'Boxing never lies': Ryan Garcia ready to prove he's more than a social media star

Check out Ryan Garcia's ridiculously quick hands (0:18)

Boxer Ryan Garcia shows off his quick hands with some rapid punches. (0:18)

SAN DIEGO -- It's not what I'd expect of a Gen Z playlist, much less from a fighter losing himself in the imagined aggressions of shadowboxing: "Married Life," better known as the theme from "Up," Debussy's "Clair de Lune" and Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G major.

"It calms me down," Ryan Garcia says. "I need that."

The notes are so soft, but Garcia looks to be throwing everything hard.

"It just looks hard because it's so easy for me," he says. "I could throw this hook a million times and not get tired."

I ask about the hook that took out Francisco Fonseca 80 seconds into the first round last Valentine's Day. It wasn't remarkable for the power as much as for its length and slight curvature, like a corkscrew.

"I learned that from watching Sugar Ray Robinson," says Garcia, 20-0 with 17 knockouts. "We have the same body type."

By now, the kid's playlist has hit a stretch of inspirational Christian music. I remind him of his expressed intention to punish Luke Campbell -- a veteran lightweight contender he'll meet Jan. 2 in Dallas -- beginning with the ruination of the Englishman's eye socket. Doesn't sound very Christian to me.

"He disrespected me off when he said my fans couldn't fight for me," says Garcia, who nevertheless concedes, "Like I said, sometimes I need to calm down."

Garcia looks to the fight with Campbell, a rangy southpaw with an Olympic gold medal, as the one that will announce him as a force in what has quickly become boxing's hottest and youngest division. He returns to shadowboxing, apparently lost in the music, but only for a moment. There's something he wants to clarify.

"All jokes aside," he says. "I'm praying for him."

For Luke Campbell, he means.

It's an odd remark from a fighter. Then again, if you judge merely by looks -- like so many of the "casuals" who constitute the bulk of Garcia's 7.8 million Instagram followers -- you'd never know he was a fighter. At 22, Garcia has been in the ring since he was 7. After that long, even young boxers usually show signs: ridges or trace threads of scar tissue, a blunting of the features. Not Garcia, though, who looks as if he stepped out of an anime cartoon, right down to his perfectly contoured GI Joe beard.

"I'm serious," he says. "I pray that Luke Campbell is OK after this fight. I pray that Luke Campbell is able to walk."

Garcia trains under Eddy Reynoso, the precocious dean of Mexican trainers, at a nameless gym leased by Garcia's idol, Canelo Alvarez, the current standard-bearer for Mexican fighters. He is promoted by a man he used to idolize, Oscar De La Hoya, who is Mexican American. But Garcia, out of Victorville, California, doesn't speak Spanish, nor does he feel the need to fake it. He is a purely American conception: a creature of youth and ambition with an opportunistic fluency in the latest technology.

Garcia is not getting Campbell because he waited for a promoter or a network to smile upon him and declare him deserving. Rather, he leveraged those 7.8 million followers (and another 722,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel) to make it happen. It wasn't by accident but by design. If Garcia makes good on his master plan -- to be, as he puts it "the last greatest boxer of all time" -- it will be, in great measure, because he used Instagram as Muhammad Ali once used Howard Cosell and Floyd Mayweather used "24/7."

The question, of course, is can he fight?

"I'm going to find out -- this fight," he says. "We're all going to find out."

Under the tutelage of his father, Henry -- a jazz pianist who boxed as a kid back in Chicago -- Ryan was a top-tier amateur, winning 15 national titles. Joe Goossen, the veteran Southern California trainer, recalls a teenager with a ready-made pro style: "He needed to learn the inside game, and how to bump with guys up close, but he wrecked a lot of people in the gym. What was special? Anything he threw with the left hand, but especially that shot to the liver. You have to take a risk to throw it like he does, from a distance. But Ryan could deliver it so quickly. He didn't need to wind up."

Garcia was 18, already 6-0 as a pro, when De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions signed him. Still, nothing in his résumé suggested superstardom until Aug. 13, 2017.

It was just a post of him working on a Ringside Cobra bag -- basically a speed bag mounted on a coil spring. His father has had him on it since he was very young. He said it would help Ryan's timing and speed. Over the years, it became his favorite thing to hit.

That joy -- expressed in a rhythmically powerful beat -- is evident in the video. It's just 38 seconds, and received "only" (Garcia's adverb) 455,000 views. But it changed his life.

"The first day I went viral," he says.

