While there may be similarities regarding an acquisition of skills, the path every mixed martial artist takes throughout his or her career is unique in nature and molds each individual accordingly. The road traveled by Leonard “Bad Boy” Garcia is no different, and on March 1st, 2009, he’ll head to WEC 39 and a featherweight title-fight against current champion Mike Brown.
The trek towards Garcia’s home-State of Texas – more specifically Corpus Christi – has been nearly ten years in the making. It is the crowning moment of a professional journey having already seen its fair share of peaks — an eight-fight win streak, a classic brawl against Roger Huerta, and a 72-second knockout of Jens Pulver. It is also an opportunity Garcia nearly lost, along with so many other things, when wrongly accused of involvement in a drug trafficking ring in mid-2008.
However, Garcia is the type of man who isn’t one to give up, and as he himself states in this interview he will always “fight hard until the end”. This attitude has not only helped him overcome adversity in and out of the ring, but also rack up wins in 12-of-15 fights as well be able to boast that he’s never been finished in his career. Read ahead as he discusses, among other things, being on the WEC’s inaugural card, embracing his Latino heritage, a potential bout against WEC Bantamweight Champion Miguel Torres, and his understandable excitement in possibly hoisting up some WEC gold of his own come March 1st…
Brendhan Conlan: In the eyes of many fans your career started on April 7th, 2007 when you fought Roger Huerta at UFC 69. That being said, it might shock a few people to find out you’ve actually been competing in MMA since 1999. How were you originally introduced to grappling/striking? Likewise, how did you initially become interested in testing the skills you’d developed at a professional level? Did you ever imagine you would achieve the level of success you have thus far or did you feel fighting would be more of a secondary career?
Leonard Garcia: I started at eighteen. I just fought at a show, then realized that I had natural ability and started training jiujitsu. I am surprised to this day that this is my job.
Conlan: Apparently you are someone who isn’t afraid of challenges, as your debut came in a tournament that saw you submit your opening opponent in less than 90 seconds and then battle to a decision loss over a single round lasting twenty minutes. Going back to that night, what do you remember thinking/feeling as you prepared to enter the ring for the first time in your career? Do you look back on the event as being a negative experience since you weren’t able to fully enjoy your dominant win, or perhaps as a positive instead being that it confirmed your potential for success while also providing some motivation to improve in certain areas?
Leonard Garcia: I remember being nervous. I was shaking – I even forgot to take off my socks so I fought the whole fight with socks on. After the second fight, I felt that I had to train and learn. It made me start training.
Conlan: You are in the unique position of being the only current WEC athlete who also participated in the company’s first show. What do you remember about that night in 2001? Based on your two most-recent fights for the promotion, how far would you say the WEC has come since then?
Leonard Garcia: The WEC has always put on a great show. I’ve enjoyed their production, but they have gotten better as I did, so I feel like we grew together and we are still getting better.
Conlan: It’s been almost two years since your “Fight of the Night” performance against Roger Huerta at UFC 69. The match-up between you two was definitely one of the top clashes of 2007 if not in the UFC’s history. How would you compare your first experience in the Octagon to other fights you were involved in prior to it? Did you feel any butterflies before the bout simply because of it being in the UFC? What are your overall thoughts on the Huerta bout now that you’ve had some time to look back on it and reflect?
Leonard Garcia: I was so nervous I threw up in my mouth! The UFC makes your legs like JELL-O. It’s overwhelming. I look back at the fight and I wish I was in better shape. I was gassed in the second, but I stuck it out. I think that’s what makes fighters – people who are willing to fight through fatigue and keep going. I remember saying to myself, “You can still win this fight,” even though I had nothing left to give
Conlan: How long have you been working out in New Mexico with Greg Jackson’s group? How beneficial do you think it is to train alongside the likes of talented fighters such as Georges St. Pierre, Rashad Evans, Keith Jardine, Nate Marquardt, and others who call Jackson’s Submission Fighting their home? Are there any up-and-coming Mixed Martial Artists at the academy who fans may not have heard about yet but who you think they should keep an eye out for?
Leonard Garcia: I’ve been with the team two years (on March 1st). It’s a dream come true. I learn from the best. Keep an eye on Hector Munoz outta Texas. He is slick on the ground and scrappy as hell on his feet. He will be in the WEC soon. He’s fun to watch and he’s a great training partner.
Conlan: People seem to view you as primarily being a striker, especially after your recent knockouts of Jens Pulver and Hiroyuki Takaya, but your record actually shows you’ve submitted nearly three times as many guys as you’ve rendered unconscious. Do you feel your grappling skills are often underappreciated? Would you say your most recent WEC performances represent an improvement in your stand-up or are simply a result of how each particular fight unfolded?
Leonard Garcia: I’m becoming well-rounded. I will showcase my ground game as soon as someone takes me down. I’m getting better all around.
Conlan: At WEC 39 you’ll be facing current featherweight champion Mike Brown for his belt. Without giving away your entire gameplan, how are you approaching the tough-as-nails champion from a strategic standpoint? What do you think about Brown as an opponent in general?
