The Legendz Boxing Gym in Norwalk isn’t like most boxing gyms. It’s missing the usual stench of sweat and heavy bags and a ring that hasn’t been updated in decades. It’s state-of-the-art, runs parallel to an indoor soccer field, and offers yoga classes on Saturdays. It’s certainly not the Azteca Boxing Club in Bell where legendary fighters Julio Cesar Chavez and Hector Camacho sometimes trained decades earlier. Nonetheless, you don’t expect an infiltration of screaming teenage girls.
No, a former member of One Direction didn’t suddenly pick up the sweet science. It just happens to be the training gym of Ryan Garcia, the prized boxing prospect of Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. With a megawatt smile and prominent dimples, the 20-year-old unbeaten fighter looks more like a pop star than a professional prizefighter.
“[My friend] showed me a video of him on Twitter and we’re just obsessed with him now,” says Claire Christensen, one of two girls who snuck into Legendz last summer to watch a media workout ahead of an ESPN-televised fight.
Despite the session being closed to the public, the two teenagers found their way in to snap a photo with the Victorville native’s arms draped around them. With 2.3 million Instagram followers and 154,000-plus on Twitter, his fan base is largely made up of people who care little about his in-ring pedigree. They’re more apt to have seen him palling around on YouTube with Logan Paul.
“The first thing I saw was a compilation of him boxing,” Christensen says, explaining the tweet that won her heart. “We all think he’s really cute.”
This afternoon seems tame compared to a workout from last March, which recalled Beatlemania in its prime. Or you can just witness the testimony on the super featherweight’s Instagram:
“Omggg like I said Christmas really came early,” one female follower’s comment read on a Dec. 6 Instagram post featuring Garcia leaning over the ropes at a San Diego gym, the site of his first real training camp after joining forces with the sport’s biggest star, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. Garcia signed on in late October to be trained by Eddy Reynoso, who helped transform Canelo from Jalisco farm boy into a world champ. “My eyes are feeling a big pleasure,” reads another girl’s comment, this one accoutred with the heart-eyes and OK-hand emojis.
Garcia has 17 wins, no losses, with 14 victories coming by knockout. In May, he beat former world title challenger Jayson Velez in a headline bout at the StubHub Center in front of 6,625 people — a level of support unusual for someone at his age and experience level. The last such phenomenon was his Golden Boy peer Alvarez, a cult figure in Mexico thanks to his red hair and freckles. After he ultimately joined forces with De La Hoya and Golden Boy, Canelo became a box-office superstar in America too. His fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in September 2013 generated $150 million in revenue off 2.2 million pay-per-view buys and a massive live gate. That’s the level Garcia hopes to attain.
On Saturday, Mar. 30, Garcia will headline a card at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio against veteran gatekeeper Jose Lopez. Lopez has a record of 20 wins against three losses and one draw, and is expected to give Garcia some rounds while also not offering much of a threat to win.
The main question is whether Garcia has the discipline to follow in Canelo’s footsteps. He’s got the raw skills: quick hand speed, solid power and formidable ring technique. But he’s been ripped by critics for his lack of defense and his conditioning — not to mention the doubts about how seriously he takes his career. He’s a heartthrob who recently dropped the teen modifier on the verge of becoming the biggest fighter of his generation. Can you even imagine the DMs?
Garcia thinks he’s a fifth-generation Mexican-American but isn’t exactly sure. The fighter nicknamed “Kingry” is the family business — mom Lisa Marie handles the marketing and father Henry helped develop him as a young fighter, training Ryan and his brother Sean (now also a pro boxer) in their garage when they were kids.
He’s been criticized by Mexican boxing fans for not knowing the language, though Garcia is among a growing number of Mexican-Americans who don’t know Spanish. Nonetheless, Garcia’s trunks during his May bout against Velez were emblazoned with the words “El Flash” — a clear nod to the cultural line he straddles.
“Everybody at boxing tournaments made fun of me for not knowing Spanish, but it’s just something that I had no control over,” Garcia said. “My parents chose not to teach me Spanish, so it’s really not my fault.”
He’s also found difficulty attracting a following from Spanish-speaking Mexicans — even though Mexican greats have co-signed him. It didn’t help when, on a March edition of ESPN Deportes boxing program A los Golpes, the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez gave tips to Garcia about how to reach the next level and his comments had to be translated into English by host Bernardo Osuna. Another viral video showed Garcia being fed lines in Spanish for a TV hit.