On Sept. 16, he posted the entirety of his 11th fight, which lasted 30 seconds and consisted, mainly, of two punches on two knockdowns, the finale being a lightning long left hook. That one got more than 962,000 views.

Garcia could sense he was in the midst of a change -- not in himself but the idea of him, the way people saw him. "I was looking for something," he says.

A way to complete the transition.

"Put on that body protector," he told his brother, Sean, two years Ryan's junior.

Sean, now 5-0 as a pro featherweight, did as instructed.

"I'm going to hit you as hard as I can," said Ryan, before whaling away.

"Dude!" Sean protested. "You're hitting me hard."

That was the idea, right? So much for the dress rehearsal. Now, the real thing. "Make it look even more dramatic," Ryan said.

They sold the hell out of it: handsome big brother apparently pounding kid brother into submission in the family garage in Victorville.

Finally, a million views.

A star was born.

"I don't care if they say it's fake," Garcia says. "I knew that's what people want to see."

Three years hence, rappers and YouTubers still beg to be on the receiving end of what Garcia christened "The Body Shot Challenge."

"It wasn't because I love Instagram," he says. "It was for my boxing career. I had a vision."

That vision didn't merely change his life. Judging from acts as varied as Mike Tyson's "comeback" to YouTuber Jake Paul's pay-per-view knockout of former NBA player Nate Robinson -- it has changed the game itself.

"I knew Nate Robinson was going to get knocked out," Garcia says. "Jake visited me like four years ago, before I was even big on the internet. He wanted to know how boxing works. He's been at this for a while now. He has an eye for what stuff is going to be big."

Garcia's associations with the cyber fabulous, the beefcake ab shots on his Instagram feed and the apparently endless emoji stream of heart eyes to be found among his comments don't exactly endear him to real-life boxing people or hard-core fans. He gets it; they don't. But that's the point.

"The casual fans love me. They don't care if your hands are up, if your feet are moving, if you're slipping or dodging," he says. "People want to see knockouts. They want to see home runs. They want to see ass whuppings.

"Where I hear the hate is from the boxers and the coaches, who for some reason want to see me fail. But they underestimate me. That's what I want them to see. Their hate and envy blinds them into the shots I'm setting up."

What makes a good post? I ask.

"You need three elements," he says. "I have to go my fastest. I have to go my hardest. I have to do something amazing."

And what else?

"I make sure I look good."

Garcia belongs to one of boxing's time-honored archetypes: the Pretty Boy. The last great one, of course, was his former idol and current promoter, De La Hoya. It wasn't an easy role for De La Hoya. He was from East L.A. but not of East L.A. He was special -- destined for Olympic glory, and effectively cloistered from neighborhood life.

De La Hoya never quite fit in. I remember him telling me -- at the Riviera Country Club, of all places -- that he never even had a street fight. Mexican fans -- whose respect he so coveted -- thought him too white, and the hard-cores dismissed him, inexcusably, as a candy-ass crossover. On the eve of his lightweight title fight with the great Genaro "Chicanito" Hernandez, De La Hoya visited his alma mater, Garfield High. The crowd threw eggs at him. De La Hoya wanted to be loved, and he wanted to get paid. His quest to achieve both proved impossible.

But a quarter century later, Garcia knows exactly whom he antagonizes and why he's doing it. He understands -- kind of like Mayweather -- that haters pay the bills.

What he can't figure out is De La Hoya. After almost five years with Golden Boy -- public feuds, a conciliation and new contract last summer -- he says: "There's a front, but I don't know who Oscar really is. I haven't gotten close to him, to keep it frank. We still haven't had that breakthrough moment. Maybe we will, but right now, the whole Canelo situation caused a rift because I'm closer to Canelo."

The "situation," as he euphemizes it, deteriorated into a bitter feud, with a corresponding lawsuit. Last year, Alvarez famously told The Athletic that De La Hoya has "no loyalty in him." This year, he finally broke free of his contract, leaving Garcia as the marketable jewel in De La Hoya's stable.

"All the stuff people are telling you? Those are lies, some of it. But when you get in the ring, that's the truth. Boxing never lies. Who you really are will come out in the ring." Ryan Garcia on social media compared to boxing

I remember De La Hoya -- around the same age Garcia is now -- telling me how difficult it was for him to trust people, and describing the complexities in navigating his then-peculiar brand of fame. "Same with me," Garcia says. "Sometimes people want to force me to be something I'm not. ... I think I could relate to some things he's gone through. I think he has a lot of knowledge I could use."

