At this point Robert Garcia is no stranger to boxing’s biggest stages. As a fighter, the southern California native captured the IBF junior lightweight title and defended it twice before finding his true calling as a cornerman, where he’s trained no fewer than 14 world champions over more than two decades out of his flagship gym in the coastal town of Oxnard, some 60 miles north-west of Los Angeles.
Should Anthony Joshua defy the oddsmakers against Oleksandr Usyk in Saturday night’s rematch in Saudi Arabia and regain the WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight titles he surrendered in their one-sided first instalment last year, there may be no bigger difference-maker than the 47-year-old Mexican-American trainer entrusted with drawing up the gameplan that was so conspicuously absent the first time around.
“The fact that Robert is a former champion and was a fighter makes a huge difference in the way that he communicates to his athletes,” says Chris Algieri, the former WBO welterweight champion who trained under Garcia for several years in Oxnard. “Not all fighters were high level when they competed but Robert was, so his ability to be able to communicate and use the right words to get his fighters – whether they need to be fired up or they need to be more disciplined – he knows how to turn that extra knob to get the most out of them.”
That rapport, both in the training that’s behind them and in the career-defining fight ahead, could prove crucial to Joshua’s hopes. His comprehensive defeat by Usyk last September at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was, above all, a tactical catastrophe. Rather than press his natural advantages in height, reach and power, Joshua curiously attempted to outbox the superior boxer in front of him. As the rounds ticked onward and Usyk mounted a commanding lead on the scorecards, Joshua was done no favours by a corner unable to implement anything even resembling an adjustment to alter the one-way traffic.
From the moment Joshua exercised his immediate rematch clause in the aftermath, it was clear that a sweeping change was necessary. That meant ending his decade-long partnership with Robert McCracken, the only trainer he’d ever known as a professional, who also guided Joshua to a star-making Olympic gold medal as the head coach of Team GB’s boxing team at the 2012 London Games.
Joshua toured the United States at the end of last year in search of a replacement with Virgil Hunter, Eddy Reynoso and Ronnie Shields emerging as leading candidates. But he ultimately opted for Garcia, whose sterling reputation has only grown in the decade since he gained mainstream recognition upon being voted trainer of the year by America’s boxing writers in 2012.
“He’s a teacher, he’s not a coach,” says Abner Mares, the three-division champion who teamed with Garcia after a series of confidence-shaking defeats to regain the featherweight title in 2016. “A coach can put on mitts, just sit and look pretty and tell you what you do, but this guy teaches you. He guides you. If a fighter walks into his gym, he doesn’t try to change how you stand or what you bring. He works with what you have, and that’s what separates Robert from other coaches.”
While he’s nominally shared the role of chief trainer with longtime Joshua assistant Angel Fernandez in the backroom setup, Garcia is the addition that’s had everyone talking. On one hand it’s a partnership bursting with promise. Garcia has become associated with teaching a relentless pressure style peppered with roughhouse tactics, which if realised properly could make demands of Usyk that went unasked in their first meeting. Even fundamentals like leaning his 6ft 6in frame on Usyk in the clinch could at least make Saturday’s rematch at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City more complicated for the clever southpaw than last year’s straightforward affair.
On the other, none of the fighters on Garcia’s résumé of world champions have won a title above 160lb, making him something of an unproven entity in boxing’s prestige division. And will the scant three months that Garcia has spent with Joshua at his new Loughborough training headquarters offer enough time for his instruction to take meaningful hold?
“It takes time for a coach to change an athlete, especially one who’s been in the game as long as Joshua,” Algieri says. “He’s a world champion, a dominant world champion. I hate the saying ‘old dog, new tricks’, but teaching an established champion new stuff on short notice is almost impossible. I’m imagining that the conversations between Joshua and Robert were more important than the technique in terms of whatever kind of training they did.”
But Mares believes Garcia’s track record of building fighters back up from hard defeats and helping them recapture world titles in upsets, as he famously did with Marcos Maidana and Brian Viloria, makes him a good fit for Joshua, who will go off as an underdog for the first time in his professional career on Saturday night.
Mares would know. He was coming off a loss to Léo Santa Cruz and not too far removed from a devastating first-round destruction at the hands of Jhonny González when he joined Garcia’s stable. The partnership yielded immediate dividends when he surprised Jesús Cuellar to win the WBA featherweight championship in their first outing together.
“It is a challenge when someone brings you a broken fighter, if you want to call it that,” Mares says. “Robert as a teacher, as a surgeon, as a doctor, whatever you want to call him: he fixes things and he makes them better. With Anthony Joshua, I think more than anything it’s his confidence. This is just me seeing it from the outside, but Robert can get the focus back to the fundamentals.
“Physically, Anthony Joshua is always 100%. He looks like a monster. But it’s the mental part now that I hope they’ve worked on. If he’s good there, I think everything else is going to come out great.”