PHOENIX – At just 19, Phoenix middleweight Elijah Garcia is the youngest fighter in a new generation of boxing talent currently emerging from the Valley.
Born in Glendale and now residing in Wittman, Garcia is entering his third year as a professional, having already built his record to 14-0 with 12 knockouts.
And on Saturday he’s set to fight on the biggest stage of his young career when he leads off the undercard of the marquee fight of the year – Gervonta “Tank” Davis versus Ryan Garcia at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas – when Garcia is scheduled to face Kevin Salgado (15-1-1).
Although becoming a professional boxer wasn’t always Garcia’s goal, it certainly runs in the family. He is trained by his father and grandfather, former professional boxers along with his great grandfather, making Garcia a fourth generation fighter.
Despite the long lineage of boxing in Garcia’s family, he wasn’t initially interested in the sport.
“I was around (boxing), you know, not as much as people would think, but I always played multiple sports.” Garcia told Cronkite News. “I played football, basketball, soccer, baseball. I ran track. So I mean, I’ve done a lot of sports. I wrestled, too.
“I had like 50 freestyle matches. After wrestling, I’d gotten injured and then we went to the boxing gym just to keep me active, and I ended up falling in love with the sport, and I just stuck with it and here I am today.”
Once he started going to the gym, his grandfather, George Garcia Sr., quickly recognized his grandson’s potential and began training him when he was about 11.
Garcia Sr. prepared his grandson as a southpaw, even though he is a natural right-hander, because in the elder Garcia’s boxing days fighters seldom faced a southpaw and weren’t used to the angles a left-hander took.
“My dad and my grandpa have been in my corner, for the most part, since I was an amateur,” Garcia said. “Mostly my grandpa … he trained me (during) my amateur career. As my dad saw how dedicated I was, he decided he wanted to help out and he decided to take over as a father-son type deal.
“And then of course my grandpa is still in the corner. He’s still in the gym, helps me train. He’s a big part of the camp as well. But for the most part, I’ve stuck with the same cornermen since I was an amateur. You got my dad, my grandpa, and then you got one of my tios, my uncle, Jose Vargas.”
After some years in the amateurs developing under his father and grandfather, Garcia decided to turn professional at just 16. A boxer of that age cannot get a license to fight professionally in the U.S., so Garcia went to Mexico where he fought five times in just under 14 months before coming back stateside for a bout.
“We (went to Mexico) just because of the age,” Garcia Sr. said. “He couldn’t fight here in the United States, so we fought there and I knew that would work for us because you can fight amateur fights here but it’s not the same.
“You know, when you put on the little gloves and you wrap your hands like a little cast, it’s a whole different game. And Elijah has a hard punch, you know, the way he throws punches. We tend to throw straight punches.”
Although not unheard of, it is rare for a 16-year-old fighter to go south of the border to start a career, but it’s the early experience against grown men that’s helped Garcia develop as quickly as he has.
And Garcia was on a fast track in his life outside boxing, too, becoming a father.
“At 16 years old, I had my first son and (in) amateur, I kept fighting the same kids,” Garcia said. “I ended up beating a lot of the kids that beat me in my early stage(s) of amateurs, and so we decided it’s either, ‘You stick amateur or you turn pro,’ and I decided to turn pro.
“And we knew I had the skill set it took in order to become great, the dedication, the skill. And we just stuck with it and put our head down and worked for it. And, you know, (it) got us to the point where we are right now.”
Beyond being stylistically ready for the pros, at 16 Garcia had a new child to look after. Turning professional gave him a way to support his young family, which was still growing.
“I kind of owe it to my parents, you know. They’ve helped me out a lot,” he said. “But, I have two kids and I do boxing (as a) full-time job. I train two, three times a day and my kids inspire me, my wife inspires me. I got to put food on the table.
“But I have goals to become a world champion. So, you know, it’s just a mixture of all of them (that motivates me).”
Garcia has shown maturity beyond his years in and outside of the ring and his corner credits his early professional success to that.
“He’s very mature for 19-years old,” his grandfather said. “We were always like ‘Boxing is a real serious game.’ I know that, and his father knows that. So we aren’t going to mess around, and if he wasn’t going to do it right, we weren’t going to do it at all.
“He knows we’d walk away from it, so he’s tried really hard and he’s always real serious. So, that’s why he became so good.”