Leonard Garcia: I think Brown is a great fighter. He’s definitely the #1 guy in our division. He’s tough. I’m gonna be in for a hell of a fight, but those are the kind that bring out the best of me, so if I fight to my ability we’ve both got a serious fight ahead.
Conlan: Have you changed your training any based on the possibility the scrap could go a full five rounds? In your opinion, why should fans NOT expect to see this fight left to the judges’ scorecards?
Leonard Garcia: To the fans – I try and finish every round. I don’t hold back. I train for a [five-round] fight so expect fireworks for twenty-five minutes.
Conlan: How incredible does it feel for a young Mixed Martial Artist from Longview to be headlining a nationally televised card taking place in his home-State of Texas? Do you feel any extra pressure to perform since you’ll essentially be facing Mike Brown in your own backyard?
Leonard Garcia: I love pressure. Like I said, it brings out the best in me. Coming from a small Texas town and being showcased in Texas is a honor. I can’t wait!
Conlan: There is little doubt Urijah Faber will face the winner of your March 1st title-fight. Have you ever given any thought to Faber as an opponent? What are your overall feelings on what “The California Kid” brings to the table?
Leonard Garcia: I’m really worried about Mike, but I will fight Urijah any time, date, or place. I think he’s a great fighter. Also, it’s a fight I’ve wanted since coming to the WEC.
Conlan: Beyond Faber and Brown, the WEC also boasts skilled featherweights like Jose Aldo, Jens Pulver, Joseph Bendavidez, and Wagnney Fabiano. What are your thoughts on your division as a whole? Is it safe to say the WEC has the top grouping of 145-pound talent in all of MMA?
Leonard Garcia: We have a great pool. All of those fights could be for titles anywhere in the world and we are all shooting for one title. I love it. Every fight is a threat [so] it makes for tough training.
Conlan: What are your thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding the job Greg Jackson and Phil Nurse did cornering St. Pierre at UFC 94? Do you think the entire thing has been blown out of proportion? As someone with 3/4 of his wins via submission, have you ever faced an opponent you felt was “greased up”, and if so, how did it affect your performance against him?
Leonard Garcia: It’s bullsh*t. I like [B.J. Penn] a lot, but Georges is not a cheater and neither is coach. I’ve fought people with Vaseline on them before, but it hurt them more then it helped them. I was able to sink a choke because of the grease so it helped my situation.
Conlan: From 2003-2006 there is a three-year gap in your career. What was that period away from MMA a result of? How did you end up diving back into professional competition after such a long layoff?
Leonard Garcia: I was able to get back in after making an attempt to become a pro boxer. I just didn’t like boxing so I went back to MMA because that is what made me happy.
Conlan: A little less than a year ago you were arrested and alleged to be involved with drug trafficking, but were fortunately cleared of the charges and have been able to move forward since then. Still, knowing your innocence in the matter, how were you originally able to cope with the possibility of facing significant jail time or having your MMA career taken away from you? Did the incident ultimately have any affect on your approach to training, fighting, and/or life in general? If so, how?
Leonard Garcia: It sucked to be in trouble for nothing. I hung out with people that were in the wrong. I never said anything even though I knew what they were doing, but I figured that if I wasnt involved I couldn’t be in trouble. Boy, was I wrong! I was facing three years at the max for obstruction of justice. It would have ended my career, but I was cleared later and I was able to get my life back. My advice to people is stay away from any wrong. It made me value life and family. It made me a better person, [and] I am glad I went through it.
Conlan: There is no denying the impact Hispanic fighters have had on the Latino community. How important is it to you to represent your heritage each time you step into the ring? Do you envision a day where Hispanic Mixed Martial Artists will receive the same adulation from their community as boxing legends like Roberto Duran, Oscar DeLaHoya, and Hector Camacho?
Leonard Garcia: I think it’s part of my fighting style. Being Hispanic, I love it when my fans get behind me. MMA fighters are gonna get praise in Mexico as long as they fight hard everytime. I can’t wait to head down there after my fight with Brown. Win, lose, or draw – they know I will fight hard till the end!
Conlan: While on the subject of talented Latinos, there tends to be a lot of talk about a potential superfight one day between Urijah Faber and WEC Bantamweight Champion Miguel Torres. Removing Faber from the picture, is a bout against Torres something YOU would ever be interested in being part of? What do you think about Torres as a fighter?
Leonard Garcia: I think he’s a great fighter. He also fights hard, as I do [too]. The thought of fighting a guy that tough is a great thought, but we are both Hispanics – we would have to make a lot of money to fight…but I can only imagine the ups and downs we would have!
Conlan: I appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to offer your thoughts in this interview. Any final messages you’d like to deliver to friends, fans, fighters, or even Mike Brown?
Leonard Garcia: I’d like to start with GOD. Without him, none of this would be possible, but also my family and Team TapouT, Vandel Eye, DynaPep, Full Tilt and my manager Sven “Boogie” Bean.