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Joshua-Miller Stirs Memories of Frazier-Mathis and Another Era’s Garden Party

Bernard Fernandez

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What goes around eventually comes back around? Well, not always. But there are certain long-separated, seemingly unconnected events that draw such distinct parallels that it can appear as if history, or at least certain elements of it, is being repeated, with different players in previously assigned roles.

On June 1, IBF/WBA/WBO heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs) defends those titles against Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller (23-0-1, 20 KOs) in the DAZN-streamed main event in Madison Square Garden.

On March 4, 1968, Joe Frazier (who went in 19-0, with 17 KOs) won the vacant heavyweight championship – the version recognized by the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois and Maine, in any case – with an emphatic, 11th-round stoppage of Buster Mathis (then 23-0, with 17 KOs), in the first boxing card held in the current (and the fourth overall) incarnation of the Garden. Although Mathis, who was behind on two of the official scorecards (referee Arthur Mercante Sr. had it even), beat Mercante’s count, he was clearly discombobulated after getting nailed by “Smokin’” Joe’s signature shot, a short left hook to the temple. Mercante did the prudent thing by waving off the scheduled 15-rounder after an elapsed time of 2 minutes, 33 seconds.

So, if the same plot from nearly 51 years ago is followed to a more or less identical conclusion, does it mean that Joshua – the more likely stand-in for Frazier – gets Miller,  suitable in so many ways to assume the role of Mathis – out of there in the later stages of a scheduled 12-rounder? Not necessarily. If there’s one thing we have learned from remade movies of familiar originals, it’s that endings can undergo radical revisions. Perhaps this eerily reminiscent do-over of Joe ’n’ Buster has the updated Mathis – uh, Miller – flipping the script and being carried out of the ring on his jubilant handlers’ shoulders, provided they are strong enough to handle the weight.

But the closing scene, whatever it is, doesn’t alter the fact that up to now much of what led to Frazier-Mathis is again playing out for a two-generations-later audience. It’s like one of the best-remembered sayings uttered by that master of malaprops, the late, great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, who once observed that a particular set of circumstances was “like déjà vu all over again.”

Consider the following:

*Joel Fisher, executive vice president of Madison Square Garden Marquee Events, described Joshua-Miller, in which England’s Joshua will be making his much-anticipated American debut, as an “epic event” and an almost-certain sellout after it shattered MSG’s pre-sale record. Frazier-Mathis also was a box-office smash, with a paid attendance of 18,906 and a live gate of $658,563, which set a record (long since broken) of $511,000 for the third installment of the Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson trilogy in Miami Beach. For those not fortunate enough to hold tickets for Frazier-Mathis, it was available for viewing elsewhere via closed-circuit, although the fight was blacked out within a 150-mile radius of New York City, making for many angry would-be customers. The nearest cities offering the CC action to those in the restricted area were Philadelphia in one direction, Boston in the other.

*Regardless of the outcome of Joshua-Miller, the winner can’t claim to be the undisputed and absolute king of the heavyweights, since Deontay Wilder still holds the WBC belt as well as a loyal if more limited percentage of global devotees. Frazier-Mathis also was for a few small slices of a very large pie, much of the world and most of the United States still recognizing Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army, as the legitimate heavyweight champion.

*Joshua is a former Olympic gold medalist, having won the super heavyweight portion for the United Kingdom at the 2012 London Games. Frazier took heavyweight gold for the U.S. — as an alternate to the injured Mathis! – at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

*As previously noted, Joshua, the 8½-1 wagering choice, and Miller both come into their showdown undefeated, as was the case when Frazier, a 2-1 favorite, squared off against Mathis. Barring a draw, which would allow Joshua to retain his titles, somebody’s “oh” will have to go.

