‘I’m only battling myself now’: What’s at stake for Ryan Garcia ahead of Gervonta Davis fight?
Apr 21, 2023
Tim KeownESPN Senior Writer
- Senior Writer for ESPN The Magazine
- Columnist for ESPN.com
- Author of five books (3 NYT best-sellers)
RYAN GARCIA DIDN’T care anymore. Didn’t care how famous he was. Didn’t care who saw him or what they thought of him. Didn’t care about much of anything as he sat hunched over a poker table in the Commerce Casino — “the most celebrated cardroom in the world,” it proclaims — one night during the lowest of his many lows. He stared down at another losing hand, betting on it anyway. Add money and reason to the list of things he no longer cared about.
He’d go to this casino outside Los Angeles often when the anxiety and the depression dug into him. He found a poker table was a good place to be when you didn’t care. It was a place he could be alone without feeling lonely. It was a place that allowed magical thinking; he could look at the cards in front of him, no matter how bad, and convince himself it was the start of a winning hand. He’d bet it until it proved it wasn’t.
He’d been there awhile on this night when he noticed a man watching him. It wasn’t uncommon; Garcia is an undefeated lightweight boxer with millions of social media followers and a face recognizable for its objective handsomeness. But this man seemed more intent than most. He walked the periphery of the table, looking at Garcia from several angles before coming up behind him and speaking into his ear.
“Ryan, do you know who you are?”
Garcia, startled, turned to look at the man. Who is this guy? What does he want?
The man continued. “Do you know what you’re called for?”
Garcia stared, finding himself without answers.
“God called you, and you know it,” the man said, his voice growing more insistent. “And what are you doing? What are you doing right now?”
Chills raced up Garcia’s spine. What was he doing? At that moment, he was sitting at a poker table in a dark casino convinced that his unsuited 2- and 4-hole cards would become a straight. He was sad and aimless and agitated, so in a broader sense, he feared his mental state was causing him to surrender his gift. He looked down at his cards, suddenly unimportant. He looked around to get a better look at the man, but he was gone from his life, like an apparition.
Who am I? Garcia asked himself. At that point, he came to a terrifying conclusion: He didn’t have a good answer. He quickly folded his hand, gathered his chips and left the casino.
Garcia has come to see portents and omens. He believes this stranger was chosen to send this message, that their meeting in the same physical space was ordained by someone or something in a different realm.
“I felt like I just got rocked,” he says now. “I told myself, ‘Let’s get back in it. Let’s go through the fire and face the demons.'”
This blunt stranger made him realize: He still cared.
GARCIA HAS BECOME, at just 24 years old, something of a mythic figure in the boxing world, more prominent on social media than real life, a fighter with unusual power for a lightweight and unusual speed for any human. He is 23-0 with 19 knockouts, but there are so many waves it can be difficult to see the ocean. He has fought just twice in 27 months, since his biggest moment, a TKO over Olympic champion Luke Campbell in January 2021. He took 15 months off after that fight to address his mental health and to recover from a broken hand. His talent is unquestioned; his place in the hierarchy is harder to ascertain.
Garcia is about to discover whether scarcity creates demand. He will fight undefeated Gervonta “Tank” Davis (28-0, 26 KOs) on Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, and the bout will represent a rarity in boxing: a non-title catch-weight (136 pounds) superfight between two undefeated boxers at the height of their powers.
“People are like, ‘I’ve heard of this kid with super speed,” Garcia says of himself. “But what’s his deal? He starts going and then he kind of disappears.’ I get it. But this is the fight to really make me who I should become, who I was meant to be.”
The fight came about only after boxing did its thing, negotiating endlessly to determine upfront payouts and pay-per-view splits and rematch clauses. Garcia made concessions, reportedly taking a lower percentage of the split, in order to make the fight happen. He skipped a tune-up fight for fear of being injured and jeopardizing perhaps boxing’s biggest night of the year. In a recent episode of Bradley Martyn’s “Raw Talk” podcast, Garcia poked fun at the process, claiming his contract prohibits him from eating or drinking water three days out of every week. Boxing being boxing, enough people took it seriously that Garcia had to explain himself.
“I sacrificed for this fight, and the sacrifice is me observing myself and understanding what I had to overcome to get to this fight,” Garcia says. “This is why I fell in love with the sport: truly the best fighters fighting each other and not looking for advantages, or waiting till people are too old and then saying, ‘Oh, we’ll fight them now.'”
