Doug Fischer

Garcia finds his calling as a trainer

Robert Garcia (right), whose stable includes featherweight titleholder Steven Luevano (left), is quickly becoming one of the sport's top young trainers. Photo / Scott Killbride

For a guy who hadn’t seriously considered training fighters for a living until about six years ago, Roberto Garcia is doing quite well.

Along with his father Eduardo, Garcia currently trains featherweight beltholder Steven Luevano, junior flyweight titleholder Brian Viloria, unbeaten lightweight slugger Brandon Rios, and younger brother Miguel Angel, an undefeated featherweight prospect.

The former junior lightweight titleholder from Oxnard, Calif., has recently been asked to assist the training of former flyweight titleholder Nonito Donaire and welterweight fringe contender Alfonso Gomez. He also coaches a couple of nationally ranked amateur boxers.

Garcia’s ever-growing stable of fighters has forced him to leave the beloved but cramped confines of La Colonia Boxing Club and open up his own gym, the Oxnard Boxing Academy, a two-story facility on the southeast side of Oxnard that may soon be known a house of champions if his success continues.

Garcia has won seven consecutive bouts with both Luevano (37-1-1, 15 knockouts) and Viloria (26-2, 15 KOs) and on January 23 his two prize pupils will defend their world titles. Luevano faces undefeated 122-pound titleholder Juan Manuel Lopez in an HBO-televised main event in New York City, while half a world away in Manila, Philippines, Viloria will take on Colombia’s Carlos Tamara.

Garcia was torn as to whose corner he should work as both fighters are in pivotal points of their careers. Viloria, who won his second world title last April, has only recently regained his world-class form after a long comeback from his last loss (against Edgar Sosa in 2007) that began with Garcia. Luevano, who has fought in near obscurity during the past decade, has finally secured an HBO date against much-ballyhooed opponent.

Garcia finally decided to work Viloria’s corner and leave Luevano in the very capable hands of his father but the choice wasn’t easy.

“I never thought I would be in difficult situation like that,” Garcia said. “I never thought I’d be a good enough trainer to have two champs. I never thought I’d train fighters at all.”

That’s an odd statement from a guy who began boxing competitively at age eight, especially considering that Garcia’s father thrust La Colonia and Oxnard onto the boxing landscape by guiding him and Fernando Vargas to professional world titles in the mid-to-late 1990s and continues to run a successful amateur program in the busy port town north of Los Angeles.

One would think that becoming a trainer would be a natural choice for Garcia once he retired from boxing, almost like taking over a family business. However, the sport he dedicated his life to was no longer in his heart when he finally hung up his gloves 8½ years ago.

“My son, Roberto Jr., was three years old when I won my title (with a unanimous decision over Harold Warren in March of 1998), my other son Eduardo was a still baby,” Garcia said. “I defended the title twice and then lost it to Diego Corrales (by seventh-round stoppage in October 1999), and the camps for those fights took me away from my boys.

“I missed Roberto’s first day of school. I missed the soccer games they played in. I missed a part of their childhood and it hurt me. I was signed by Top Rank and managed by Oscar De La Hoya when I was just 5-0. Oscar wanted me to train with him up in Big Bear (Calif.) and fight on his undercards, and that was a great opportunity for me, but it seemed like I was always away from family, in camps, from the start of my pro career.”

Garcia lost his passion for boxing after a heartbreaking final-round TKO loss to Ben Tackie in June of 2000 and a failed title challenge to Joel Casamayor in January of 2001. He fought once more after the Casamayor loss, a fourth-round stoppage of journeyman John Trigg on the undercard of Vargas-Shibata Flores at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas in September of 2001.

“I made my decision to quit boxing during the second round of the Trigg fight,” Garcia said. “When I came back to my stool after that round I couldn’t hear my father‘s instructions. I just looked around the ring and the arena and I asked myself ‘Why am I here? This is not my thing anymore. I don’t want this.’

“I didn’t want to be there. The feeling was so strong that I felt like getting up and walking out of the ring. I probably would have done it if I wasn’t fighting on a Fernando Vargas card and so many people from Oxnard were there.

“After the fight, everybody was celebrating and having a good time in the dressing room while I sat quiet. I finally said ‘That’s it. No more fighting for me.’ Everybody was shocked, except for my dad. He told me ‘I’m glad you made this choice, son. You won a world title. You won 34 fights, 25 by knockout, and had only three losses. We had a good career. You should be proud. Remember that.”

Garcia was 26 when he retired.

While he was still a titleholder he often talked about retiring at age 25 and pursuing a career as a police officer, but his real desire was to work with the youth of Oxnard.

“I took the exams to become an officer, but I wanted to work at the high schools and with the PAL programs,” Garcia said. “When I found out that I would have to patrol the streets for two to three years before I could do that I kind of lost my interest in a law enforcement career.”

