After clearing his corner after defeat, Anthony Joshua took on a coach with 14 world champions. At this point, Robert Garcia is no stranger to boxing’s biggest scenes. As a fighter, the Southern California native captured the IBF junior lightweight title and defended it twice before finding his true calling as a corner man.
Where at his flagship gym in the coastal town of Oxnard he has trained no fewer than 14 world champions over more than two decades.
Should Anthony Joshua take on Oleksandr Usyk in Saturday night’s rematch in Saudi Arabia and regain the WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight titles he vacated in their one-sided debut last year, there could be no greater difference than the 47-year-old the Mexican-American coach charged with putting together a game plan 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 he communicates with his athletes,” says Chris Algieri, a former WBO welterweight champion who trained under Garcia in Oxnard for several years. “Not all fighters were at a high level when they competed, but Robert was, so his ability to communicate and use the right words to get his fighters — whether it’s to get fired up or to be more disciplined — he knows how to do that. turn that special knob to get the most out of them.”
That relationship, both in the training behind them and the career-defining fight ahead, could prove vital to Joshua’s hopes. His comprehensive defeat by Usyk at Tottenham Hotspur last September was primarily a tactical disaster. Instead of pushing his natural strengths in height, reach and strength, Joshua curiously tried to outbox the superior boxer in front of him. As the laps ticked by and Usyk consolidated the lead on the scorecards, Joshua was in no favors as the corner was unable to introduce anything resembling an adjustment to change the one-way traffic.
From the moment Joshua subsequently invoked his immediate rematch clause, it was clear that a major change was needed. This marked the end of his ten-year partnership with Robert McCracken, the only coach he has ever known as a professional, who also guided Joshua to an Olympic gold medal as head coach of Team GB’s boxing team at the London 2012 Games.
Joshua toured the United States at the end of last year in search of a replacement for Virgil Hunter, Eddy Reynos and Ronnie Shields, who emerged as the main contenders. But he ultimately settled on Garcia, whose outstanding reputation has only grown in the decade since he gained mainstream recognition after being voted trainer of the year by the Boxing Writers of America in 2012.
“He’s a teacher, he’s not a trainer,” says Abner Mares, the three-division champion who teamed with Garcia after a string of confidence-shattering defeats to regain the featherweight title in 2016. “A coach can put on fingerless gloves and just sit there and look nice and tell you what to 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 sets Robert apart from other coaches.”
Although he nominally shared the head coaching role with longtime Joshua assistant Angel Fernandez in the backroom setup, Garcia is the addition that has everyone talking. On the one hand, it’s a partnership brimming with promise. Garcia became associated with learning a relentless pressure style peppered with rough tactics that, if executed correctly, could place demands on Usyk that went unchallenged in their first meeting. Even such rudiments as leaning his 6ft 6in frame against Usyk in the clinch could at least make Saturday’s rematch at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City more complicated for the wily janitor than last year’s straightforward affair.
On the other hand, none of the fighters on Garcia’s world championship resume have won a title above 160 pounds, making him something of an unproven entity in boxing’s prestigious division. And will the scant three months Garcia has spent with Joshua at his new training headquarters in Loughborough provide enough time for his instructions to take hold?
“It takes a long time for a coach to change an athlete, especially one who has been in the game as long as Joshua,” says Algieri. “He’s a world champion, a dominant world champion. I hate to say ‘old dog, new tricks’, but teaching an established champion new things in a short amount of time is almost impossible. I imagine the conversations between Joshua and Robert were more important than the technique when it came to whatever kind of training they were doing.
But Mares believes Garcia’s success in building fighters up from tough defeats and helping them win back world titles in upsets, as he famously did with Marcos Maidana and Brian Viloria, makes him a good match for Joshua, who will become an underdog . on Saturday night for the first time in his professional career.
Mareš would know. He was coming off a loss to Léo Santa Cruz and wasn’t too far removed from a devastating first-round destruction at the hands of Jhonny González when he joined Garcia’s stable. The partnership paid immediate dividends as he surprised Jesús Cuellar to win the WBA Featherweight Championship in their first outing together.
“It’s a challenge when somebody brings you a broken fighter, if you want to call it that,” says Mares. “Robert as a teacher, as a surgeon, as a doctor, whatever you want to call him: he fixes things and makes them better. With Anthony Joshua, I think more than anything, it’s his confidence. It’s just me from the outside looking in, but Robert is able to focus back on the basics.
“Physically, Anthony Joshua is always 100 percent. He looks like a monster. But it’s the mental part that I hope they’ve worked on now. If he’s good there, I think everything else will work out great.”