF lightweight champ Robert Garcia, the son of trainer Eduardo, the nephew of trainer Danny.
That Mikey took up boxing is hardly a surprise, then – even if that past has been whitewashed for television and print, even if Mikey has been made to seem a man who chose the sport at 14, when the sport chose him before he was old enough to decide anything all – and not just because of the above milieu.
Because his dad, "Big G," who hails from Michoacán, Mexico, threw him into a ring when Mikey was 5 and demanded Mikey make a display of “huevos” (that’s the testicular term his bro-trainer Robert recalls Pops using) by sparring another child, who really did wanna bang.
Mikey’s tearful pleas, his resistance, was met with a spanking from his father – the agony of the moment eventually leading Robert – a top boxer about to begin his very necessary training -- to pick Mikey up and haul ass out of the gym anyway by way of rescue.
Outta Oxnard's La Colonia Boxing Club – housed in an old red firehouse at first, then in the basement of the Boys & Girls Club and then back at the (now-renovated) firehouse. The gym that turned out 1996 US Olympian Fernando Vargas, who became the youngest junior-middleweight champ in history as a pro.
If there’s one thing about the Garcias that marks them – aside from a fighting legacy and a wardrobe covered in ads for Mitsubuishi dealerships – it’s their communal, clannish vibe. Which is apparent at a glance, no Googling required.
Last week suddenly more than ever, for the worst of reasons, as Mikey’s extended gym family endured repeated tragedy: the deaths of a one-time assistant trainer in the gym to overdose and a friend who helped set up arenas to a car crash and the paralysis and ICU-hospitalization of a featherweight whose career the Garcias helped guide.
And yet, imagine some small act of defiance. Six years ago Ryan Songalia quoted Robert on Mikey in The Ring:
“He’s very smart, so I thought he was going to be doing other stuff, but now that he’s boxing, I’m proud of him, and he’s doing a great job.”
It’s almost all there, the larger dynamic: Robert’s near-admission that boxing is what earns a Garcia pride -- and his simultaneous recognition of old-country machismo’s limits – that if Mikey could transcend their small-scale re-creation of a pueblo, he should.
Depending on which source you trust, Mikey graduated Oxnard’s Pacifica High with a GPA of 3.2 or 3.8. He graduated from Ventura County’s police academy four years later. He had career options.
Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he came to believe that what you’ve already read above was railroading by way of circumstance – that for 25 years what had been presented to him as choices were, in effect, orders.
Because the defining moment of Mikey’s career so far – its point of inflection – is not a single victorious fight (he remains undefeated at 39-0 with 30 KOs) – but the two years he chose not to fight at all, suing Top Rank to release him from a promotional deal that was about to reward his efforts with millions of dollars and high-profile shows on HBO.
And not because his in-ring efforts haven’t transcended the legal squabble in the 31-year-old’s comeback. Just the opposite.
His remove from the game is seemingly the thing that has imbued ever since him with vivacity and verve in both his selection of opponents and his confrontations with them (okay, maybe not every moment of his confrontations – as Larry Merchant told me the other day, Garcia is talented enough to know how to win in hum-drum fashion, if needed; also, who’s to say he couldn’t have rampaged through contenders had he remained at Top Rank?).
And it’s not like Mikey’s choices have always accorded with fans’.
Did I wanna see Mikey oppose Broner (do I ever wanna see Broner)? Am I unimpressed by Mikey’s power above lightweight, given that he’s gone the full 12 rounds in his last three bouts? Has Garcia actually attempted to face Lomachenko, after calling him out as early as 2016?
You know the answers. Yet if Mikey’s choices have been eccentric, they have been, at the very least, entirely his own (okay – 85 percent his, 15 percent Al’s). But the undeniable agency at play here – in his laying down the gauntlet at the feet of Errol Motherfucking Spence – rippled, knotted, on the verge always of eruption -- it does feel like the glorious cap to the Garcia 2.0 victim-queue.
How many athletes have such a quarter-life crisis, let alone one that ends in such sublimely definite reassurance? The way he Zambonied Zlaticanin. My gosh. We were all floored.