Eduardo Garcia trained many kids at La Colonia gym and at his behest Roberto began working with the mostly at-risk youth.

“I started helping out my dad at the gym and at that time two of my best friends, Arturo Baraza and Felipe Campa, were professional boxers,” Garcia said. “I began training them and working their corners and by traveling with them I saw a different side of the sport.

“I found out that boxing was totally different as a trainer. I wasn’t on a diet. I didn’t have to worry about making weight the week of the fight. I didn’t have to be in bed by 8 p.m. And if I was in Vegas, I could go out. It was fun!

“I won five fights with Campa in 2002 and 2003 and started thinking that maybe I could be good trainer.”

Garcia also accompanied his father to the many amateur shows that his younger brother Miguel Angel and his nephews, David and Javier, participated in. It was at the national tournaments that Garcia met Victor Ortiz, a Kansas standout who was without a trainer or a stable home environment.

The Garcias took Ortiz, then 16, into their Oxnard home and trained him for the duration of his amateur career. When it was time for Ortiz to turn pro, Garcia took him to veteran manager Cameron Dunkin, who signed the hard-punching southpaw and soon added Ortiz’s Kansas-area amateur chum Rios to Garcia’s suddenly budding pro stable.

Both young fighters developed into hot prospects under Garcia’s guidance but in early 2008 Ortiz severed his ties to Dunkin and switched trainers (to Robert’s older brother Danny). Garcia learned that training fighters has its downside, but he took the loss of Ortiz in stride.

“I’ve been in boxing my whole life,” he said. “I see fighters and managers and trainers fight and split all the time. It’s just part of the sport.”

Garcia had his hands full without Ortiz. Dunkin decided to try out Luevano with Garcia in 2007 and the pairing paid off as the two traveled to London, England in July of that year where the La Puente, Calif., native stopped Nicky Cook for a 126-pound title. Manager Gary Gittelsohn did the same with Viloria in early 2008 with similar results after five fights with the young trainer.

“I got back to the basics with Robert,” Viloria said. “We just worked on fundamentals for a lot of those undercard bouts we had. He helped me get back what I lost, my aggressive nature and overall conditioning. I had the tools but I didn’t have the conditioning to use them in the later rounds.”

The proof of Garcia’s good work is that Viloria, who was out-hustled in the late rounds of his two losses, knocked out respected Mexican veteran Ulises Solis in the 11th round to win his second world title.

“When I have one of my fighters in against a Garcia-trained fighter I know their guy is going to be ready to fight and go the distance,” said Freddie Roach, who trained Viloria to his first world title. “I think Robert’s done a good job with Brian. It seemed like it took a while for him to get his confidence back but they fit well together and I think he’s getting better with each fight. I think Robert’s done a great job with Brandon Rios, too. I love watching that kid fight.”

Veteran trainer Joe Goossen, who trained Tackie and Casamayor when Garcia fought them, isn’t surprised that he has become one of the best young trainers in the sport.

“I used to train his older brother Danny and Robert, back when he was nine years old, would sometimes come out to my old gym,” Goossen said. “Little Robert would come in and shadow box and hit the bags and even back then he was a heck of a technician.

“Flash forward to right before he won his world title, he was sparring at my new gym and I was blown away by his rock-solid technique. He had all the fundamentals down. He had great footwork, he was defensively adept, he punched in amazingly accurate combinations to the body and head and his hands came back to position so fast.

“He was obviously taught right by his father and I think he learned from his brother too. I think he just absorbed a lot of information about technique and how styles matchup and strategy from all the years he spent as an amateur and all the years he spent as a gym rat. He may not have known it at the time but he’s had a hell of a start for a trainer with all of his experience inside and outside of the ring. He’s a worldly guy for his age.”

At age 34, Garcia is finally comfortable in his roll as a trainer. Although he’s young enough to think about making a comeback to the ring, he says the thought never crosses his mind.

“I never get the desire to go back into the ring,” he said. “I might run, I might hit the bags every now and then, but I never spar. I never think about fighting. That’s not me anymore. I’m about enjoying my kids and my family, which includes my fighters. They are like family to me and they get along and encourage each other like brothers.”

Garcia says he’s satisfied with his boxing family for now but is open to extending it in the near future.

“After I worked Alfonso Gomez’s corner for his last fight (a technical decision over Jesus Soto-Karass on the Pacquiao-Cotto undercard), I saw Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in the dressing room,” Garcia said. “He called me over to him and asked me for my number. I didn’t have a pen or paper so he ordered his cornermen to take my number down, which they didn’t seem too happy about. While this was happening, Soto-Karass’ manager Francisco Espinosa, who co-manages Antonio Margarito, approached me and asked: ‘Are you ready for Margarito?’

“So I would never think about boxing again. Things are happening for me as a trainer. Training Chavez Jr. or Margarito may not happen, but just to have my name out there means a lot to me.”

Doug Fischer can be reached at dougiefischer@yahoo.com

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