As 2013 slowly comes to an end, many of us recall what an incredible year it has been for our beloved sport. From stunning upsets, to timeless wars of attrition and heart, 2013 has delivered countless memories for fight-fans across the globe. Although, one story that hasn’t received the attention it deserves would have to be the remarkable revitalization in the career of a man that some may have all-to-soon have forgotten, Leonard Garcia. “Bad Boy” Garcia parted ways with the UFC last year following a string of hard-fought losses and many were quick to claim his career was coming to a close. Instead, Leonard made it his mission to reinvent himself as a fighter and work his way back to the top, winning the Legacy FC featherweight title and being on the winning end of war that has since been nominated for ‘Fight of the Year.’ Leonard recently spoke with ProMMANow to recap this ‘Cinderella Man’ saga and discuss his plans for 2014.
*Questions from Jason with ProMMANow in bold
*Leonard’s response are italicized
Congratulations on the victory over Kevin Aguilar and capturing the Legacy FC Featherweight strap, it was a great way to cap off an impressive year for you. How are you feeling after that dominant win?
“It always feels good when you’re coming off a win but when you win a title you feel it a little extra, you have that notoriety or credibility, so it’s a good feeling man. I had a rough run in the UFC and as you know I wanted to make a comeback, so that title was just icing on the cake.”
You were able to make quick work of Aguilar finishing him with a flurry in the first round, what did you think of your performance and game plan execution?
“I’m really happy, Kevin had beat a friend of mine in Hunter Tucker and I knew Kevin was a sharpshooter and he was good at fighting on the outside. So the game plan was to put pressure on him, back him up against the fence and make him run into punches and see how he reacts. The reaction was what everyone was hoping it would be, everyone kept telling me that if I get close enough to land punches and not miss so much I can hurt people every time I hit them. So the plan was to get close enough to hit him and stay sharp, it worked out perfectly.”
This makes three impressive wins consecutively and a championship in a well-respected promotion. How much of a blessing in disguise has the cut from the UFC been for you?
“It was a wakeup call, it was exactly what I needed at the time. I was complacent when I was in the UFC, I was a little lazy and a good comeback story has to start from the bottom. I feel like being cut and having to fight and earn my way back has just made it the best story out there man.”
It doesn’t get much better then finishing your opponent midway through the first round, yet you didn’t get an opportunity to showcase the aspects of your game that you have improved. What kind of fight were you anticipating and what were you expecting from Aguilar on fight night?
“What happened in there is exactly what we had been working on, slipping punches, getting on the inside, watching for the takedowns, I kept my stance a lot lower than I normally do. I thought Kevin was going to shoot on me, I thought he felt like his jiu-jitsu was his strong point but then come to find out he had brought in a lot of standup guys and he was working his striking for this fight. So he played right into our game plan, anybody who is willing to stand with me should know that’s a game I’m willing to play with anybody, I think I stack up with the best in the world when it comes to striking. I worked on my ground game quite a bit for this fight, I did a lot of wrestling because I thought my jiu-jitsu was better than his and I worked on it throughout the whole camp along with my standup, but I really wanted to show him that I had a complete and all around game. He played right into the striking game so i didn’t get a chance to showcase the grappling I had been working on, but you don’t get paid by the hour in fighting, so the sooner you can get out there the better.”
It sounds to me like you intended to out grapple the grappler and he intended to out strike the striker, is that accurate?
“That’s exactly it right there in a nutshell man, you just broke it all down. I knew his favorite shot was to the outside leg, the way he sets it up is off of punches and kicks and he would try to back you up. One thing I didn’t want to do in this fight was back up, I felt like he had always gotten the upper hand on guys that he forced to back up. I think the only time he did land anything it was a right hand and maybe a kick, so immediately after I just shook it off and went forward putting the pressure back on. It was very important not to let him back me up.”
This career renaissance has developed into quite the story, starting from the bottom and working your way back up, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. In retrospect, do you wish everything that transpired leading to this point had happened earlier in your career?
“Absolutely, about a month before this fight Greg Jackson told me that had he known this was what was going to happen with me leaving the UFC, from training to my performance in the cage and being one of the top guys at both Jackson’s and Team Alpha Male, he would have told the UFC to cut me years ago to get these kind of results. But better late than never is what he said, he’s excited. He told me in the gym right after the fight that he can’t wait to see what I do when I’m back in the UFC.”
You are one of few athletes who can boast that your stock has increased since parting with the big show, still making waves and making headlines. The most recent of which is your nomination in the ‘Fight of the Year’ category for Inside MMA’s Bazzie Awards, that must help vindicate all of your hard work an perseverance correct?