After five straight knockout victories to start his career in Mexico, Garcia returned home to Phoenix where he began to build a name. After scoring three victories in his hometown, Garcia earned a fight at Footprint Center, the largest venue used for boxing in the Valley, on a card headlined by two-time former world champion and Phoenix native David Benavidez.
Garcia defeated Todd Manuel on that card, when the fight was stopped in the penultimate round.
Garcia has made it a priority to fight often early on in his career and his fight on Saturday will continue that trend marking his second fight in the last two months.
In early March, Garcia took on his toughest opponent to date in Amilcar Vidal Jr., another up-and-coming undefeated fighter looking to push his name up the middleweight rankings. Garcia put on an impressive performance, dispatching Vidal in four rounds with a barrage of power punches to the head that sent his opponent to the canvas and ended the fight.
“It got me a lot of attention,” Garcia said. “He was the No. 9 contender, I wasn’t ranked at all and a lot of people just kept saying ‘He’s just some 19-year-old, blah, blah, blah, blah.’
“So after I beat him, I felt great because I felt like I proved the whole world wrong, you know? I did something everybody said I couldn’t do. And then I just had all eyes on me because I was a 19-year-old in the division, I could hit and so I got a little bit of credit from social media … and stuff like that. But it was a good experience.”
Garcia didn’t take much time to celebrate his 12th knockout as he quickly set his sights on his next fight, which would turn out to be Saturday’s matchup against Salgado, younger brother of former junior lightweight world champion Juan Carlos Salgado.
“He was in the gym the next day (after the Vidal fight),” Garcia Sr. said of his grandson.
Garcia had good reason to hop straight back into camp after his win over Vidal. He views the Salgado fight as the toughest test of his career so far.
“It’s been my fourth fight within six months, staying active is an important key,” he said. “I believe staying active, staying in the gym, that’s what gets you these big fights. I’ve stayed ready and I’ve put the work in, and to be able to fight on this big card, it’s going to be massive for me.
“I was at the (David) Benavidez-(Caleb) Plant fight and that was a big pay-per-view card at the MGM, and I was looking around, people on their feet standing, cheering since the first fight, since Abel Ramos fought.
“And (now) I’m going to be witnessing that on the biggest card of the year, and I’m just excited. I’m ready for it.”
The only stains on Salgado’s record came in the only two fights he has had in the United States. His lone defeat came at the hands of Joey Spencer, who was just handed his first loss by Casa Grande’s Jesus Ramos Jr. in the co-main event of Benavidez-Plant.
“I know that I’m facing a good opponent, but I’m ready to surprise the boxing world,” Salgado said. “This is a great opportunity for me. I’m grateful to be in this position and I’m coming to take full advantage of it. I’m feeling strong in training camp and I’ll be ready to test Garcia and see where he stacks up.”
Garcia is ranked No. 15 in the middleweight division by the IBF, while remaining unranked by the other three sanctioning bodies, despite the fact that he defeated Vidal who remains at No. 9 in the WBC rankings.
Garcia and undefeated Valley fighters Benavidez and Ramos Jr. have led a re-emergence of fighting talent from Phoenix the likes of which have not been seen since the days of Hall-of-Fame boxer, Olympic medalist and world champ Michael Carbajal.
Benavidez became the youngest super middleweight champion of all-time when he beat Ronald Gavril in 2017 as a 20-year-old. After defeating Plant in March, he is awaiting a shot against Canelo Alvarez for the undisputed title.
Meanwhile, Ramos Jr. is one of the top young prospects in all of boxing and, at 22, is already ranked in the top 10 in the junior middleweight division by the WBC and WBO.
Garcia believes that he and Ramos can join Benavidez as world champions – turning Phoenix into the cradle of champions.
“We can become one of the biggest boxing states in the country, if not the world, if we could all become a world champion. That’s pretty damn good,” Garcia said. “Arizona is on the rise. That’s what I say. ‘AZ is on the rise,’ and I think we continue to show that each and every time, in all sports, football, baseball, boxing.”
Garcia hopes to remain on his path toward a world championship against Salgado on Saturday. A world championship belt is a goal he hopes to attain by the age of 21 or 22, which if achieved, would make him the youngest current champion in boxing. His team says if they continue to move Garcia forward in the right way, it could happen.
“Eventually, (we want to) fight for a world title,” Garcia Sr. said. “But, like I said, it’s going to take some time. We’ve got to be real careful with him because he’s still young. Most of the guys at 19 years old, they haven’t even turned pro yet. So we got to take our time and we can’t rush it.”