You knew that he knew – This is quintessential Mikey. My truest self.
It came from a choice not to fight.
We know so little about the eminence gris/puppetmaster whose ubiquitous name has become grating to my ears – perhaps in part because of its detachment from corporeal detail. I know Buffer signed with DAZN, but I wanna hear him just once say:
From Cleveland, Ohio, a man whose 1977 Harvard honors thesis was about staging concerts in Boston, who tried to build an NBC show around an actor from “In a Different World” 10 years after producing Kool and the Gang’s tour, in the shadowy grey corner, Mr. Alan Haaaaaaaymon.
I wanna see Al in action in his own life story because there seems something prima facie wrong with his Howard Hughes-esque hiding. As if it enables unaccountability. Oh, the fight wasn’t competitive? Well, you can’t bitch to the man who set it up – you may never even see him.
I’ve asked Richard Schaefer, Tim Smith, and a member of Swanson PR whether any alcohol outfit was sponsoring the Spence-Garcia card (there’s some deal with ticket retailer SeatGeek, but that’s all I know). Nobody among them says he or she knows.
Not that it matters whether the canvas will be branded with some tequila company insignia or not. The confusion just bespeaks the need for the real man with the plan to testify. For the PBC poohbah to step in and hype his wares.
This is where I enter the picture – although until this past week that would’ve been news to me.
In 1999, Haymon began moving away from the music business, although he still co-promoted the 2004 “Ladies First Tour,” featuring Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Missy Elliot – about which he said to the press:
“We are very excited to present this very special and unique event” – which bran flake of a line has me reconsidering my initial position on Al talking publicly.
Just before Al Haymon signed his first boxing client, as a manager, in 2000 (the late Vernon “the Viper” Forrest) – he offloaded 50 percent of his entertainment business to SFX, while retaining control over the enterprise (I guess he had super-voting shares, or some private arrangement to that effect – it’s not clear).
Only months before that SFX had acquired the company for which my father worked. The company was packed with big personalities – clashing sports agents assembled into a corporate structure that defied common sense – including Arn Tellem, (Albert Belle, Kobe Bryant) David Falk (Michael Jordon, Patrick Ewing) and the Hendricks brothers (Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood).
By the end of 2001, SFX repped more than 15 percent of all NBA and MLB players. It had three of the top five guys in that year’s NHL Draft. Then, because of the egos involved and the sale of the company to a culturally-unalike Texas corporation, Clear Channel, the whole thing unraveled.
Meanwhile, Al Haymon was fluttering about the place, certainly figuratively but perhaps also literally, in control of assets SFX ostensibly owned.
And I was there.
I had fractured the L-5 vertebra in my back in high school and, wanting to build back something of a basketball game after months of sitting out, I was playing each day one summer in the big white bubble above the equestrian center at 23rd Street and the Hudson River (#RIPBasketballCity).
Everyday afterward, I walked to the Candler Tower, drenched in sweat or, sometimes, rain, usually having spent a half-hour along the way checking out new sneakers at the Champs. Then I bummed a ride home with my pops.
But that’s not where the two narrative strands come undone.
Al continued to move into boxing during these years, positioning himself as a manager (or, for legal purposes, an “adviser”). He tried to sell fighters on the idea of being free – of paying fewer fees to fewer intermediaries, on having more control over when and whom they fought. He is said to have referenced often his brother, Bobby Haymon, a 1970s pro welterweight whom Al said had been treated shabbily (Bobby’s final record was 21-8-1).
Funny thing about Bobby Haymon – he fought on an Aug. 31, 1973 card held at the Spectrum in Philly, an event promoted by hall-of-famer Russell Peltz (whom I just spoke to briefly about this event) and topped by a closed-circuit broadcast of a George Foreman bout (Joe Hand Sr., who’d once had a stake in Frazier, handled that side of it).
What’s crazy is that this card, as evidenced by the poster, featured two welterweight 10-rounders – one with Bobby and another with similarly surnamed (though there’s an orthographic difference) Alfonso Hayman.