*Perhaps most significantly, the underdog in each instance was widely perceived, fairly or unfairly, as, well, fat. The 6-foot-4 Miller isn’t called “Big Baby” for nothing; although he has weighed as little as 242 pounds for a bout, that was 6½ years ago. He has tipped the scales at 300-plus for his last three ring appearances and, if he does so again (he was 315¼ pounds for his most recent fight, a fourth-round knockout of Bogdan Dinu on Nov. 17 of last year), he figures to outweigh the 6-6 Joshua anywhere from 45 to 70 pounds. His frame might be a bit more defined than the vintage Mathis, and if you want to describe Miller as large-boned or just sort of chunky, fine. The 6-3 Mathis came in at an almost-svelte 243½ against Frazier, but even so he outweighed his 5-11½ and harder-punching opponent by 39 pounds.

At whichever weight, Mathis understood that no one was going to confuse him with an Adonis. Twice he defeated Frazier in the amateurs, and he was a very jiggly 310 when he outpointed him in the Olympic Trials finals in Flushing, N.Y. He doused Joe’s smoke by winning another four-round decision later on at the Olympic Box-offs in Los Angeles, fighting from midway in the first round with a fractured knuckle on his right hand. The injury kept Mathis, born in Sledge, Miss., as the youngest of eight children but who moved with his family to Grand Rapids, Mich., when he was a child, from representing his country in Tokyo. It pained him considerably when Frazier, in his stead, took the gold medal.

Mathis’ past brushes with Frazier of course added intrigue to their fight for those portions of Ali’s heavyweight realm lifted by organizational decree. Four years had passed since Mathis had twice bested Frazier in the amateurs, and while the oddsmakers figured that the Philadelphian was the wiser play because of the higher quality of his opposition to that point and the fact he packed more power, Mathis trainer Joe Fariello was convinced his guy was destined to disappoint that other Joe again.

“We don’t even think about losing. We haven’t made any plans for that,” Fariello said at Mathis’ training camp in Rhinebeck, N.Y., a village in Duchess County located 100 miles or so from midtown Manhattan. “Somewhere along the line, I have the feeling that Buster will knock him out. If by chance I’m wrong, Buster’s capable of going the distance, more so than the other guy.

“He’s never been on the floor in the amateurs, as a pro or in sparring. That means he’s got to be able to take a punch. I’ve seen him take good punches, too. Leotis Martin hit him on the chin. So did Jose Torres. Frazier got him squarely when they fought in the Olympic Trials.”

Publicly, Mathis expressed the same supreme confidence as Fariello. But privately, a seed of doubt had been planted in his mind and it was gnawing away at him. Out-boxing a still-raw Joe Frazier over four rounds a couple of times in the amateurs was one thing; trying to keep the more-experienced, wiser and just as hard-hitting left-hooking machine from Philly at bay for 15 rounds was quite another.

I spoke to Buster Sr. in August 1994 when he was training his son, Buster Mathis Jr., then 14-0 with three KOs, to take on former champ Riddick Bowe later in the month in Atlantic City, a fight in which Buster Jr. was knocked cold in the fourth round, although the outcome was changed to a no-decision because Bowe’s takeout shot landed with Mathis down on one knee. Buster the elder, even then suffering from a number of physical maladies, admitted he had gone into the Frazier fight with an unshakable sense of foreboding.

“Joe had that big left hook, his .357 Magnum,” Buster, then 51 and back up in the 300-pound-plus range, recalled. “Every second of that fight I was scared. I always knew he could land that Magnum.

“Two people have been living with me for the last 30 years – my wife (Joan) and Joe Frazier. In the quiet hours, when I’m sitting in my chair, lights out, everybody in bed, I think about Joe Frazier. I’ll bet I’ve fought Joe Frazier a million times in my mind. And you know what? I always beat him.

“But you can’t change the facts. You can cry over them when they don’t turn out your way, but you can’t change them. The fact is that when I did fight Joe Frazier, I lost. Got knocked out. I’m not complaining. I’ve had a pretty good life. I was never champion, but I guess everybody can’t get to be champion. I was fortunate enough to get close. That’s more than a lot of people in this business can say.”

Some might say that the “good life” to which Mathis referred could have been much better. His manager, Jim Iselin, one of the three young owners of Peers Management, turned on his fighter as if he had committed an unpardonable sin by losing to Frazier, which in retrospect hardly qualifies as a dishonor.