“Without a doubt man, anytime you’re nominated for anything it’s a great feeling, wherever you’re at in life you want to be honored and make headlines. I feel like that Nick Gonzalez fight was basically a featherweight fighting a lightweight, but if you take that aspect out of it I think we had a great fight. I know there are a lot of fights out there that could be ‘Fight of the Year’ but if you had to have drama, a really good back and forth battle and a finish at the end, that one gets my vote. Anything Bas Rutten is signing off on is truly an honor as well, Bas is one of the guys I’ve always looked up to and having one of those awards would be awesome. I think it’s a testament to my skills as a fighter, it’s going to happen in any promotion big or small. If I was in the UFC, I would be looking at that, like this guy is making headlines everywhere and we should definitely re-sign him.”
In our previous discussions you have frequently mentioned having a goal of winning the Legacy FC title by the end of the year and then triumphantly returning to the UFC in 2014. Now that only the latter part of your campaign needs completion, do you still intend on making your UFC return next year, and if so are you eyeing any upcoming events you would like to be featured on?
“For sure, they are coming to Dallas in March with the Hendricks and Robbie Lawler card and I’m focusing all of my attention to that right now. I’ve been able to talk with Sean Shelby and things are looking good man, he’s been really gracious with his compliments, he’s been returning my phone calls, he’s been doing all the things I think the UFC doesn’t just do, they don’t just talk to fighters without reason, so I’m excited. I’d really love to have a meeting with Dana and have a good sales pitch for him to let him know what I’m going to do out there when the time comes. My short term goal of becoming the Legacy champion has been reached so now it’s time for the long term goal. If I have to do anymore fighting outside of the UFC, I will. Like I said I’ve got a family to feed so if the UFC doesn’t answer the call right away I would definitely defend the Legacy title or try to fight for a title in another organization.”
UFC 171 would be the perfect stage to make your return being that it’s so close to home for you. Are there any specific opponents you would like to meet in the squared-circle in your first fight back?
“There are a couple fights that are going to make sense for me right when I get back or at least some time down the line. The Korean Zombie man, we have to do that fight again. He went down to Alpha Male and worked on his wrestling and he got a little better, I’ve been at Alpha Male and I’ve gotten a lot better. I feel like if I make it a fight where he has to stand up wit me, we would do a replay of that first fight and hopefully my hand won’t break in the first round and we can get after it all over again but without that nagging pain. I would really, really, really like that fight. Also whether I have to get my stock back up or I have to wait, Conor McGregor is a great fighter, I think he has some good skills standing up and I think he is one of those guys who will stand there and go toe-to-toe. Those are two match ups I have been thinking about but in reality I’ll fight whoever they put in front of me.”
Both of those match-ups are appealing to say the least. Have you considered the possible offer to fight one of your team mates and would you sign the contract?
“At this point in my career, these are going to be my prime years, I’m coming into my body, I’m starting to find different strengths and I’m more comfortable in the gym. The problem with training at Alpha Male and Jacksons is there are a lot of featherweights between the two gyms. Cub Swanson, Diego Brandao, Chad Mendes, Clay Guida, all these guys are in my weight class and they are all going for the same thing I’m going for now. So whenever I do come back, I’m always going to be me, if there is one thing that the UFC knows it’s that when they call me to ask if I’m ready to fight, I never ask who it is, I sign the contract before I even know. If it happens to be one of these guys I’ll gladly do it, this is a business. Cowboy (Cerrone) and I are brothers and we would gladly fight each other for the right amount, sometimes you’re friends with the guy you’re fighting anyway. It doesn’t matter to me, I’d gladly get in there with any of them, fighting isn’t about anger or negativity for me, we are professionals and we are all trying to find out who the best is. At the end of the day bragging rights are kind of cool to have in the gym anyway.”
Judging by your conversations with Sean Shelby and your history with the promotion, coupled with your entertaining style, it would be safe to assume fight-fans can expect to see you back in Octagon in the very near future. Realistically, how likely is it that we see you on the UFC 171 card?
“I’m ninety-five percent sure right now man, like I said, I’m putting all my effort into it and I’m getting really good responses back, I’d really like a meeting with Dana because I know he has the final call. I can tell this story, it doesn’t need a salesman but if he needs to hear a sales pitch, I’ll give it to him.”
In conclusion, is there any message you would like to give all of the “Bad Boy” Garcia fans out there and what should we expect to see from you in 2014?
“As you all have seen, there has been a change. I’m still the same guy who is going to put on highly entertaining battles, but now I’m a lot wiser and I’m coming into my body. I accredited a lot of it to God as well, being in church and living correctly has been a big part of it, but just being wiser out here has made me wiser in the gym and better in the fight. So be looking forward to seeing more of those entertaining fights, the thing is that the dog fight is never going to come out of me, I’m always going to have that inside of me like a Rocky story or a Cinderella Man story. The guy who gets hit by the biggest puncher in the sport and his mouthpiece flies out and he just picks it up and puts it back in his mouth, I’m always going to be that guy, but now I’ll be hitting the guy back even harder. I’m looking forward to what’s coming, I’m excited and I hope the fans are too.”
Be sure to find Leonard on social media and help him with his campaign return to the UFC: