Question still unanswered: Can Mikey Garcia handle the welterweight elites?


FRISCO, Texas — The biggest question going into the Mikey Garcia-Jessie Vargas fight on Saturday night was: How viable Garcia is as a welterweight contender?

Garcia has been one of boxing’s elite pound-for-pound fighters for the past several years, having won world titles at featherweight, junior lightweight, lightweight and junior welterweight. But was welterweight a bridge too far? Weight classes were created for a reason, after all.

Garcia came away from his win against Vargas at The Ford Center at The Star believing he can indeed compete with the best at 147 pounds.

“I think I answered a lot of those doubts and questions,” Garcia said at his postfight news conference. “We fought a tough opponent in Jessie. He’s a solid welterweight, big and strong, and has fought some of the best in the division. I think I did good. I think I showed I’m resilient, I’m strong, I can go the distance against a bigger man and still box effectively.

“I think I performed very well and was able to overcome the size disadvantage to show that I can be a solid welterweight. I already faced Errol [Spence Jr.], and he’s probably the best welterweight. He was never able to hurt me, and I really think I can do something at welterweight. I think I can become a champion within a fight or two.”

I came away from Garcia’s unanimous decision win over Vargas with the answer still being incomplete.

When he jumped up two divisions from lightweight to welterweight 11 months ago to challenge Spence, one of boxing’s best practitioners, Garcia got shut out. He lost every single round. Decisively.

But Garcia (40-1, 30 KOs) wanted to give the division another try. Vargas, who has won titles at junior welterweight and welterweight, is no Spence, but he is a solid, durable, legitimate welterweight who has faced some of the best in the business. He also had a size and reach advantage over Garcia.

Garcia was able to handle Vargas, but it was by no means easy. He knocked Vargas down with a right hand in the fifth round and went on to win 116-111, 116-111 and 114-113 after Vargas mounted a late rally.

But was it a good enough performance by Garcia to make anyone believe he can compete with — much less defeat — the elites of the division, namely titleholders Spence, Terence Crawford and Manny Pacquiao?

Garcia said he’s interested in a rematch with Spence, but there’s no shot of that after such a one-sided rout. A fight with Crawford would attractive but extremely unlikely, especially because of the horrendous relationship between Garcia and his former promoter Top Rank, which represents Crawford. Still, Garcia said he’d like the fight if it were possible.

But the much higher-profile fight — and the apparently far more likely fight — is one between Pacquiao and Garcia.

“The bigger fight everyone would like to see is me and Manny, so that’s the fight I would love to entertain,” Garcia said.

Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, seated next to Garcia after their first fight together, said he has been talking to Paradigm Sports Management president and CEO Audie Attar, who recently signed Pacquiao to a management deal, about making Pacquiao-Garcia.

According to Hearn, it would take place July 11 at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In December, Hearn promoted the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz Jr. heavyweight title rematch in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. In 2018, Callum Smith, a Matchroom Boxing fighter, won a super middleweight title from George Groves in the World Boxing Super Series final in Jeddah.

“That’s what my attention will be turned to over the next couple of weeks — trying to put a deal together for Mikey that he’s happy with to take that fight and to try and make sure that Manny Pacquiao is in for that fight,” Hearn said. “I think it’s probably one of the best fights in boxing. I really feel that Manny Pacquiao against Mikey Garcia is just a monstrous fight.”

Pacquiao is in the market for a summer opponent, and Garcia has long been on the short list of possible foes. It would be a big fight, but one Pacquiao (62-7-2, 39 KOs), even at 41, would be heavily favored to win, especially coming off his masterful performance to outpoint then-welterweight titlist Thurman last July.

“It’s a fight that has been mentioned and talked about for several years, and now I have a win in the welterweight division and I think people can actually consider me a viable contender. I think with this victory it’s more accessible, and I would love to fight Manny Pacquiao.

“He’s a living legend,” Garcia continued. “I would love to share that ring with him. It would be a great thing for my legacy to get in the ring with an all-time great. It’s not very often we have an opportunity to fight an all-time great. For me to get in that ring with Manny would be amazing. I think I can definitely show everybody that even though he looked great [against Thurman] I can take him out and show I’m just as great. But I need that opportunity. I need to get in that ring with him.”