“It would be only anticlimactic to pursue such a course now,” a miffed Iselin said of his decision to stop distributing the keychains, lighters and buttons that had proclaimed Mathis as the “Next Heavyweight Champ.” “We’re taking Buster’s name off the gym (in Rhinebeck), and we’re taking down all the pictures on the wall. He’s not a prima donna any more.

“He’s going to have to wash dishes if he wants to be fed, and help clean the gym and his room. He either will respond, as did Joe Louis after being knocked out by Max Schmeling, and become a great fighter, or go the other way.”

Nobody can say that Buster didn’t try to shape up. He sweated himself down to a career-low 220½ pounds for his third fight after losing to Frazier, a 10-round split decision over Amos Lincoln on Sept. 5, 1968. But he would never get another shot at a world title, and the mental toughness required for him to overcome his genetic disposition for gaining weight to unhealthy levels soon began to ebb. The son of a 300-pound father and 180-pound mother, the three-pound preemie who had entered the world six weeks earlier than nature intended got picked on a lot as a child until, he said, “one day I woke up and I was a big boy,” one who soon gravitated toward boxing and a slew of might-have-beens.

Throughout his too-large and too-short life, Mathis retained a pleasant demeanor that seemingly was at odds with his brutal profession. In the winter of 1993, Frazier consented to appear at “Buster Mathis Day” in Grand Rapids, an invitation that some fighters would be loath to extend to the man who had extinguished their dreams of greatness. But then Buster Mathis was never one to hold a grudge.

“Joe is the nicest guy in the world,” said Buster, who in a 30-4 (21) career did get another high-visibility, potentially life-changing bout, losing a 12-round, unanimous decision to Ali for the minor NABA heavyweight belt on Nov. 17, 1971, in the Astrodome. “They were going to show a tape of our fight and Joe said, `Don’t let them show the 11th round. This is your day, Buster. Nobody wants to see you get knocked out, including me.’ That touched me to my heart.”

In a perfect world populated by those old enough to remember the way it was and in a position of authority to meld past and present, Buster Mathis and Joe Frazier would be at ringside and maybe to take a bow on June 1, before Joshua and Miller, no doubt unaware of events that had taken place more than a half-century before, did their thing in the ring. But Garden movers and shakers John F.X. Condon and Teddy Brenner have taken their celestial 10-counts, as have Smokin’ Joe, who was 67 when he died of liver cancer on Nov. 7, 2011, and Buster, just 52 when, on Sept. 6, 1995, he succumbed to a witch’s brew of ills that included two strokes, a heart attack that resulted in the installation of a pacemaker, diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney failure.

Maybe Miller, 30, gets to live the dream that never quite came true for Mathis. His attitude appears to be positive enough, with the life-long Brooklyn resident insisting that he’s fighting not only for himself, but for “all the underdogs” in life that have been told they’re “not good enough.”

“Just keep pushing,” said Miller, a harder-edged, harder-hitting replica of Mathis seemingly not possessed of the more gentle nature that might have doomed his forebear, in a professional sense, as much as his legendarily insatiable appetite. “I’ve proven that with hard work and dedication that you can go far.”

Whether it will carry him far enough might depend on just how much of an approximation Anthony Joshua is to Joe Frazier where it counts, inside the ropes.

Photo (AP): Frazier and Mathis flank Emile Griffith who fought Nino Benvenuti in the co-feature.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 82: Jason Quigley Returns to SoCal and More

David A. Avila

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Southern California prizefighting heats up with Jason Quigley headlining a fight card in Orange County and then, two days later, another fight card takes place in the heart of Los Angeles.

Ireland’s Quigley (17-1, 13 KOs) faces Mexico’s Fernando Marin (16-4-3, 12 KOs) on Thursday Jan. 23, at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, Calif. DAZN will stream the Golden Boy Promotions fight card live.

Quigley, 28, seeks to reclaim territory lost when he suffered a defeat last July against Tureano Johnson. Ironically, Marin would lose 10 days later in Hollywood to super welterweight contender Serhii Bohachuk.

