How a chaotic build to Haney-Garcia overshadowed the fight

NEW YORK — One after another, with the same rapid speed Ryan Garcia displays with his fists in the ring, the incendiary remarks reached his 18-million-plus social media followers.

The children, he said, needed to be saved from sex trafficking among other atrocities. The 4.8 earthquake that struck New York City two weeks ago? A prelude to another in Los Angeles. Garcia relentlessly echoed popular conspiracy theories, openly discussed drug use and disregarded those who said he was out of line.

For weeks, the erratic comments flowed freely from Garcia’s social media accounts. Videos, voice messages, live appearances on other shows — they all elicited surprising reactions from those that followed.

“People just expect me to be some robot and when I shoot on them, I’m not a robot,” Garcia told ESPN last week. “Then they get shocked and scared. … I like to use my platform to speak about important things and what better time to do it than when a lot of eyes are on me.”

His behavior led to questions regarding Garcia’s readiness to challenge Devin Haney for the WBC junior welterweight championship Saturday in Brooklyn (8 p.m. ET, DAZN PPV). Garcia, 25, competed on the biggest stage imaginable last year against Gervonta Davis and never exhibited such behavior before.

Garcia’s social media posts have overshadowed a fight between two of the sport’s top stars and has led to a conversation about mental health. Garcia’s composure was questioned at every turn during the build-up to the bout, while Haney (31-0, 15 KOs) acknowledged he was unsure during training camp the fight would even happen.

“We’re here now. That’s all that matters,” Haney, 25, told ESPN on Thursday following the news conference. “The stuff he’s doing is not normal. It’s obvious that something is wrong with him. But what he does outside the ring does not matter. It won’t change what I’m going to do to him inside the ring.

“… I think he’s a f—ing clown. I think he’s going through some real issues right now.”

THE SOCIAL-MEDIA POSTS were enough of a red flag that World Boxing Council president Mauricio Sulaiman grew concerned and stepped in to ensure Garcia was mentally fit to fight. He recalled to ESPN the Lennox Lewis-Oliver McCall WBC heavyweight title fight in 1997. McCall scored a major upset to capture the crown in 1994 when he TKOed Lewis in Round 2.

Two-and-a-half years later, McCall began to cry as he refused to return to his corner for Round 5. After Hall of Fame referee Mills Lane consoled McCall, he resumed the bout but turned his back on Lewis rather than throw punches. The fight was stopped. The following day, McCall claimed it was a rope-a-dope strategy and that he cried because he “wanted to get himself into an emotional state.”

The Nevada commission suspended McCall, withheld his $3 million purse and he was later admitted to a Virginia psychiatric ward. Sulaiman’s father, Jose, presided over that bout as WBC president, and now 27 years later, Mauricio engaged the New York State Athletic Commision to ensure there wasn’t a repeat.

Two weeks after late February’s press tour in New York and Los Angeles, where Garcia claimed he was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, the commission requested a mental health evaluation. Garcia initially refused, sources told ESPN, unless Haney, too, was required to do so.

“There’s fighters who need that chaos. There’s fighters who perform much better when there’s chaos. It almost blinds you from reality.”

Oscar De La Hoya

However, Garcia (25-1, 20 KOs) acquiesced last week and underwent a battery of tests in Dallas, where he held training camp with Derrick James. The commision tested Garcia’s brain function and gave him a standard competency test. He passed.

“There’s always another day for a fight…,” Sulaiman said. “And I am certain that he’s in great condition for the fight. His trainer vouches for that and he’s looking good…. Most importantly, his voice, his calmness, what he kept saying to me when we were talking.

“So everything, in my opinion, is completely under control…. The mind is something that you can never know. But from the concerns I had six weeks ago, those have disappeared.”

Sulaiman said “there was nothing to prevent or to suggest there was an issue” with McCall, but this time around, WBC vice president Duane Ford (a longtime former boxing judge) was in direct contact with Matthew Delaglio, director of boxing for the New York commision.

“At the end, the commission is [satisfied] with the tests that were provided and that’s how we’re here [one day from the fight],” Sulaiman said.

Asked about the specific Garcia situation, the New York commission said that it “works to protect the health and safety of all participants in combative sports, and to preserve the integrity of combative sport competition in New York State.

“The Commission has broad authority to assess the medical fitness of professional athletes (mental and physical health included), and engages in a thorough case-by-case due diligence process with every professional athlete based on their personal medical history and circumstances prior to their participation in competition,” a commission spokesperson told ESPN on Thursday.

“No match is held until the professional athletes are found medically fit for competition. The Commission will not comment on the specific medical testing and evaluations of any particular person.”

Garcia told ESPN last week before he eventually underwent the battery of tests that he felt the decision was pretty unfair.

