“I believe in Steve Garcia.”
That was the message from Mike Winkeljohn on May 10 of this year after watching the Albuquerque bantamweight overwhelm his opponent that night.
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Ordinarily, Winkeljohn’s backing would hint at a young fighter’s budding ascendancy to one of the world’s major promotions. After all, Garcia’s performance came at a local New Mexico card put on by the trainer’s powerhouse academy and renowned promoter, Lenny Fresquez.
But the fact is, Garcia’s already been at the top – now he’s trying to get back.
Speaking last week to Mike Heck from The Body Lock, Steve Garcia Jr. seems excited, and it’s understandable.
“Honestly, I’m just ready to get it going,” Garcia said. “I want to get it started, I can’t wait for Tuesday to come.”
Three weeks prior, Garcia received the phone call he’d spent the last year and a half hoping for; an invitation to compete on this season of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. Like all of the fighters featured on the show, Garcia had enjoyed recent success on regional shows but unlike the majority, he got his start in MMA under the bright lights of Bellator in 2013, aged just 21.
Under the Coker banner, Garcia ran 5-1 until a loss to former Bellator Bantamweight and Featherweight champion, Joe Warren saw him unceremoniously released from the promotion in May 2018. He’s very open about it all and doesn’t hold the bitterness one might expect with a decision that seems to verge on the harder side.
“I feel like I was still developing, I had worked on a lot of wrestling but I probably should have got myself more familiar with the wrestling aspect you know?” he says.
“After the fight, he said I hurt him pretty good from the get-go and he was in survival mode. Coming from a former champion, I was like, ‘alright, you know what? I belong here, I’m not too far off’. Hearing from him that I’m a part of the future; it’s pretty inspiring. It’s cool.”
Garcia knew it was time to build. Changes had to be made if he was going to make it back to top-flight competition and, after putting these into practice with wins on New Mexico’s regional scene, he’s ready to show the world that the endless graft and an open mind always pays off.
“What I like about the Contender Series is that you have to earn your way in, you know what I mean? You have to fight to get into the UFC,” he says.
“Some people, they just answer a phone-call and they’re in. For me, I have to go out there and prove I’m good enough in front of the bosses of that company and then they can give me the thumbs up or not.
It’s kind of hard to explain because it’s when the hard work starts, obviously, you know now you’re getting into the best organization in the world”
Helping him get there is the man whom Garcia has spent the majority of his career learning from, Mike Winkeljohn. At Jackson Wink, Garcia is surrounded by the sport’s top talent who he describes simply as “good teammates, good people”; legendary figures such as Carlos Condit, Holly Holm, and UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, veterans of the sport and the promotion, with whom Garcia hopes to earn his keep.
Blocking his path to the UFC roster is 22-year-old Desmond “The Tyrant” Torres (7-1), a Team Oyama prodigy who takes a five-fight winning streak (three by way of ‘arm triangle’ chokes) into their August 20 bout. In a karmic sort of way, the high-flying youngster represents the Garcia of 2013; just a kid trying to ride a win streak all the way to the top.
But business must be taken care of and considering Dana White’s unpredictable reactions to recent contenders’ performances, Garcia sees the fight having to go only one way. Unfortunately for Torres and any dreams of a contract he inhabits.
“I don’t see anything other than me stapling his head to the canvas,” he says.
“It’s true that it’s not good enough to win anymore, you have to win impressively and unfortunately Desmond Torres is at the end of my punches. I’ll be glad to help him out as soon as I finish him and I get my hand raised, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to get my job done. I’ve been waiting 12 years for this, this is not something that I take very lightly.”
Like all Contender Series fighters, Garcia will enter the building empty-handed and literally fight for his livelihood. He’s taken the hard road once before to get back to this point, and now it’s time to fight for the right to do it all over again.
“I don’t have any other choice, I’m all in on this.”
Rhodri Morgan is a combat sports writer based out of London, England. When not covering MMA, he can be found roaming the halls of a south London Wholefoods, finding a dog to befriend and rolling in the doomed pursuit of the perfect kimura.