Whatever Robert Garcia sees from the corner when Anthony Joshua fights Oleksandr Usyk on 20 August in Jeddah, it won’t be the craziest heavyweight bout he has ever watched live.
When he was still fighting, the Mexican-American was on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s rematch with Evander Holyfield – AKA the bite fight – and it’s safe to say Garcia knocking out Angel Aldama in round five is not what that night is remembered for.
Now, 25 years on, Garcia is the perhaps surprising choice to help another heavyweight puncher win back his world titles after a first-fight upset against a former cruiserweight great.
Plenty for the trainer to get his teeth into, as he’ll have had less than three months working with Joshua before they try to pull off this turnaround – but at least the 47-year-old has impeccable credentials. A former super-featherweight world champion nicknamed ‘Grandpa’ (not the most intimidating nickname in boxing history, but then nor is ‘AJ’), Garcia’s training exploits have surpassed his impressive in-ring CV from him.
He has coached 14 world champions and while an early knock against him is that he has never trained a heavyweight, Garcia’s past exploits can give Joshua fans hope. Firstly, because he is a pragmatist who adjusts what he wants from each fighter he works with.
Great news, because there is no time to rebuild AJ from the ground up, as the legendary Manny Steward famously did with Lennox Lewis then Wladimir Klitschko. Not with Joshua 32 years old and their first match together being the challenge of defeating a man who outboxed and outfought him last time out.
Garcia is a trainer of tweaks and adjustments rather than tearing down what was there before. But crucially his charges of him tend to be aggressive – and he has vital experience in turning around the careers of boxers on a downward spiral.
Perhaps Garcia’s most famous claim project was Marcos Maidana, a rugged, unorthodox puncher who had lost his two biggest fights against Amir Khan and Devon Alexander when he was turned to the BWA Trainer of the Year in late 2012.
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Garcia immediately set about correcting flaws in Maidana’s footwork and balance – and making subtle adjustments to his punching technique. The result was a four-fight winning streak culminating in Maidana pulling off an upset against previously unbeaten Adrien Broner, taking his 147lb world title. The Argentine then gave Floyd Mayweather Jr a handful of unexpected trouble in their first fight, earning a lucrative rematch.
The trainer has pulled off other world title upsets with Abner Mares, Brian Viloria and Steve Luevano – ideal for Joshua, who will step into the ring as an underdog for the first time in his pro career in Saudi Arabia.
Technical alterations will help, but one area where Garcia can really make a difference is an attitude adjustment (of the non-John Cena variety). If Garcia’s stable of past fighters have one thing in common, it’s that nearly all of them are aggressors of one style or another.
Garcia’s confidence is infectious and it’s easy to see why – after Joshua traveled to the US and spoke to Virgil Hunter, Ronnie Shields and Eddy Reynoso – the Brit decided on Garcia.
AJ came in with a bizarre game plan in the first Usyk fight, seemingly bent on outboxing the brilliant southpaw rather than attempting to leverage his advantages in size, strength and power. Make no mistake, Garcia will not be training Joshua to perform a 12-round boxing clinic as he did in avenging his first pro defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr in 2019.
“Bring back the will to go out and hurt people,” Garcia has said of the primary thing he wants to alter in Joshua. “The need to come back and go in there with no… I don’t want to say ‘fear’, but… More believing in himself.”
Garcia has talked up Joshua’s ‘insane power’ and clearly whatever technical tweaks are being made in camp, the main switch will be in outlook and mental approach. “He needs to have that mentality, the killer instinct,” Garcia said. “It sounds bad to say it, but in the ring you want to hurt your opponent.”
One of the most worrying elements of Joshua’s performance in the first fight is that, while he did land a few telling blows in the middle rounds, it was Usyk’s left hand that caused AJ’s legs to buckle. Joshua will have to establish his power from him but he’s unlikely to go all guns blazing from the first bell. Abner Mares once said he assumed Garcia trained fighters ‘to brawl and fight on the inside’ – until he worked with him before his surprise win over Jesus Cuellar, and the first thing Garcia began with was adjusting Mares’ feet.
Garcia has also said that one thing Joshua’s camp liked when they first spoke was that he had watched Usyk train, day in, day out. Before Usyk fought Michael Hunter in 2017, his great mentor Anatoly Lomachenko was based in Garcia’s gym in Oxnard, California – so Usyk headed there to spar and prepare. Garcia got a chance then to watch Usyk up close.
However, the location of Garcia’s gym is another talking point ahead of Usyk-Joshua 2. The fact that Joshua has brought Garcia over to the UK to help him train – alongside Angel Fernandez – appears questionable. If Joshua really wanted to get out of his comfort zone, why not train in the US surrounded by Garcia’s stable and in his gym? A risk, in that he’s never done it before, but it would follow the pattern of Lewis going to Steward or Manny Pacquiao basing himself at Freddie Roach’s Wild Card gym when they first hooked up.
As DAZN commentator Mike Costello asks: “If he did believe so deeply in Robert Garcia why didn’t he move to California to work out? It’s my view that he put an awful lot of time in Sheffield where the Olympic team are, and he is treated in godlike fashion… I’ve always felt he needed to get somewhere rougher, where everyone has a professional mindset and it’s harsher, it’s harder.”
Hard enough is trying to rebuild Joshua’s self-belief, mindset and approach in just one camp. Most of the great reconstruction projects of the past, from Steward with Lewis and Klitschko to Roach with Pacquiao, have taken time to click. By bringing Garcia to the UK, partnering him with Fernandez, and quickly asking him to create a heavyweight capable of beating Usyk is a big ask.
As fine a trainer as Robert McCracken is, it’s clear Joshua needed a new voice in the corner. And Garcia has a decade-plus experience in putting together winning game plans in world title bouts.
The concern is that even a trainer telling AJ all the right things – that he needs to be less tentative, to set up and land his bombs without being gung-ho – might not be able to cut through right from their first fight together.
‘The Rage on the Red Sea’ sounds less of a fight, more like a ride in a Disney theme park. But Usyk is the exact opposite of a Mickey Mouse champion. If Garcia and Joshua can pull this off, it will be the greatest feat of both of their careers.
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