That dude – Alfonso “Fonzie” Hayman – was a decent welter – perhaps an underachiever – controlled at one point by mobster Arnold Giovanetti (who wound up disappearing at the end of the decade, literally – police found his car at the airport but nothing else).
Frustrated by Hayman’s stagnation in the game, Giovanetti assigned him a new trainer, another South Philly guy who’d helped run rackets at one point but also worked as a coach at the Passyunk Gym.
His name was William Patterson – and I met him in the fall of 2005 in Philly and spent untold days thereafter in his Newport-scented, cat hair-covered apartment, listening to stories and taking notes. He died of cancer just before my last semester of college.
That “Hayman” name you see opposite “Haymon”?
That’s the man whose stable is most responsible (and I say this with tremendous deference toward Lamps, Larry, Ross and Rick) for my ever having written a word about boxing. Ever. Because while I already had a connection to the game, I’d never considered applying my love of words to it.
That year, I enjoyed watching my bald Pops wave at my brother and me from a ringside seat at Taylor-Hopkins II. Boxing was unusual, anachronistic, an oddity at the turn of the Millennium.
It took a peripheral figure from the sport, poor and pitiable, a forgotten trainer whose heat had been cut off – whose former charges didn’t keep in touch – to awaken me to its literary potential (yes, that’s entirely exploitative and I said as much to Patterson – whom everyone in the neighborhood called Mr. Pat). This guy taught former bantamweight champ Jeff Chandler how to jab when he was a nobody.
Hate Al Haymon? Love him? Either way, that brother of his he has cited in recruitment pitches occupied the same space, literally and figuratively, with the man who made me – for better and worse – a fight writer.
If Al was sincere in telling first Floyd Mayweather and, later, our two stars, Spence and Garcia, that his career shift owed something to his firsthand look at his brother’s experience -- if that was more than a cynical ploy -- then he and I have shared the same inspiration for nearly 15 years.
Of course, I get paid in crackers and he owns a six-bedroom house in a ritzy Massachusetts suburb (among several residences).
In Dallas-du did Jerry Jones a stately pleasure-dome decree (but fans’ noise is often lost in the cavern, dissipated before it can fall onto the field; I sensed this watching Canelo fight there and believe the stadium eliminates a good deal of the Cowboys’ home field advantage).
Voices that should be heard, whose opinions I’ve sought.
Artist Amanda Kelley, whose relationship with the Garcia family includes her time painting Robert (when the finished canvas was delivered, Mikey was sparring MMA star Jose Aldo in the background) – and whose application of a refined sensibility to fighting regularly yields ideas of which I’d never myself conceive:
“For me, the most interesting part of this fight is that Mikey is being reckless. And this excites him. He asked for this. You can see it in his eyes. It is such a contrast to the way he was before his comeback. It is as if he felt the thrill and danger of racing cars, and he only wanted to return to boxing if he could replicate it.
“It was too easy before.
“And I wonder if he is testing Robert and Big G. How much can they stand to watch from the corner? When they could always depend on Mikey to be smart while they pushed other fighters, like Rios and Margarito, past their limitations.”
Larry Merchant, whose eyes still twinkle when he talks of fantasy match-ups, calling me from Cali (and I can see those eyes even through the phone connection):
“I love the fight on paper. I love it in my boxing degenerate head. I hope I’ll love it in the ring.”
Says Spence might be stronger than any current 154-pounder, strafes the body like an old school Mexican, and if he wins, politics aside, should face Canelo somehow. Spence-Canelo would be a brilliant bout and command serious public coinage, too.
On Mikey: “He imagines something more…A brilliant technical fighter with cojones.” And with a specific willingness to increase riskiness in opponent selection as moves up in weight, as opposed to Mayweather, who dialed it down once he got to 147 (#Ortiz #Berto).
Also, says Larry, the match has historical dimensions. Between the two World Wars, a number of well-schooled craftsmen past their primes took on bigger guys for good money, like Mickey Walker, the “Toy Bulldog,” and Ted “Kid” Lewis.