They have actually shared the ring in the past, sparring together when Garcia was in his late teens.

“It was a long time ago, but I did very well at the time. I learned from that,” Garcia said.

Robert Garcia, Mikey’s brother and trainer, said with 11 months between welterweight bouts his brother had grown into the weight rather than having rushed to it in just a few months ahead of facing Spence.

“Three months before Spence, we’re thinking of getting into the welterweight division, putting on muscle,” he said. “Mikey said during the fight he just didn’t feel like himself. Now, a year later, he proved to people that he can compete there. I’m very pleased with his performance. His performance will get better and better from now on. If that Pacquiao fight is available, definitely, we’d love to have it.”

Vargas’ opinion on a Pacquiao-Garcia fight is worthwhile because he has now faced both of them. In 2016, Vargas got knocked down and lost his welterweight world title to Pacquiao by decision.

“I think that’s a good fight. I’d like to see it,” Vargas said. “I think you’d get an action-packed fight. I think [Garcia] can match up with the top guys in the division. Credit to him. I would compare him to Manny Pacquiao at that level. In his last fight previous to facing me, [Garcia] came up short in a fight where I’m sure he learned a lot. I think he’d be stronger at 140, but at 147 he’s also very good.”

Vargas is right. Garcia is very good at welterweight, but he was verging on great in the divisions below and would probably be best served fighting at junior welterweight. At welterweight, Garcia can compete and make a lot of money. I’m just not so sure he’s good enough at 147 to defeat Pacquiao or any of the elites.

Fights you may have missed

Friday at Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico: Welterweight Xander Zayas (4-0, 3 KOs) TKO3 Marklin Bailey (6-7, 4 KOs).

Zayas, a 17-year-old blue chip prospect who is the youngest fighter signed by Top Rank, lives in Plantation, Florida, but was born in Puerto Rico. This was his first fight on the island. It was his first scheduled six-rounder, but he didn’t need that long to get rid of Bailey, 25, of Durham, North Carolina. The faster Zayas dominated the fight with combinations to the head and body, cut Bailey’s right eye and when he landed yet another combination in the third round, the referee called off the fight at 1 minute, 14 seconds.

Friday at Las Vegas

Junior welterweights Keith Hunter (12-0, 7 KOs) W10 Sanjarbek Rakhmanov (12-3-1, 6 KOs), scores: 98-91 (twice), 97-92.

In April 2019, Hunter, 27, of Las Vegas, the younger brother of heavyweight contender Michael Hunter, won a narrow split decision over Rakhmanov, 30, an Uzbekistan native fighting out of Las Vegas. They met in a rematch that headlined Showtime’s “ShoBox: The New Generation,” and Hunter won far more handily this time. Hunter, with a 7.5-inch reach advantage, showed a diverse arsenal of skills and good jab to control the fight. He overwhelmed Rakhmanov with activity, throwing 1,075 punches while Rakhmanov got off only 393. Hunter, who said he hurt his right hand in the seventh round, scored a third-round knockdown with a left hook to the head and nearly stopped Rakhmanov with an onslaught in the 10th round.

Junior welterweight Richardson Hitchins (11-0, 5 KOs) W10 Nick DeLomba (16-3, 5 KOs), scores: 100-90 (three times).

Hitchins, 22, of Brooklyn, New York, who represented Haiti in the 2016 Olympics, cruised to a shutout against DeLomba, 29, of Cranston, Rhode Island. Hitchins doesn’t have much power, but he has good skills and was aggressive. He took the fight to DeLomba from the outset, outlanding him 192-81, according to CompuBox.

Super middleweight Genc Pllana (8-1-1, 4 KOs) W10 Kevin Newman II (11-2-1, 6 KOs), scores: 96-94 (three times).

Pllana, 26, a Kosovo native fighting out of Hagerstown, Maryland, took the fight on short notice and scored the upset over Newman, 28, of Las Vegas. Pllana’s unorthodox and awkward style gave Newman problems. It was a close fight, and the judges perhaps were more impressed with Pllana’s higher punch output than Newman’s higher connect rate in a fight that was hard to score.

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