For several years Quigley had trained in Southern California but decided to change trainers and location. He moved to Great Britain and still prepares near his native country but primarily fights in the U.S.

At one time Quigley clamored for a match against Gennady “GGG” Golovkin or Saul “Canelo” Alvarez but now finds himself trying to prove he belongs in the upper tier of the middleweight division. It’s loaded with talent.

Also on the same fight card will be popular North Hollywood super welterweight Ferdinand Kerobyan who was headed to contender status when he ran into Blair “the Flair” Cobbs. At the time Cobbs was an unknown quantity but no longer.

Kerobyan (13-1, 8 KOs) meets Azael Cosio (21-8-2) in an eight-round clash in the semi-main event at OC Hangar. Doors open at 5 p.m.

Red Boxing International

On Saturday Jan. 27, Red Boxing International hosts its first boxing card of the year at Leonardo’s Night Club located at 6617 Wilson Ave. L.A. 90001. Doors open at 5 p.m.

Super welterweight Bryan Flores (13-1, 6 KOs) meets Brandon Baue (15-17) in the main event  in the first event of the year for the ambitious promotion company. For the past two years Flores fought primarily in Tijuana, Mexico where he racked up six wins. Now he’s back on Southern California soil.

Another match features lightweights Angel Israel Rodriguez (5-0) facing off against Braulio Avila (3-6) in a six-round fight.

Rodriguez fights out of Pico Rivera, Calif. but recently fought in Costa Rica where he won by first round knockout in November. He will be fighting Avila who just fought two weeks ago at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, Calif.

It’s a long fight card with 11 bouts on the schedule.

JRock and Rosario

Boxing fans received another lesson on never underestimating a ranked contender regardless of the name recognition.

Jeison Rosario knocked out Julian “J Rock” Williams who was making the first defense of the WBA and IBF super welterweight world titles he won last year in my selection as “Fight of the Year.”

Rosario walked in with little recognition and was thought to be a soggy piece of bread for Williams. The long armed Dominican fighter walloped Williams in front of his hometown fans in Philadelphia. It was yet another warning for fans to understand that anyone who steps in the boxing ring ranked as a contender can do the unthinkable. In this case Rosario knocked out the champion in five rounds.

Many felt Williams was far too skilled, especially on the inside where he showcased those skills last May against former titlist Jarret Hurd. It was a remarkable display of the art of inside fighting. But against Rosario, he never got a chance to exhibit those skills.

The loaded super welterweight division has another dangerous champion in Rosario.

Fights to Watch

Thurs. 6 p.m. DAZN – Jason Quigley (17-1) vs Fernando Marin (16-4-3).

Sat. 6 p.m. Showtime – Danny Garcia (35-2) vs Ivan Redkach (23-4-1).

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Recalling Three Big Fights in Miami, the Site of Super Bowl LIV

Arne K. Lang

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The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs collide on Feb. 2 in Miami in Super Bowl LIV (54) in what will assuredly be the biggest betting event to ever play out on American soil. It’s the 10th Super Bowl for the South Florida metropolis which ties it with New Orleans as the most frequent destination for football’s premier attraction.

With its heavily Latin population, Miami would seem to be natural for big fights. However, this hasn’t been the case. Several great champions fought here, including Roberto Duran who twice defended his world lightweight title in these parts, but these weren’t big fights. In the case of Duran, his opponents were lightly regarded and the Panamanian legend was still three years away from his first encounter with Sugar Ray Leonard, a match that increased his name recognition a hundred-fold.

There were, however, three fights in Miami that summoned the interest of virtually all of America’s A-list sportswriters. Here they are in reverse chronological order.

Aaron Pryor vs. Alexis Arguello (Nov. 12, 1982)

Alexis Arguello (72-5) was bidding to become boxing’s first four-division champion. In his way stood WBA junior welterweight title-holder Aaron Pryor (31-0, 29 KOs), a man now widely regarded as the best 140-pound boxer of all time.