“I’m curious how this resonates with other fighters [who’re] schooled to keep perfect records,” Larry says. He hopes we’ll see as a result more fights that are events.
A parting shot: “I saw footage in which [Garcia] was bulking up. Part of me understands why, but there’s also a part of me [that says] ‘He’s willing to perhaps sacrifice his advantage – quickness – is that good?”
To answer Mr. Merchant, enter Garcia’s strength guru for this bout, Victor Conte, head of SNAC labs in the Bay Area, the post-BALCO training facility whose greatest asset is Conte’s constant study of new research in the field of exercise physiology.
Well, that and his investments in workout equipment -- he estimates he possesses about $200,000 of it, which he buys with fees from fighters and all the licensing money he makes in the supplement world (he has trademarked the name ZMA for his formulation of zinc, magnesium aspartate and vitamin B6, and he also supplies the supplement under license to the big brands that retail at GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe).
Mikey was at the SNAC campus for five weeks, though afterward, Conte sent two coaches to Garcia’s boxing camp to keep up his conditioning in twice-weekly sessions.
Conte and his team, including 86-year-old track coach Remi Korchemny (banned for life from the US national track and field program after the BALCO affair), worked to build up Type IIb fast-twitch muscle fibers, says Conte.
Which shouldn’t slow Mikey at all.
Korchemny had Mikey do repeat sprints of 20 and 40 yards, working on his explosiveness off the line (Conte derides the five-mile roadwork most boxers do, which he says doesn’t mirror burst-movements in the ring).
Another exercise: Conte wrapped elastic bands 40 feet long around a pole and then slipped them around Mikey’s waist and hands and had him spring forward.
Conte manipulated oxygen in his work with Mikey -- SNAC features a yurt-like room in which altitude can be simulated, the amount of O2 dialed up or down -- even though he rejects Abel Sanchez’s Big Bear approach because it calls not just for training in a low-oxygen environment place but living in one (and you need oxygen-rich air in which to recover, especially during sleep).
Inside the O2 tent, Mikey sprinted on non-motorized treadmills called Skill Mills (the brand actually spells it in all caps and as one word, which I refuse to do) and jumped on a foam surface canted at a four-percent incline (the foam is to minimize impact on the knees during plyometric work).
All the while, Conte was pricking Mikey’s finger for blood, so he could measure levels of nutrients to correct imbalances via supplement but also so he could examine Mikey’s immune system – the counts of certain cells and enzymes (neutrophils, creatine kinase – “which is the best index of muscle tissue damage” – lactate dehydrogenase).
A diminished immune system indicates over-training, Conte says.
I want to get hard numbers on Mikey’s performance in all these exercises but got only this:
Mikey gained 10% in mass during his five weeks at SNAC. And he might weigh in at the welter limit of 147 but step into the ring 24 hours later closer to 160 pounds. Conte thinks Spence, whose character and athleticism he praises highly, will be 165.
Five years after Mikey Garcia’s lawyers first claimed that his contract with Top Rank was both illegal and expired (first in California court and later in Nevada when the case was moved) and three years after the case was settled, there remains an essential unresolved riddle:
Not whether Mikey was bound to Top Rank, which involves the question of extensions (contracts whose life is lengthened if a fighter receives a high sanctioning body ranking or a title shot), but why Mikey wanted to depart in the first place.
“That's the million-dollar question,” one source with knowledge of Top Rank and HBO’s offerings to Mikey in 2014 told me. He said Mikey had moved up the ladder at an admirable clip, considering Mikey had never made the Olympics or won the national Golden Gloves (his biggest amateur win was the 2005 National PAL tournament, and some observers thought he’d benefited from a couple questionable calls, but every call in the amateurs is questionable, and I put little stock in that take).
The larger world – including HBO execs – didn’t care that Oxnard was his father, his father was Oxnard, that La Colonia had produced Robert Garcia and Fernando Vargas (and Vic Ortiz and a whole SoCal generation). Top Rank had to push, I’m told.