Garcia endured his own adolescent trials. The confidence he had in the gym abandoned him in school. He says he was bullied. At 17, he experienced anxiety attacks. But it's nothing he has ever discussed with his erstwhile idol.

"I went to his house one time," Garcia recalls. "He took me on a tour of the place. But there was just something I didn't feel. Not in what he was saying, but in his genuine feelings. ... I think he wants to have a closer relationship. He just doesn't know how ... I don't know whether it was the fame. Can he get close to people? I think it would be hard for him. Maybe he's been screwed over. Or maybe when he has opened up, he fails people. But I don't know him. I don't know where his heart really lies."

De La Hoya, after hearing Garcia's take on their relationship, responds: "I see a lot of similarities between Ryan and myself: success at a youthful age, the ability to cross over beyond the hard-core boxing fans. ... I want to help him to navigate the opportunities that come with being special, but I always want to be respectful of letting him be his own individual.

"I would 100 percent welcome a beautiful conversation with him about being a young star, a young man with money, a young man with whispers in his ears. ... Having experienced it myself, having my own fame and glory ... it's a world of seclusion, a world of being careful ... at the same time, I have to understand I'm Ryan's promoter. It's not my obligation to give him personal advice. It's my obligation to take him to the top and to the biggest stage and give him the biggest opportunities."

As for the Canelo "situation," De La Hoya adds, citing his young star's crossover appeal and ability: "I strongly feel that Ryan is going to be 10 times bigger than Canelo."

If De La Hoya's 20-something self played a role to please others, Garcia is playing a role of his own design. He points at his phone.

"That?" he says, "all the stuff people are telling you? Those are lies, some of it. But when you get in the ring, that's the truth. Boxing never lies. Who you really are will come out in the ring."

It's the ring, he says -- and not social media -- that will soon reveal his great glories.

He's talking about something bigger than Campbell. Garcia is already way ahead of himself.

I suggest Teofimo Lopez, just a year older than Garcia but already having taken custody of four lightweight belts when he beat Vasiliy Lomachenko in October. Not only has Lopez just been named The Ring's co-fighter of the year but he has taken to calling Garcia "The Model." What could be better?

"It will happen," he says. "But Lopez is just another boxing match."


What about Devin Haney, owner of the WBC lightweight belt, who last beat Garcia in the 2015 youth nationals in Reno?

"Just another boxing match."

What then?

"I need to defeat Tank Davis," he says. "My legacy starts with Tank. I want him next."

At 26, Gervonta Davis is a compact southpaw and four-time world champion coming off a spectacular knockout of Leo Santa Cruz. A couple of years ago, Davis tweeted a disparaging remark about Garcia's parents. Already fluent in the art of internet provocation, Garcia wouldn't be offended. It goes deeper than that, he says.

"I grew up in an area where there were a lot of Tanks," he begins. "I got bullied a lot. By the kids next door. The kids at school. They would make fun of me. Throw me on the ground. I was scared of confrontation. I was maybe 14, never been in a street fight. And this kid in class chucks a pencil at me."

The guy was already 6-foot-2, as Garcia remembers, the school bully.

"You couldn't even hit me with a pencil," Garcia told him, surprised that, for once, he actually talked back.

"What you say?" asked the bully.

"You couldn't hit me with a pencil." Garcia still doesn't know why he repeated it.

The bell rings. A girl warns Garcia not to go to his next class. "He's going to whup your ass," she says.

I'm done being afraid, Garcia tells himself.

He steps outside. The bully is waiting -- only now he's wearing batting gloves on each hand.

I really don't want to fight, thinks Garcia, but if it's gonna happen ...

He gets into his boxing stance. Here we go. Takes a breath. Here we go ...

And then the bully starts backing up. Then he takes off the batting gloves. "I'm good," he says.

Back in the present, with a private chef in a glass-enclosed corner unit overlooking Coronado Beach, Garcia says, "When I see Tank, I see that bully."

That's not all he sees, though. It will be like Tyson-Evander Holyfield, Good versus Evil. No, scratch that. It'll be bigger than that. It will be like Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston.

"I can go down the list of what this looks like," he says. "Did you know Ali bugged the s--- out of Liston?"

And Ali didn't even have Instagram. Or YouTube.

"That's why Ryan Garcia vs. Gervonta Davis is going to be one of the biggest fights you've ever seen," he says. "I have to make the bully want to bully me. Or shame him. I got to do something to get him in that ring."

That he will. Garcia won't merely pursue this fight as much as he will prosecute it on social media.

In the meantime, he says, pray for Luke Campbell.