Golden Boy and their fighter are making strides to increase Garcia’s fluency. Joining up with Reynoso and Canelo is a good first step. Neither speaks English primarily, and the hope is that Garcia will pick up the language just by being around it. Learning Spanish could translate to a couple extra zeroes at the end of his checks later on.
“[Garcia] and his team understand that if he learns Spanish, it’ll open up bigger opportunities and a bigger audience,” Golden Boy’s head matchmaker, Robert Diaz, says. “They obviously have to be disciplined and do it. I think now with [Reynoso] training him, that’s going to come naturally.”
“It’s just a bonus that [Reynoso] speaks Spanish,” Garcia said of the addition. “Boxing is a universal language; the language barrier isn’t really there because we both understand enough Spanish and he knows enough English for us to communicate.”
The hope is that Reynoso can also bring some discipline to the young fighter’s approach. Even though he’s 20, he’s smart enough to realize there’s room to grow.
“If I’m being honest, I was going through the motions and more focused on everything going on outside of the gym,” Garcia says. “It’s another reason we came to this camp because we knew it would be all business and like boot camp. That’s what I needed.”
It’s difficult to blame Garcia for being sidetracked by the blitz of modeling gigs, brand deals and carnal temptations coming his way. But Golden Boy’s Diaz vows that his client will successfully elude the pitfalls that have befallen countless athletes.
“He understands that appearances, magazine shoots and modeling are great things, but it’s crucial to remember that he’s only doing them because he’s the fighter,” Diaz says. “He has the looks, the personality and following, but it’s all about remembering what got you here — because if the boxing falls apart, then the rest is gonna go.”
It’s been a whirlwind few months for the budding star. Unexpectedly, Garcia became a father, and is no longer in a relationship with the child’s mother. Garcia faced a lot of criticism for how he handled himself, and the blowback seemed unexpected.
There’s also the matter of temperament. Garcia talks a lot of trash, which rubs purists and Latinx fans the wrong way. Historically, the most decorated Hispanic fighters have let their fists do the talking. Salvador Sanchez, Chavez, Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera are all guys idolized by blue-collar lunch-pail toting fans because of their humble, workmanlike demeanors.
Of course, De La Hoya, knows all too well the feeling that comes with being disliked by Mexican boxing fans. During his heyday in the mid-’90s to mid-aughts, a De La Hoya fight might double as a ladies night out. He reveled in the female attention and has since admitted it partially derailed his career. Since retiring from the sport in 2008, De La Hoya has been in and out of rehab amid a number of publicized embarrassments.
Now, De La Hoya is in need of another superstar — and soon. Just this year, Golden Boy Promotions has seen a number of their top fighters knocked off unexpectedly in fights they were big favorites to win. Garcia is already a big name, and now that he’s one of just a few for the company, they’ll likely look to protect him as long as they can.
The belief is that Canelo is currently propping up Golden Boy Promotions. Underhandedness sometimes plagues the sport, and De La Hoya’s company hasn’t been immune to it. At one point, they had the strongest stable of fighters in boxing. But while De La Hoya weathered another stint in rehab, it was discovered that many of the fighters weren’t even under contract with Golden Boy and departed for Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions — which currently has a deal on FOX and Showtime showcasing many of the fighters De La Hoya’s company built from the ground up.
The savior, for now, is Canelo, still just 28 and the recent recipient of a $350 million deal with streaming-services company DAZN — one that will provide a platform for the promoter’s other fighters. But outside of Alvarez, the cupboard is pretty bare for the first time in a long while. Garcia is the only other fighter with superstar qualities, but he’s not yet ready for the big time.
Most of the sport’s biggest successes have been guys who have no other option but to make it in the ring. They don’t have movie-star looks to fall back on if the sport doesn’t work out. What percentage of Garcia’s following really even cares if he’s a boxer? Who’s to say there isn’t an easier way for him to make a good living — especially in the age of social-media influencers and YouTube celebrities? But while he might look like an actor, the truth is he’s a longshot to book $20 million per picture deals. There remains, however, the possibility that he could become the most bankable boxer of all time. That is, if the skills catch up to the hype.
“I think I can go further than Oscar or Canelo, only because the fact this is a new generation,” Garcia says. “Social media reaches people that you would never reach back in the day. For this generation, I can take it to a level that hasn’t been seen.”