The result? While Mikey had never previously received a purse larger than 700K, Top Rank’s offering at the time was a three-fight deal on HBO that would see him ultimately earn seven figures for a bout and include a tilt with Yuriorkis Gamboa – a high profile foe Top Rank had mentioned to Mikey repeatedly whom he seemingly didn’t want to face (Terence Crawford wound up taking the slot to fight Gamboa, and his dramatic win raised his profile and purses).
I totally understand Mikey wanting to assess his value on the open market once he had already been built up by TR. But I’m not so sure, contrary to what his legal team argued, that all boxers, Mikey included, should always enjoy free agency, match to match.
Consider the “Black Mirror”/Bildungsroman hypothetical:
Mikey’s family pitches him to California hustlers each event, guys with an economic incentive not to develop Mikey’s skills gradually but put him in tough to maximize attendance, over and over. Would Mikey have ever made it to the grandest stage in television (HBO then and Fox now)?
You really don’t even have to imagine the scenario – for one night, Mikey lived it.
In his 10th fight, he actually was placed on such a card – this one held in a ring outside the Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas. It was only the sixth time the landmark restaurant had ever hosted a boxing show – and it would be the last.
In the bout before Mikey’s, his cousin Javier Garcia garnered a six-round draw against the rare Native American pug, a 28-year-old from the Klamath Tribes named “Action” Jackson Bussell.
After the final bell, Bussell hugged Javier – before collapsing to the canvas and falling into a coma. The MC hadn’t even announced the decision yet. Bussell was rushed to Northridge Medical Center on a Thursday night and was dead by Friday afternoon.
Of course, after the fact, the state commissioned investigated what went wrong.
Which was when the Cantina’s beloved, foul-mouthed owner, Bob McCord, was struck with a prion disease – Creutzfeldt-Jakob – that ate away at his brain before killing him at 69. Particularly grim, sure. Random and unrelated to boxing– most definitely.
But that’s life on the second circuit – on cut-rate cantina cards with nominal oversight – which seems to attract more than its fair share of bad luck (Creutzfeldt-Jakob affects 1 in a million people, literally).
In fact, McCord only opened the restaurant after receiving money in a settlement -- he was in a plane that crashed in the Arizona desert. Two men had died in the crash, but McCord's fate was hardly easy: Because the plane's location transponder broke, he was alone and without means of communication, under the beating sun, for days.
Mikey was back at the shiny MGM Grand for his next bout.
So why did Mikey suddenly decide his arrangement was unfair?
Top Rank suspected Al had been sharing the gospel of free agency – of fighting the man -- with Mikey, either directly or through an intermediary, in 2014. They felt further affirmed in that belief when they saw Mikey’s counsel was an entertainment lawyer who was new to boxing but not the concert and TV world Al had inhabited for decades.
Thereafter, they also believed somebody in Al’s extended network was paying Mikey’s legal fees and keeping him liquid during his layoff.
Tim Smith, of Haymon Boxing, said, “I have no idea” when asked to comment on these claims.
I’ll add comment instead, then: that Al ran his own black scholarship fund, for which he was honored by Harvard Law alongside future Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan; that Al, by 2007, had contributed between $100,000 and $249,000 to the Cleveland Clinic (the figure likely has risen since then); that Al was able to take a summer internship at a civil rights group in 1975 only because Harvard awarded him a grant to cover money he would’ve made had he taken a summer job.
We’re all of us weasels outside the ropes in boxing, writers included (and some boxers in-the-ring included, too #LowBlowGolota). The best we can hope for is that once the negotiations conclude, once dirty deeds are done (dirt cheap), what remains is a competition we need to see, even if its outcome seems not entirely in doubt (we think the bigger dude will prevail because of his power, if nothing else, though we can’t know it).
I wanna see this – an impulse I’ll perhaps regret later. Wouldn’t be the first time I was thusly rewarded. We’ve all been burned.
But, c’mon – let’s stick our hands out again, see if the flame’s our friend. That’s seemingly Mikey’s MO now. And despite the disputatious path he took to get here, it’s hard to distrust those dimples.
Stay tuned for Episode 2: Six Spence None the Richer