Garcia is training in his garage, hardly a conventional setup for a fight of this magnitude. He began his camp in Miami before moving it to trainer Joe Goossen’s Los Angeles gym. He left Miami after a few days and Goossen’s after a few weeks when people started showing up on the nights he trained and pressing their faces to the windows, straining to get a look.
The garage in this multimillion-dollar house on a Los Angeles hillside is anything but spartan. There are six wooden lockers built into the walls. Mushroom-shaped heat lamps hang from the ceiling. A stand-up reflex punching bag — designed and patented by his father, Henry, and a staple of Ryan’s training videos — sits next to a hanging heavy bag. Goossen and Henry stand side by side, admiring Ryan’s work. Mellow music plays softly from a portable speaker as sounds from inside the house — Ryan’s two little daughters, his sisters, his mom, the wall-sized television — Doppler their way out.
“Some fighters don’t want anybody around, they want it quiet,” says Guadalupe Valencia, Garcia’s advisor and attorney. But the family setting “works for Ryan. If nobody was around, he wouldn’t like it.”
The garage is comfortable, familiar, a reminder of his humble beginnings. Garcia started boxing at 7 when he told his father that he no longer wanted to play baseball because he got too mad when his teammates made mistakes. “He decided he didn’t want to rely on other people, that he needed control,” Henry says. “I said, ‘How about boxing?'” They began training in the family’s garage in Victorville, California, with Henry — a former amateur fighter, now Ryan’s assistant trainer — running the workouts.
Despite 15 amateur national championships and the spotless professional record, there is a belief that Garcia, to this point, is largely famous for being famous. In the boxing world, he is the unblemished face of youth and vitality and hope, the socia media megastar with 9.6 million followers on Instagram and 5.3 million on TikTok. The social media airbrush has allowed him, like so many celebrities, to engineer his own image. In photos and videos, everything is perfect; his hands are lightning quick, his smile gleams, his manner is delightful. Is he a creation of the moment or, as Valencia contends, on his way to becoming “a true global superstar”? Garcia and everyone around him — a relatively small coterie for a boxer — believe this is the fight that will change the storyline, once and for all.
In many ways, the change has already begun. There is no filter that could idealize the anxiety and depression he had after he defeated Campbell more than two years ago, when the world showed up at his door. He was 22 and famous, popular, rich. Sponsors, grifters, women — everyone wanted to bask in the reflected glory. He had spun the pretty-boy narrative on its ear by getting knocked down in the second round and knocking Campbell out in the seventh. It was cinematic, and it raised the possibility that he was the latest in a long line of saviors for a sport that, in spite of its sliminess and barbarism, holds a significant place in the culture.
Then it hit. He had dealt with anxiety before, but nothing like this. The world stopped. He was unmotivated and static. He retreated into a severe depression. He drank too much and spent a lot of time gambling, which he has described as a way of “clearing my mind.” He describes his spiral as being stuck in a maze, where every turn sent him in the wrong direction.
“I self-sabotaged myself,” he says. “I began to become a hypochondriac. I had a lot of things come at once: OCD, depression — everything attacked me. I got severely depressed — yeah, suicidal at times. I was at a really dark place. Every time I tried to take a step forward, something was reminding me of what I was dealing with. Every time I wanted to come back, it was, ‘No, you can’t come back.'”
Garcia has personified it as an opponent; a separate being that resides outside of him but constantly seeks an opening. Like a boxer, it relishes a stationary target. He sought professional help — “he was mature enough to know he needed that,” Valencia says — and says little moments of clarity and introspection put him on the road to recovery. It began by separating thoughts and feelings from truth, and the realization that there is no my truth and your truth — only truth. Objective truth — say, a bad poker hand — can’t be changed through belief, just as anxiety and fear can’t be willed away by money and adulation and social standing.
“There’s real truth out there, and now I like to look at the real truth, even if it’s not going my way,” he says. “That makes me feel liberated. If I feel like I’m scared in a situation, what is the truth of that situation? Could I have helped that I’m scared? No, so what do I do with this fear? I had to ask myself, ‘Why is this going on in my brain?’ And then I had to accept it. In the moment, I can’t stop those feelings, but what can I do? Hey, I have two legs: I can go on a run. No matter what I feel, I could still choose to run. That’s liberating.
“Now it all kind of subsides because it doesn’t have a hold on me. It can’t stop you from moving. What it wants you to do is stay still, in your own thoughts. That’s where it lives, and you can’t let it. It heals on its own knowing that it can’t hold on to you.”
RYAN WAS 14, training for the ninth of his 15 amateur national championships, when his father’s car broke down, and the prospect of getting nearly 2,200 miles from Victorville to Toledo, Ohio, seemed bleak. “We didn’t have enough money to fly,” Henry says. “Gas was an issue. Food was an issue.” Three days before the tournament, Henry was outlining his predicament to a neighbor when the man said, “You can buy my car.”
It was a blue Ford Escort, old enough and cheap enough for Henry to write a check, fill a few coolers with food — “coolers were our lifesaver,” he says — and hit the road. He and Ryan drove to Toledo, where the Escort crapped out as the Garcias entered the city. Henry diagnosed the problem and fixed it in the parking lot of their motel. Ryan won the tournament — Henry can recite opponent and round for all 15 titles — and they headed home, where the Escort broke down again.
“I swear to you, it died as we pulled into the driveway,” Henry says, laughing, “but it did its job.”
Ryan’s decision to quit team sports had far-reaching implications. Henry quit his job as an administrator for the local vector control district in Victorville because “my kids were getting better and better. They were getting too good. I had to stop working because they demanded my attention.” He narrowed his life to Ryan and Sean (Ryan’s brother, now 6-0-1 as a professional lightweight at age 22) and their next tournament. The boys and their dad worked out every night in the garage and drove around the country for tournaments.
“A parent knows when a kid is special,” Henry says. “The parent sees the winning. The parent sees them beating top contenders. When you see that, you have to dedicate your time to your son.” Henry’s wife, Lisa, continued to work as a manager for the local library while taking care of their three daughters.
Ryan was small, but his strength and speed were as obvious as the sun. His stature and mild nature worked to his advantage by creating an element of surprise. “I was always a kid that just boxed,” Ryan says, “and the kid that everybody looked at and laughed and said, ‘You’re no boxer.’ I’ve always been that kid they’ve judged by the cover: scrawny little kid, bullied, all that. Then they’d see me box, and it was, ‘Oh, s—, he is a boxer.'”
Ryan fought 230 amateur fights, winning 215. He and his father say he split six bouts with lightweight champion Devin Haney — “I beat him every time,” Haney says. “Don’t believe anything he says” — and turned pro at 17 when the chorus of advisors, including Goossen, convinced Henry that Ryan had nothing left to prove.
“There were people at that time who would laugh at the idea that I was pursuing my kids’ careers,” Henry says. He stops and begins to nod, as if he’s rehearing the tone and pitch of each laugh. The house he is sitting in and the Jaguar out front and the fight that’s about to happen answer all the questions, stifle all the laughs. Finally, he says, “I guess you could say I took a leap of faith.”
Henry was Ryan’s primary trainer through the first 13 fights of his professional career, and he says more than once, “I got him to 13-0 with 12 knockouts.” He relegated himself to assistant trainer, he says, for one reason: to retain the father-son relationship.
“If something goes wrong, they run to the family for support,” Henry says. “But if you’re working on that level, as the trainer, they can’t do that. When he was going through stuff, I was there as a father, not an employee.”
GARCIA IS SITTING, post-workout, at a long glass dining table in his beautiful house in a neighborhood so new the roads aren’t all paved. Clear rubber edge protectors are attached to all four corners of the table. Sean is cooking his trademark spaghetti for their parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, two days away. Goossen, the 69-year-old trainer who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this June, is holding court in the massive living room. Ryan is sweating, shirtless, fresh from the garage.
“I’m in a perfect space mentally right now,” he says, “but it’s a constant battle every day. You’ve got to protect your energy, you’ve got to protect your peace when you have it. Things can throw you off course and take you away from your purpose. But right now, a weight’s lifted off my shoulders. I feel like I’m only battling myself now, and I don’t need the world’s acceptance.” He leans back, tosses his arms to the sky and coughs out a laugh. “If they don’t love me, it’s OK.”
His voice carries a Southern California cadence, the ends of words often ending up buried in the back of his throat. It’s a voice that would blend seamlessly into the scene at Venice Beach, but his New Age-y vibe contrasts with his sport. Boxing, to be charitable, is not particularly evolved when it comes to what Garcia has faced. Mental health in the boxing community is routinely conflated with weakness, and often treated with more disdain than criminal behavior. Davis, who has numerous arrests and will be sentenced on May 5 after pleading guilty to four criminal counts stemming from a 2020 hit-and-run in Baltimore, has delivered conflicting messages regarding Garcia. “Mental illness is global, so I just wish him the best,” he said in 2021, before tweeting last August, “Boxers gotta stop using ‘Mental Health’ s— to get out of stuff.”