“I felt demeaned…. I definitely felt isolated and I felt targeted,” Garcia said. “I didn’t feel good about them wanting to do a mental evaluation. It kind of makes me doubt myself. It kind of hurt me and like if this causes real mental issues, I’m going to sue you.”

Garcia admitted Tuesday that he “got cleared from the commission to fight after the evaluation and drug test.” His promoter, Hall of Fame boxer Oscar De La Hoya, told ESPN “physically, the commission wants to make sure that he’s been training and he’s been working out and everything.”

“Ryan’s in great spirits,” De La Hoya said. “He’s in great shape…. It’s a big fight for him. He would be stupid if he wasn’t in training.”

GARCIA’S MENTAL HEALTH history is well-documented by the fighter himself. After Garcia withdrew from a bout with Javier Fortuna to address his mental health in April 2021, Garcia revealed he was battling anxiety and depression.

In the past, he said at the time, he often “pushed through” some troubling moments. “I’m choosing to finally get some help with my mental health,” he said in explaining his decision to forgo the fight.

Three years later, Garcia is proceeding with his scheduled bout, proof he says that he’s fit and ready.

“I’ve backed off a fight before,” Garcia said. “I know when I actually have an issue and I don’t. I’m just simply very passionate about the things that I’m passionate about and it hurts my heart dearly.”

Whatever is going on outside of the ring with Garcia, De La Hoya believes one thing: it’s all served to drum-up interest in Saturday’s fight.

“My take is that Ryan Garcia is brilliant,” said the Golden Boy Promotions CEO. “I’ve been approached by people that don’t even watch boxing and they’re talking to me about Ryan-Haney…. No matter what he’s saying, people are going to listen and they want to find out what’s going to happen, what Ryan is going to show up, and he’s a genius.

“I’m not with him every day and I’m not his babysitter,” De La Hoya added, “but I flew over to Dallas the other day and he looks great…. People might think that he’s doing something wrong, but he’s doing something right and he creates attention. He creates noise. People want to watch him whether you like him or not.”

Garcia and Haney first crossed paths when they were 11-year-olds plying their craft in the amateurs. Garcia grew up in Victorville, a town of about 137,000 in San Bernardino County, California. Haney was raised in Las Vegas.

Both boxers were trained by their fathers.

The first time they met inside the ring was May 2012, months before they would both turn 12. Garcia won that amateur bout via unanimous decision in Southern California. The last time they fought: January 2015. Haney won that three-round contest in the same fashion to tie their amateur series at three a piece. They were 16.

Despite their shared past — or perhaps because of it — the promotion has turned ugly.

Haney accused Garcia of cocaine use after he admitted at a news conference last month that he was drinking alcohol and smoking mairjuana during training camp.

When Garcia was asked if the animus between him and Haney grew personal rather than routine pre-fight promotional fare, he responded “they are hitting my head. What more personal can it get? They’re trying to hurt me.”

When Haney’s father and Garcia exchanged perceived death threats, the comments irked many people in the boxing industry. It’s a sport that has endured its fair share of in-ring deaths.

Fighters, of course, have a long history of incendiary remarks. Mike Tyson was prone to them. So, too, is junior welterweight titleholder Teofimo Lopez. Just last summer, similar concerns surrounded Lopez in the lead-up to his fight with Josh Taylor, whom he defeated in dominant fashion.

“There’s fighters who need that chaos,” said De La Hoya, no stranger to such circumstances during his legendary career. “There’s fighters who perform much better when there’s chaos. It almost blinds you from reality.

“Reality is that you have to face a tough guy in front of you, but if there’s chaos and you get sidetracked by that commotion and all that energy, then you’re not going to really think about what’s really happening.”

Garcia’s remarks led fans to question how competitive the matchup would be, and if it would actually happen as scheduled. There were concerns from both those within the boxing industry and well beyond, about Garcia’s well-being and his dedication to training. On Monday, video emerged of him at a New York City club shirtless.

The following morning, he and Haney engaged in a scuffle during a promotional shoot atop the Empire State Building. The champion shoved Garcia’s face forcefully. Later that day, the pair was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at the New York Mets’ game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citi Field in Queens.

Only when they arrived at the ballpark, the ceremony was canceled by the Mets’ top security official, sources said. Garcia responded with a tirade on social media, promising to “expose the Mets so bad and the MLB.”

Contributing to doubts about Garcia’s dedication to training has been his litany of social-media posts like those laid out above, ranging from audio messages to videos and Spaces with saber-rattling figures.

“People have a hard time wrapping that around their head that a post takes 10 seconds,” he said. ” … I never really recorded the videos. People are recording me. I just press post. I mean, people are kind of hilarious. They expect me to train 24/7, 365, but that’s impossible. I mean, it’s not impossible, but I definitely won’t do it. It’s just a balance, man.”

HANEY, OF COURSE, will look to expose Garcia in the ring, one year after Garcia was counted out on one knee following a liver shot from Gervonta Davis. The super fight was a smash at the gate and box office; Garcia earned roughly $30 million for the bout, according to De La Hoya, but Garcia’s boxing credentials — and fighting heart — were questioned afterward.

Saturday offers Garcia a chance at redemption. If he’s competitive, even in a loss, those reservations could be quelled going forward.

Garcia believes he’s being underestimated. He’s ready to prove the public should “wait before you try to judge somebody.” He’s a +500 underdog to dethrone Haney, per ESPN BET, in a showdown that has been anticipated for years given their star power and history from the amateurs.

And then there’s Haney, who is on a star climb and needs a big performance to continue his rise. He’s one of the sport’s best fighters – No. 6 on ESPN’s pound-for-pound list – but finds himself in a challenging situation. Anything short of a win inside the distance, given the circumstances, could hurt his stock.

“I’m definitely looking to stop him,” Haney said. “I’m looking to show that I’m levels above him. He’s an average fighter and I’m an elite fighter. … He’s just somebody that’s in my way. I’m coming to step on him.”

Haney’s discipline has been tested in the face of constant curiosity whether the fight would happen at all, and there’s the precedent of what happened when he withdrew from the bout with Fortuna.

And while Garcia has used his voice, Haney has risen to the top of the sport. His breakout came last year with his two greatest victories yet. In May, Haney retained his undisputed lightweight championship with a razor-thin unanimous-decision win over future Hall of Famer Vasiliy Lomachenko.

The decision was disputed by some, but there’s no disagreement over the unbridled action and drama the fight delivered. Haney proved his mettle in that matchup and retained the four 135-pound titles he won the previous year with a pair of victories over George Kambosos in Australia.

Afterward, Haney moved up to 140 pounds for a December fight with Regis Prograis. Haney won via shutout on all three cards in his junior welterweight debut and even dropped the champion en route to a title in a second division.

Now, Haney faces perhaps his greatest challenge. While he’s a major favorite to beat Garcia, countless boxers have been defeated by underestimating an opponent who doesn’t appear to be on their level.

Add in the whirlwind of turbulence Garcia has tossed Haney’s way this promotion, and the task of focusing on just the fight seems even more difficult.

He’s consciously disrespected everything about boxing, everything about us and our family and everything,” Bill Haney told ESPN on Thursday. “He’s disrespected the culture….

“Devin Haney is the culture and boxing’s hit man and he’s going to take care of Ryan Garcia.”

THREE YEARS AGO, Garcia was a 22-year-old fighter still working his way up the ranks. Now, he’s two fights removed from his first professional loss — he returned in December with an eighth-round KO of rugged Mexican Oscar Duarte — and is still seeking his first world title in a sport littered with four in each weight class.

He’s rated No. 9 at 140 pounds while Haney is the division’s top boxer, according to ESPN.

“Beating Haney will get the respect that he deserves,” said De La Hoya. “I think a lot of us in the boxing community, a lot of people don’t respect Ryan as a fighter. They see him as a social media star, they see him as a YouTuber, whatever you want to call it. They don’t see him as a serious fighter.”

Certainly, Garcia’s behavior in the lead-up to this bout has only reaffirmed those beliefs. But as De La Hoya pointed out, all those doubts can be extinguished with a victory, the great elixir in sports.

Haney has displayed vulnerability before. Garcia would appear to at least have a puncher’s chance. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who questions his unique blend of blazing hand speed and crushing power.

Garcia promises his array of comments are simply him using his platform to address the evils of the world. But why now when he seldomly acted in such fashion in the past?

“Before I was much younger and maybe I wasn’t ready to speak about the things and handle the type of attention, but now I am,” Garcia said. “And I just realized that people can’t fight the truth for too long. They try their best, but then when you keep on hitting ’em with facts, it just overwhelms them.

“So now I’m ready for it all and I’m still learning through it all. I say a lot of things that I probably shouldn’t say. … God gave me the authority to speak on it, and that’s why I don’t have any fear.”

De La Hoya even dared to say Garcia’s brilliance has reached fans who don’t watch boxing. Is this all part of some concocted strategy to build interest in the fight? Or even “trolling” as Garcia has claimed time and again?

“I seriously don’t know,” De La Hoya said. “But if he is doing that, I mean, Jesus, everybody’s fooled, that’s for sure.”

It appears to be a formidable task given Haney’s laser-sharp focus and fundamentals. Just maybe, though, Garcia thrives in the chaos.

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