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Ryan Garcia’s superstar potential and divisive personality in the spotlight again for boxing return

Ryan Garcia is a budding superstar, or that’s the hope. But he’s also arguably boxing’s most divisive name, and he returns on Saturday.

Ryan Garcia’s return will spark the debates about his potential yet again
Ryan Garcia’s return will spark the debates about his potential yet again
Golden Boy
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Few fighters in recent memory have been as hotly debated as Ryan Garcia, the lightweight prospect/superstar in the Golden Boy stable, who returns to action after a long layoff on Saturday night.

To some, he is an annoying kid, someone who has used social media to make himself a bigger name than his in-ring achievements have earned. With stardom — that is, the ability to sell tickets and command money from broadcast platforms — comes big paydays. Garcia has feuded with Golden Boy more than once over his pay and the way he thought he was being treated by the company, something that has also been divisive among critics and fans. Some believe Garcia is absolutely right to ask for what he thinks he’s worth, especially since he’s worth more than just about anyone with his level of opposition thus far as a professional. Some believe he doesn’t want to earn it the old-fashioned way. Both ideas have some merit.

Once one of boxing’s elite promotional companies, Golden Boy has been left hanging on thanks to a few good, young names, chiefly Garcia, middleweight Jaime Munguia, and welterweight Vergil Ortiz Jr. Canelo Alvarez had kept the company stronger than its depth for a while, but when he had his own harsh split with Golden Boy back in 2020, it left the firm in a tight spot. Not without future, and not without prospects, but lacking a superstar. It’s a company that has been built on anchoring itself to superstar fighters since Oscar De La Hoya left Bob Arum and Top Rank behind over 15 years ago.

Garcia seemed the most likely to become the next guy up, or at least the most likely to get there quickly. Unlike the quieter Munguia and Ortiz, Garcia (21-0, 18 KO) demands attention. It’s what has gotten him to where he is, when his only win of true note is Luke Campbell, an Olympic gold medalist whose pro career never got to the very top, but he was a legitimate contender and a very good fighter.

Before most boxing fans had an idea of who Ryan Garcia was, he’d already attained large followings on social media. It’s a new age, and let’s be honest, boxing promoters are really not good at keeping up with the times. Not to make you groan at yet another comparison, but it’s something that UFC did extremely well as they broke through in popularity. They embraced the modern media culture, first the internet, then everything that came with it. Boxing languished a decade behind the curve for a long, long time, and have only in the last five years or so really started to catch up.

That goes for the fan base, too, in many cases. But that’s also not to say that some of the criticism of Garcia is entirely without merit. The competition has never really challenged him, other than Campbell putting him down in the second round. And when he roared back to stop the Brit in the seventh round on Jan. 2, 2021, there were at least some people who switched over to giving him credit. “Yes,” they said. “Ryan Garcia can fight.”

But almost as quickly as that new “respect” came his way, it evaporated among his headlines from the remainder of 2021. First, he passed on enforcing a mandatory shot at Devin Haney’s WBC lightweight title, after beating Campbell for the interim belt. Then, he canceled a July date with Javier Fortuna, citing mental health reasons. As someone who lives with bipolar disorder, I had no questions about his decision. Boxing is a tough, dangerous sport even when you’re there 100 percent physically and mentally. If either is lacking, and you know it ahead of time, better to address it and come back when you’re ready.

Then there was a cancellation for hand surgery before a planned November fight with Joseph Diaz Jr. And then there was the very public split with trainer Eddy Reynoso and the Canelo team. It was a rough professional year for Garcia after day two, and by the time a return was planned, he had a new trainer in Joe Goossen and the lightweight division looked a hell of a lot different, with George Kambosos Jr the top dog.

His opponent on Saturday is Ghanaian underdog Emmanuel Tagoe (32-1, 15 KO). The 32-year-old Tagoe has done his best to project confidence and try to get into Garcia’s head this week, which Garcia noted on Thursday felt like Tagoe giving himself extra pressure.

“He’s put a lot of pressure on himself,” Garcia stated. “He said if he loses, he’s retiring. He said it’s gonna be easy, this, that. That’s a lot of words to live up to in that ring, when one thing’s for sure, it will not be easy. So we shall see what he brings out.”

He’d said at the media workout earlier in the week that he thinks Tagoe will do his best to survive and simply not get knocked out, and added, “If he can take a shot, it will be a good fight. If he can’t, he will be out of there very quick.”

Ryan Garcia v Luke Campbell Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Tagoe’s attempts to worm his way into Garcia’s head don’t really seem to be working, but then, why would they? By DraftKings Sportsbook’s lines, Garcia is a -1600 favorite, with Tagoe a +850 underdog, and all odds are somewhere in that neighborhood. On paper, if you look past Tagoe’s win-loss record — or deeper into it than how many wins against how many losses — this looks like nothing much more serious than past Garcia fights against the likes of Romero Duno or Francisco Fonseca, and those two guys combined lasted 2 minutes, 58 seconds, not even a single full round.

That said, you have to figure Garcia feels some pressure, too. He’s been out of the ring a while. He heard the backlash in 2021, which came quickly after receiving at least some respect that he may have believed overdue. In a way, it feels now as though he hit the reset button on his career last spring. He’d fought to a spot for an ordered, mandatory world title fight, and he didn’t take it. Then, he didn’t take two more fights that were planned.

I don’t know that he takes the outsider critics too seriously, but even if he doesn’t, there will be the pressure to prove he’s made the right choices — to take time off, to change trainers, to hit that reset button for a year. Even if it’s more about proving it to himself than anyone else, that’s still pressure, maybe even tougher than caring what anyone else thinks.

Personally, I’m of the belief that Ryan Garcia is at least close to the talent he’s been sold to be, by which I mean I think he’s pretty damn good with the potential to be genuinely great. But I understand the questions about him. About his commitment to “being great” in the sport, about how much he wants or even needs a dangerous job like boxing. About how serious he is about fighting the others considered top tier names in his division.

Garcia’s got the potential. He’s got the star quality. And he’s now at a point where he’s been headlining long enough that people expect more. Saturday won’t be the test. But it will be a return, and hopefully, a first step toward facing someone bigger. Maybe the Kambosos-Haney winner. Maybe Tank Davis, whose Mayweather Promotions deal will be up soon, which could potentially free him up for a lot of fights people have wanted to see.

As Garcia says, we shall see.

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