Arguello, a Miami resident, having been exiled from his Nicaraguan homeland by the Sandanista rebel occupation, was a textbook boxer who defeated his opponents with surgical efficiency. Pryor was a typhoon. He mowed down his opponents with relentless pressure. It was a great style match-up and it didn’t disappoint. Contested before nearly 30,000 at Miami’s iconic Orange Bowl, Pryor vs. Arguello was a fight for the ages.

“There was power, finesse, poise, courage and a tremendous ebb and flow,” said Associated Press writer Ed Schuyler who dubbed it Manila in Miniature. In the ninth, 11th, and particularly the 13th rounds, Arguello hit Pryor with straight right hands that would have felled an ordinary fighter, but Pryor had an iron chin.

In the 14th, Pryor buckled Arguello’s knees with a straight right hand and then unloaded a furious combination as Arguello fell back against the ropes. He was out on feet when referee Stanley Cristodoulou intervened and he would lay prone on the canvas for several minutes before he could be removed to his dressing room.

Sonny Liston vs. Muhammad Ali (Feb. 25, 1964)

If you happen to find a poster for this fight with the name Muhammad Ali on it, don’t buy it. It’s bogus. Liston met up with Muhammad Ali in their second fight. In their first encounter, Liston opposed Cassius Clay.

Clay’s Louisville sponsors, after a brief flirtation with Archie Moore, settled on Angelo Dundee as his trainer. Angelo operated out of his brother Chris Dundee’s gym located at the corner of 5th Street and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The fighter who took the name Muhammad Ali trained here and kept a home in Miami for most of his first six years as a pro.

Clay/Ali was 22 years old and had only 19 fights under his belt when he was thrust against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Liston was riding a 28-fight winning streak after back-to-back first-round blowouts of Floyd Patterson.

In a UPI survey, 43 of 46 boxing writers picked Liston. “Clay has no more chance of stopping Liston than the old red barn had of impeding a tornado,” wrote Nat Fleischer, the publisher of The Ring magazine.

This would be the first of many famous fights for Muhammad Ali who emerged victorious when Liston quit after the sixth frame citing an injured shoulder. What is not widely known, however, is that the fight, which was shown on closed-circuit in the U.S. and Canada, was a bust at the gate. The 16,448-seat Convention Center was only half full.

The expectation that Liston would take the lippy kid out in a hurry depressed sales, as did sky-high ticket prices ($250 tops when $100 was the norm). And there may have been more subtle factors. “This may not be the best place for a fight between two Negroes,” wrote Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times, cognizant that people of color were not welcome as guests at the ritzy beachfront hotels along Collins Avenue.

Jack Sharkey vs. W. L. (Young) Stribling (Feb. 27, 1929)

A big fight, as I define it, doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. An important fight that produces an upset automatically becomes a bigger fight in hindsight. The Sharkey-Stribling fight of 1929 didn’t draw an immense crowd by Jack Dempsey standards, but the turnout, reportedly 35,000, far exceeded expectations and the fight – which preceded Miami’s first Orange Bowl football game by six years — really established Miami as a potentially good place for a big sporting event.

Promoted by the Madison Square Garden Corporation, the bout was originally headed to a dog racing track but it quickly became obvious that a larger venue was needed. A stadium was erected on a Miami Beach polo field, taking the name Flamingo Park (not to be confused with the thoroughbred track of the same name).

Slated for 10 rounds, the bout was conceived as one of two “eliminators” to find a successor to Gene Tunney who had retired. What gave the fight it’s primary allure, however, was the North-South angle. Sharkey, born Joseph Zukauskas, hailed from Boston. Stribling, born into a family that traveled the fair circuit with a variety act, was from Macon, Georgia.

The fight, which aired on the NBC radio network, was a dud, a drab affair won by Sharkey who had the best of it in virtually every round. Both went on to fight Max Schmeling for the world heavyweight title. Stribling, dubbed the “King of the Canebrakes” by Damon Runyon, lost by TKO in fight that was stopped late in the 15th round. Sharkey took the title from Schmeling on a split decision after losing their first meeting on a foul.

Young Stribling died in a motorcycle crash at age 28, by which time he had engaged in 251 documented bouts, the great majority of which were set-ups. Jack Sharkey lived to be 91.

—-

The strong earnings of the Sharkey-Stribling bout inevitably drew the Madison Square Garden Corporation back to Miami for an encore. On Feb. 27, 1930, Jack Sharkey opposed England’s “Fainting” Phil Scott. Four years later, on March 1, 1834, Primo Carnera defended his world heavyweight title here against former light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran, the Philadelphia Phantom.

Both bouts were big money losers, as were the great majority of major fights during this period. Eight months after the Sharkey-Stribling cash cow, the stock market crashed, plunging the United States into the Great Depression. Few Americans could afford to vacation in Florida, let alone travel anywhere for a big fight.

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Star Power: Ryan Garcia and Oscar De La Hoya at West L.A. Gym

David A. Avila

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Under gray skies and very cool temperatures Ryan Garcia arrived with his father and a couple of others at the Westside Boxing Gym on Monday.

Waiting anxiously were about 100 people comprised of mostly videographers and photographers who had already surrounded Oscar De La Hoya who arrived earlier.

Golden Boy greets the Flash.

Garcia (19-0, 16 KOs) has a fight coming soon against Nicaragua’s Francisco Fonseca (25-2-2, 19 KOs) on Friday Feb. 14, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. The Golden Boy Promotions show will be streamed by DAZN.

“I’m ready for this fight,” Garcia said quickly.

Some say it has been a rather quick road for the fighter from Victorville known as the Flash. But if you ask Garcia, it has been too slow.

“I think he (Garcia) will be world champion this year,” said De La Hoya, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions.

Years ago, De La Hoya arrived with the same hoopla but his travel to the top seemed even faster. By his fifth pro fight he was matched with Jeff Mayweather. Yes, those Mayweathers. At the time Mayweather had fought 27 professional fights and had only two losses. De La Hoya stopped him in four.

In his eighth pro fight De La Hoya met Troy Dorsey, a tough Texan who had formerly held the IBF featherweight world title and who would later win a super featherweight world title. De La Hoya stopped him in one round.

Two years after winning the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, the Golden Boy met WBO world titlist Jimmi Bredahl at the Olympic Auditorium and after dropping him several times finally stopped him in the 10th round. It was De La Hoya’s first world title and he was 21 years old.

Garcia is now 21 and ready to test the loaded lightweight division waters. For a while he was fighting at super featherweight, a division loaded with talent. But lightweights are the Maginot Line when it comes to boxing’s big hitters. Everybody can punch in the 135-pound limit lightweight division.

When Garcia met Romero Duno last November in Las Vegas many expected the speedy Victorville fighter to get his come-uppance. Instead the lanky slugger lit up the strong Filipino fighter and dropped him into the ether world.

It was mesmerizing stuff.

Now he’s back with a load of credibility after shutting down detractors with his devastating knockout win over Duno. It wasn’t supposed to be that easy. Just like it wasn’t supposed to be that easy when De La Hoya raced by world champions like Secretariat did in the Kentucky Derby decades ago. It’s not supposed to be that easy, but for some it truly is.

Garcia seems to be headed for a journey so remarkable that he has other world champions like WBC titlist Devin Haney eyeing him for their next challenges. It barely results in a yawn for the fighter who will be facing a very credible foe in Fonseca next month.

“I’m not even the champion and he’s calling me out,” said Garcia with a whatever kind of look.

Other fighters and promoters can see what Garcia represents and want to get a slice of it too. Its intangible yet most of the boxing world can sense something is coming and Garcia might be part of it.

That’s called star power and it’s difficult to explain. Some have it, many want it and others have no chance of ever attaining it.

Time will tell how far Garcia’s star power will venture.

One man lived that life and, in a sense, still lives that life and that is De La Hoya. Even he senses a déjà vu moment with Garcia.

“It’s why we made him one of the richest young prospects in boxing today,” De La Hoya said.

Expect several thousand ardent fans of Garcia to fill the seats on Valentine’s Day. How else can you explain it but, star power.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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