In late 2020, both Mikey Garcia and Sandor Martin made appearances on DAZN. Late in October of that year, Garcia made an appearance as a guest of honor at the Juan Francisco Estrada-Carlos Cuadras fight at the TV Azteca Studios in Mexico City. Garcia, visibly above his fighting weight, did a lengthy interview in the ring with WBC boss Mauricio Sulaiman to help the broadcast kill time.
Garcia was so noticeably heavier than normal that Sulaiman at one point joked about Garcia’s weight and gestured towards his stomach. The two shared a laugh as Garcia explained that he’d been a little less active, as many people had, during the early days of the pandemic shutdown.
A few weeks earlier, Sandor Martin was in the ring on a DAZN broadcast as well, in his case, facing the 19-year old Nestor Mariadaga. Not much was made of the bout. Martin was the reigning European super lightweight champion, but no fighter had gone on to win a world title after holding that belt since Junior Witter achieved that feat in 2006 (Soulemayne M’Baye won the EBU crown after a brief reign as a world titleholder), so the boxing public had been conditioned to think that fighters with that title had more than likely peaked. Martin stayed busy, defeating the 8-9-1 Mariadaga in an empty venue in Italy and returned to obscurity as far as the global boxing audience was concerned.
But what we saw on those nights may have ultimately decided the outcome this past Saturday, when Martin scored a shocking majority decision victory over Garcia in the main event of a DAZN event from Fresno, CA.
Garcia is one of the most accomplished fighters of this era, a four-division world champion, having won world titles at featherweight, junior lightweight, lightweight and junior welterweight. His claim to being a four-division champ is not as flimsy as some others’ is either: Garcia was the Ring Magazine champion at featherweight, and lineal champion at 140 as well. However, his career has been marred by lengthy layoffs at various stages. There was a two-year hiatus as he battled his former promoter Top Rank in litigation, a year layoff between his first loss to Errol Spence and subsequent return at welterweight against Jessie Vargas, and most recently, a 20-month layoff coming into this bout.
As a supremely gifted operator who has been renowned for his boxing IQ, Garcia has always bounced back well after layoffs. A combination of his preternatural boxing instincts and the fact that he’d grown up in the sport had always allowed him to just come back and figure it out. However, it is likely not a coincidence that on the same night he looked his physical worst, he turned in the worst performance of his career. Though he had clearly worked hard to shed his pandemic weight, his body looked like one of a fighter who fought to make the weight more so than he trained to fight. Garcia’s frame, though never one built to welterweight, was void of much definition.
For much of the fight, Garcia slowly shuffled forward, putting himself in the positions where he would once batter opponents with one of the sport’s best jabs, and was instead beat to the punch and danced around by Martin.
Martin’s approach wasn’t anything particularly complicated, especially for an astute mind like Garcia. As a southpaw, he fought a hand battle with Garcia’s left jab hand, which frustrated Garcia who is used to dictating the pace with his own lead hand. Garcia adapted by keeping his left hand closer to his face and trying to surprise Martin with his jab, but Martin repeatedly beat Garcia with a quick check right hook when he tried. Some of Martin’s best shots were landed when he walked Garcia into a trap, backing himself to the rope, slipping Garcia’s jab and ricocheting off the ropes with a right hook and spinning back out to the center of the ring.
A few times during the fight, particularly in the 9th round, Garcia tried to up the tempo and simply overwhelm Martin, something a fighter of a markedly higher skill level generally is able to do. But he couldn’t sustain the tempo for long enough to put Martin in any kind of trouble at any point in the fight.
Garcia’s problems in the ring, and the reasons why he looked that way could be explained in the exact same fashion: He wasn’t busy enough.
If both fighters were at their peak, Mikey Garcia would beat Sandor Martin. Oddsmakers assume fighters are going to be on top form when they set the betting lines, and for this fight, made Garcia a 10-1 favorite, implying a less than 10% probability of a Martin victory.
Even when they’re in suboptimal condition, fighters as good as Garcia generally find a way to win anyway. And the sad reality is that even when they don’t deserve to, the gravitational pull that often drags judges’ pencils to the A-side on their scorecards bails them out. But on certain special nights, the B-side is good enough and the A-side unconvincing enough that the result can be nothing but the appropriate one, which is what happened on this night.
In a backwards way, Martin benefitted from not being as successful as Garcia has been to this point. Euopean champions don’t command the same amount of money as world champions (Garcia pocked a reported $1.5 million for this fight while Martin made $150,000), meaning they’re compelled to fight more often. EBU title fights are generally well-matched 12-rounders, and when those don’t materialize, top level European fighters often take stay-busy fights like Martin did against Mariadaga to help pad the annual envelope.
In recent years, particularly in early 2020, Garcia mentioned thinking about retirement. As his career has gone on, Garcia has also become more and more vocal about fighter safety. In 2014, he attended a summit at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at the United States Capitol, in support of furthering research into preventing brain damage and mental risks in competitive activity. In a 2017 interview I conducted with Garcia for Showtime Sports, he spoke candidly about wanting fans to have more compassion for fighters who throw in the towel during fights. It is possible that Garcia has been more judicious with the fights he takes as he’s considered the risks of the sport more seriously over time. He has figured out that he doesn’t have to fight for less than a million dollars, and that is he is going to incur those risks, it should come with a hefty price tag.
Martin hasn’t had that same financial cushion or the ability to make that judgment call if he wants to support himself with boxing, and as a direct result of that, simply came into this fight more prepared than Garcia did.
These types of upsets are upsets for a reason. They’re shocking, and they don’t happen very often, but they do happen. There are parallels, perhaps, between this bout and Roberto Duran’s 1982 loss to Kirkland Laing. Duran at the time was two years removed from the No Mas fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, and coming off a loss to Wilfred Benitez for the 154-pound title. His move up in weight was due to his struggles with fitness, and he weighed in at 155 against Laing, who hit the scales at less than 150 pounds himself. Laing, who like Martin, peaked as a European champion, outworked and outboxed Duran and scored the Upset of the Year.
Laing would never reach greater heights, sticking around in the British, Commonwealth and European title pictures for many years, but never truly capitalizing on his magical night.
Duran, meanwhile, used the night as a wakeup call. His promoter Don King dumped him, and he went to Bob Arum and willingly took an off-TV walkout bout on the Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello card for 25K to get back into form. Two fights later, he turned in one of his finest performances, an eight-round drubbing of Davey Moore for a 154-pound title.
Although Martin’s victory may wind up in the record books as 2021’s Upset of the Year, it doesn’t have to be the end of Garcia’s career story, merely the start of a new chapter. Garcia may not be able to command a million dollars next time out, but if he can rekindle his passion the way Duran did, he can get back to the big pay window with a couple victories over the next year or two.
Is that something he’s willing to do?
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman