When Ryan Garcia hit the canvas for the first time in his life in the second round against Luke Campbell, for a moment it seemed like he would be going from social media superstar to just the latest meme.
Garcia, who claims he had never been dropped before in his life, was tagged by a sweeping left hand by Luke Campbell and fell to the canvas with his right arm pinned behind him. It was a moment of tension that only boxing can produce.
In no other sport can the hype of a potential “next big thing” be extinguished in a split second. The structure of the sport is such that nearly every fight has an A-side and a B-side, with the former getting higher billing, a better entrance, and more attention on the broadcast. When a fighter in Garcia’s position is knocked down, it can produce tremendous anxiety or tremendous joy depending on who the viewer is rooting for. The expectation for the A-side to win is explicitly stated in a way it can’t be in other sports where impartiality is demanded due to the existence of a league structure rather than an event promoter, and when that outcome is in doubt, it feels like chaos is ensuing, like the script has been thrown out.
Minutes earlier, Garcia was being carried to the ring on a throne, and now he was groggily picking himself up off the mat.
Rooting against fighters, specifically ones hyped as well as Garcia has been, is particularly intriguing for many fans. For some, it’s rooted in the desire for fairness and the idea that the popular fighter receives advantages they don’t deserve. Cheering against Garcia feels like cheering for a world in which popularity would have no bearing on the opportunities one receives in the sport. This type of mentality is alluring for one simple reason: there is certainty in it. Fighters almost always meet their match. Unless they’re Ricardo Lopez or Floyd Mayweather or Andre Ward, they will lose eventually.
Privilege can indeed be a sturdy crutch, in boxing as in life, but Garcia proved that he was unwilling to rest on it. Mere seconds later, Garcia was not just back on his feet, but with his weight on his front foot, throwing heavy shots in the direction of Campbell.
By the end of round five, Garcia had hurt Campbell, rocking him with a left hook that caused the Olympic gold medalist to turn his back. This was acceptable to the referee only because it happened to coincide with the ringing of the bell. From that point on, while the thought of Campbell catching Garcia was still in the back of everyone’s minds, it felt like the opposite was the more likely scenario.
In round seven, Garcia noticed Campbell bracing for his vaunted left hook to the head as Garcia stepped to the inside, and shifted his body at the last moment to place a brutal shot on his liver. Campbell was agonized to the point that he could not make the count of ten, and Garcia cried happy tears while being crowd surfed by members of his training staff.
As confident as Garcia seemed to be heading into the bout, there must have been a feeling of relief mixed in with the joy as his entourage replaced his entrance crown with an even bigger crown to signify his victory. Every fighter who laces up the gloves is confident, but one can never be sure of themselves until they overcome adversity in the ring for the first time.
The result was a practically perfect one in terms of the future marketing of Garcia. In suffering a knockdown and coming back to win by knockout, he shed the stigma that a popular/conventionally attractive/already rich fighter must not have “heart.” At the same time, for those who tune in hoping he’ll lose, the knockdown gives those people the belief that he is vulnerable.
For those who cheer for Garcia however—and those numbers vastly outpace those who don’t—it was a dramatic moment that, for now, affirms everything Garcia has said about himself to this point.
Last year, the monstrous pay-per-view showing headlined by Mike Tyson and Roy Jones clued many entrenched boxing viewers into the drawing power of Jake Paul. Garcia doesn’t follow the same “bad boy” formula as Jake on social media, but he remains very much in his orbit in terms of notoriety, even collaborating with other social media powerhouses like Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio. Garcia’s eight million followers on Instagram are roughly half of Paul’s, but still a significant number in excess of every active pro boxer other than Anthony Joshua. Garcia is like if Jake Paul were also an elite caliber fighter. He not only attracts an audience not otherwise interested in boxing but is also good enough for even the crustiest boxing fan to respect.
Boxing has seen fighters like Garcia before, individuals whose popularity outpaced their achievements and was rooted in reasons outside of their fighting prowess. Chuck Davey, Art Aragon, Ray Mancini, Bobby Czyz and Tommy Morrison all enjoyed periods of television stardom and rockstar fame coupled with varying degrees of success. Many loved them, others cheered for them to get their comeuppance. But they made people care.
Ryan Garcia’s greatest talent, maybe above his blinding speed and dynamite power, is his ability to make people care, one way or another.