Danny Garcia: From prospect to top dog in one year's time

Al Bello

One year ago, Danny Garcia was still a junior welterweight prospect looking to make his mark. Now, he's the top fighter in the division. What happened, and how does he keep defying the doubters?

12 months ago, a 23-year-old Danny Garcia scored the biggest win of his career to that point, beating former world titleholder Kendall Holt via 12-round split decision on the Hopkins-Dawson undercard at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

It was a good win. Garcia, a Golden Boy prospect who had dealt with doubters for a good while, scored a strong win over a good fighter. Trouble was, nobody watched that show -- and by "nobody watched that show," I really mean that almost nobody watched that show. 40,000 buys was the figure floated around, making it one of the biggest major pay-per-view bombs of all-time.

Garcia-Holt, as well as an exciting DeMarco-Linares fight, went largely unnoticed because the show was such a dismal flop, which can be easily blamed on a main event few wanted to see, and even less were willing to pay for in the middle of a busy big fight season that included Mayweather-Ortiz, Pacquiao-Marquez III, and Cotto-Margarito II. At the time, I wondered if that run of a major PPV show per month would affect the lot of the shows. It didn't; everyone combined to ignore that one show, and the rest sold well.

Seen or not, Garcia had a solid win, finally. Sure, he'd beaten Nate Campbell, but Campbell hadn't looked good in a while. His most difficult fight up to that point had been against Ashley Theophane in February 2010, a split decision win on ESPN2, in a fight where many felt Theophane deserved to get the nod.

Fast forward a full year, and Danny Garcia is on top of the world -- or at least the world of 140-pound professional fighters. His Saturday night knockout of Erik Morales concluded a breakthrough year in which he went 3-0, with two HBO main events and a Showtime headline gig, beating Morales twice, and in the middle of those fights, smashing Amir Khan in July.

How did he get here? How did a fighter who never seemed like a blue chipper make such a fast climb?

Garcia (25-0, 16 KO) wasn't great against Morales the first time around, back on March 24, but he got the job done and won the fight, overcoming some main event jitters at Reliant Arena in Houston:

It was an emotional moment for Garcia, who broke down in tears after being announced the new holder of the WBC light welterweight belt.

Make no mistake, Garcia had to earn this victory. Morales, the old man and legend, fought hard and was able to bust up the face of Garcia with a sneaky jab and good right hand. For all the concerns over Morales having missed weight and looking soft once again, he was entirely capable against the younger, faster Garcia.

Speed was clearly in the favor of Garcia from the opening bell, but Morales was masterful at times at laying traps and finding ways to get in his power shots. Garcia appeared to be laying back a bit too much in some rounds, allowing Morales to get comfortable in working the jab. In the rounds where Danny's workrate went up, Morales tended to end up with his back along the ropes, eating clean right hands.

When I watched that fight on delay a few hours after the fact, I remained personally unimpressed. Yes, Garcia was a quality young fighter, but did he have a ceiling much beyond beating an old, out of shape version of Erik Morales, and doing so while occasionally being schooled by the faded warrior?

In July, we got an answer to that question, when Garcia beat down Amir Khan in a pretty big upset in Las Vegas:

It was really a hell of a fight, and I think both guys deserve credit. Obviously, first and foremost is Danny Garcia, who won again, still didn't seem to be anything spectacular, but showed exactly what he's made of. The guy's not eye-popping. But he is tough, smart, and crafty at a young age. He can bang, and he can take a shot. He didn't panic when Khan's speed owned the early part of the fight. He just kept looking for that opening, and he found it.

Once again, I couldn't see the special in Garcia, but it finally dawned on me that Garcia may be one of those fighters who does not seem special, but has an "it" factor that keeps him winning. Beating old Morales was one thing. Sparking Khan in four rounds (three, really) was another. This was a young, in-prime, highly-rated fighter, and though Garcia got hit plenty in the first couple of rounds, he stayed right there, stuck to his plan, and won the fight in dramatic fashion.

That night, Danny Garcia arrived for real. Last night, when he turned Erik Morales on a double-180 off of a left hook, sending him crashing to the canvas and halfway out the ring, Garcia did it again. He won the first three rounds, but wasn't dominating, even though Morales was slow, in mediocre condition again, and flat-footed, there to be hit. He didn't get silly -- he waited for his opening, got it, and drove the hook home.

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(Photo by Tom Casino/Showtime)

He put an all-time legend, a great blood-and-guts tough guy, out of commission. Morales says he'll fight once more in Mexico, but he knows it's time to go. Garcia, a fighter he said earlier this year wasn't special after their first fight, flattened him in their second meeting.

Danny Garcia is still just 24 years old, and you can poke holes in his 3-0 run this year if you want to. Morales was old and shot, Khan has a bad chin, all that stuff. But Garcia did what young Pablo Cesar Cano couldn't do in September 2011, and really, what highly-rated Marcos Maidana couldn't do earlier in 2011 when he fought Morales. As for the Khan win, doubt the validity of Khan if you want to, but this is a fighter with clear wins over Maidana, Paulie Malignaggi, Zab Judah, and Andriy Kotelnik. Khan has earned his standing more than many want to admit, and Garcia put him away in four rounds.

Garcia is strong, deceptively quick, and seems to be developing into a smarter puncher all the time. He's picking his shots better, which makes up for a lack of blazing natural hand speed, and while he's hittable defensively, he doesn't get himself into serious trouble, and he seems to have a solid chin to work with, too.

Part of the reason that Garcia has climbed to the top of the 140-pound ranks has been convenience. 2012 saw an exodus of top fighters from the division, with Timothy Bradley, Maidana, and Devon Alexander all moving up to 147, and Juan Manuel Marquez merely making a pit stop at junior welterweight between fights with Manny Pacquiao. Lamont Peterson's upset over Khan last December has been discredited every which way at this point, even if the win stands as official.

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(Photo by Tom Casino/Showtime)

And while Lucas Matthysse and Brandon Rios would seem to be tough stylistic matchups, it's Garcia currently holding two title belts and winning premium cable main events, not those guys. It remains a very good division, and there are dangers out there for Danny, but he's earned the right to say he's the best in the world right now in this weight class.

A year ago, I would never have predicted that I'd call Danny Garcia the world's best junior welterweight in October 2012. But it's a valid claim, earned through victories and improvements, and by making doubters into believers. I'm a believer in Danny Garcia, whether he ever "looks" special or not.

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