Ryan Garcia won, but can he compete with the top 140-pounders?

Sports

Ryan Garcia admitted his fight with Oscar Duarte on Saturday in Houston was “very tough.”

After all, Garcia was competing for the first time since his April TKO loss to Gervonta Davis, and Duarte was a tougher-than-usual comeback opponent.

Duarte (26-2-1, 21 KOs) was rugged and never stopped coming forward. And he had all the momentum on his side when the eighth round began. But it’s Garcia who remains a feared puncher, and he reminded everyone why late in the frame.

With boos coming down as Garcia moved and moved some more, he found the equalizer late in Round 8, a check left hook to the head that buckled Duarte.

“He reaches and I catch him with a counter hook,” Garcia said. “… I just had to slow his momentum down. He was building momentum, and I was like, ‘Man, I gotta cut this off somehow.'”

Moments later, Garcia (24-1, 20 KOs) unloaded a bundle of punches, several of which connected and dropped Duarte to one knee. Duarte seemed to collect himself as he listened to the count, but he waited a moment too long to gather his feet and was counted out despite his protest.

And despite all the trouble Duarte gave him, Garcia rendered it all moot with another eye-catching KO victory. Garcia is undoubtedly one of boxing’s top stars, but the jury is still out on his ability to compete with the elite at 140 pounds.

“If Rolly [WBA junior welterweight champion Rolando Romero] wants that, bring it on, Rolly,” said Garcia, who met Duarte at a 143-pound catchweight. “… Let’s keep building and then we can go after Devin Haney and all the other dues, Teofimo [Lopez], but you know we gotta take our steps.”

But it’s Romero (15-1, 13 KOs) who could be up next. And the brash power-puncher would present Garcia with his first crack at a world title. Romero’s lone defeat came via sixth-round TKO to Davis last year, and he’s certainly not an elite junior welterweight. He sits outside ESPN’s top 10 at 140 pounds after a controversial ninth-round TKO victory over Ismael Barroso in May.

Even Garcia indicated on Saturday that Romero deserved to lose to “that old man,” referring to the 40-year-old Barroso.

But a victory over Romero would still serve as the biggest of Garcia’s career. His best win remains a 2021 seventh-round TKO victory over Luke Campbell where Garcia was forced to survive a knockdown.

Against Davis, Garcia found some early success but suffered two knockdowns and was counted out on one knee following a body shot. Garcia said this week that he entered that bout with an injured rib.

Davis is an elite fighter, ESPN’s No. 9 pound-for-pound boxer. One loss to “Tank” Davis doesn’t mean Garcia can’t compete on the elite level. Now, he’ll have to prove he indeed can against another such boxer.

Whether that eventually comes against Haney, Lopez or someone else, Garcia will one day need to hang with the best to continue his climb and remains one of boxing’s top stars.

He’s still just 25 and was competing for the first time with ESPN’s 2022 trainer of the year Derrick James leading his corner.

“We’re going to build off this and we’re just gonna get better,” Garcia said. “I’m committed to becoming a world champion.”

If he can accomplish that goal and do so against Romero, it would bring Garcia one step closer to realizing his lofty potential. The rest can wait for another day. For now, Garcia must push his promotional differences with Oscar De La Hoya to the side and focus on improving in the gym.

In the meantime, he remains one of the biggest stars in the sport, no matter what anyone thinks of his fighting ability.

“I feel like I’m right there in the top three, top four of the biggest stars in boxing,” Garcia told ESPN in October. “You go around, ask people my name, they’re going to know. Really, I’ve made myself a household name in boxing, which is a blessing. All that matters is being in the top five, really.

“People could argue about who’s the ‘face’ all they want. It doesn’t really matter. As long as you match up with a great guy, it’s going to be a great event. I know I’m right there and with many years of my life to come in this sport, I could definitely be the face of boxing. Just going to take a mentality and a discipline and it’ll get me there.”

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