Garcia replied, “We can go back and forth about what happens in the ring all day, but taking a shot at someone’s mental health is outta line.” Sitting at the table, the sweat still rolling, he says, “What he’s saying can have a very negative impact on somebody’s life. If they’re really hurting inside and some boxer they look up to is like, ‘Ah, that’s bulls—,’ what does that do to that kid? Again, Tank hasn’t been educated enough on the matter. If he just looked into it and had an objective mind, he would probably know that it hurts — it hurts when you’re in that position. It hurt me for others. That’s a very sad man right there.” (Davis did not respond to a request for comment.)
Garcia is measured, his tone more sad than angry. He has become an outspoken advocate for mental health — recognizing it, treating it, understanding it. He is not surprised by Davis because there are so many, in and out of boxing, with similar views. After a pause, Garcia leans forward, drops his elbows to his knees and says, “I’m willing to risk everything for this. Everything that could happen, I’ve accepted.” Davis, a stocky power-puncher who is giving up five inches in height and three in reach, is the betting favorite to win the fight. His combination of strength and experience — he’s masterful at using his jab to create distance between himself and taller fighters — is unlike any of Garcia’s previous opponents.
“I just know that I’m not leaving that ring without taking something,” Garcia says. “I didn’t go through all this to leave with nothing. This man’s not leaving without some type of damage.”
ON A THURSDAY night a month away from the fight, Garcia shadow-boxes for eight rounds, making his way across the padded garage floor, his hands firing fast as neurons into an imaginary Tank Davis, each punch accompanied by an unspellable “heesh.” In the final 10 seconds of every round, after his assistant Scott calls out the time, Garcia’s hands become hummingbird wings, the energy seeming battery-operated, the heeshes flying like so many dry heaves. Goossen leans back and shakes his head, letting out a steady stream of satisfied noises — “mmmm-hhmm” — like he’s savoring the finest wine.
The shadow-boxing ends, Garcia’s hands are wrapped, and he starts hitting the mitts. After about 10 minutes, he raises his gloves and says he’s finished for the day. “I think my arms are just tired,” he says, apologetically. “I just want to be honest with myself.”
There is a pause. The mellow music seems louder, filling the space once held by the thwack of glove on mitt. Even the noise from inside seems to dissipate. Goossen, a trainer of multiple world champions, senses what’s emanating from Garcia and steps forward.
“No, I’m going to be honest for you,” Goossen begins. “I know what you do and how you do it, Ryan. It’s intense. It’s so focused and it’s so intense and so violent. I’m telling you, I’ve trained a lot of guys and nobody puts that kind of power into everything. Snap and speed. … I’ve never seen anybody do it like you. I’ve got more faith in you than you have in yourself. You’re going to blow the world away on the 22nd. It’s going to change a lot of people’s opinions, and you’re going to change the face of boxing.”
Garcia, head down, nods through it all. He walks away as Goossen and his father continue to toss compliments his way. A few minutes later, sitting in the house, he says, “I hear it all, but I don’t let it get to me. If you’re not honest with yourself, what’s the point? Maybe my bad day is better than most people’s good days, but that doesn’t matter to me.”
There’s a journal in his bedroom upstairs, and Ryan sometimes reads it to his father. “He’s become a philosopher,” Henry says. “I don’t know where he finds the time. He writes everything down, from boxing to life to how boxing relates to life. It’s really something. I told him, ‘You could have this published.'”
Ryan started working out in the family garage when he was 7, when the cars outside weren’t Jaguars and Hummers. He’s back now, after multiple moves that may or may not be omens of their own. He’s training for a fight that could earn him eight figures while neighbors walk their dogs on the streets outside or put their kids to bed in houses around the corner.
“This is a beautiful story,” Henry says. “We’re just getting back to how we started. The bags are different, but the atmosphere is still the same. To me, that’s gold. This right here? This is the comfort zone.”
The commotion from the inside filters out, the squealing of the kids and the laughter of the adults. Today is not his best day, but he has learned to accept the objective truth, to move on to tomorrow, to listen to his body and the universe, and to wait for another chance to knit together something new out of something old.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.