Many a fighter will maintain publicly that he trains no harder for a title fight than he does for any other fight. That as a professional athlete with great respect for the game and its fans, he trains equally hard for every fight, title or otherwise.
WEC featherweight champion Mike Thomas Brown and challenger Leonard Garcia, who meet Sunday in the main event of WEC 39 at the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas, don’t stick to the clichéd MMA script when discussing training for their clash.
Both are candid enough to fess up that yes, they are more motivated this time precisely because it is a five-round title fight. And not just any title fight. It’s Brown’s first title defense since winning the belt with a stunning first-round TKO upset of longtime featherweight champion Urijah Faber at WEC 36 last Nov. 5. And it’s the first-ever title shot for Garcia, the No. 3-ranked featherweight who as a native Texan will be fighting in front of a home state crowd.
“I’m always motivated to train my ass off,” Brown (20-4-0), 33, who brings an eight-fight win streak into the cage Sunday, said during a break from training at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla. “But sometimes I am a little more motivated. I’m the champ, and you better be training like you’re the best in the world because everyone is gunning for you.
“So every training session I gotta be a monster and show people why I’m the number one guy.”
Garcia (12-3-0), 29, said he’s equally motivated.
“I’m definitely feeling pressure, because you definitely want to win the title the first chance you get,” he said during some downtime at Jackson’s Submission Fighting in Albuquerque, N.M. “Anybody in any sport, you want to be the best at what you do, and this is my chance.
“But motivation is the main thing for me. When I came into the WEC, I wanted a title shot really bad. I’ve knocked out my last two opponents, which were high-level guys,” Garcia said of his wins over Jens Pulver, also at WEC 36, and Hiroyuki Takaya at WEC 32 in February 2008. “It’s been a long, bumpy road for me. But I feel it’s in the cards for me and it’s going to pay off for me Sunday night.”
But, Brown cautioned, he will not necessarily take the fight to the ground just because he comes from a wrestling background. Though he has notched 11 of his 20 victories by way of submissions, he noted his standup has improved markedly in the last few years. Three of his last six wins were by TKO.
Brown said if an opponent is obviously weak in one area, he will try to exploit that weakness “to really take him out of his game.” But Garcia is not that kind of opponent, he noted.
“At this world-class level, it’s hard, man,” he said. “Leonard can punch. He’s all right on his feet and he’s decent on the ground. So whenever I have a guy who is well rounded, I just go into it like a regular MMA fight. I look to swing hard, bang on the feet and if it goes to the ground, it goes to the ground. Real simple game plan.”
Garcia, who has a solid boxing and jiu-jitsu pedigree, said he considers himself a better striker than Brown, but not as skilled as Brown on the ground.
“I’d go as far as saying he’s good at standup and great on the ground,” he said. “Whereas I’m a little better standing up and maybe lack a little on the ground compared to his game.”
So yes, Garcia said, he will try to keep the fight standing.
“For sure,” he said, even though he has eight career submission victories, as well as three (T)KOs. “Mike’s a big strong guy. I know at 155 he was a monster. At 145 there is no way to describe how big he is. He’s huge. And he hits hard. Just look at the Urijah fight,” when Faber ate a hard right from Brown while performing a spinning back elbow and got dropped.
“Common sense will tell you, man, I’m faster and longer,” said Garcia, who at 5-foot-10 is four inches taller than Brown. “I gotta stay away from him and hit him as many times as I can before he gets a hold of me. But I respect his standup too.
“All in all, I think we match up real well.”
Garcia said the five-round contest might just come down to who has the better cardio.
“That’s why I’ve been conditioning so hard for this fight,” he said. “I really want to be able to push the pace. I’m ready to go the whole 25 minutes.”
Garcia also said he broke his finger at the beginning of his camp, but that it has since largely healed.
“The camp went real well,” said Garcia, whose main trainers were head coach and wrestling specialist Greg Jackson and striking and kickboxing coach Mike Winklejohn. “I had a broken finger due to all the wrestling and stuff, and it was causing my knuckles to swell up real bad, but that healed up just fine. My finger’s a little crooked, but it still works.”
Garcia’s sparring partners included such Jackson camp mainstays as lightweight Donald Cerrone and the much physically larger Keith Jardine, a light heavyweight. Jackson said Garcia needed to spar with bigger guys “because we’re dealing with an opponent, Mike Brown, who is unbelievably strong.”
Brown said his ATT trainers, including head coach Ricardo Liborio, wrestling coach Darrel Gholar, jiu-jitsu coach Marcos "Parrumpinha" Da Matta, muay Thai coach Wally Mohammad and training partner and former opponent Yves Edwards have him physically peaking just about perfectly going into the fight.
“Man, it’s awesome,” he said. “The best I’ve ever peaked before. I’m feeling great.” And 100 percent healthy, he added.
Gholar said it’s no accident that Brown is champion.
“The guy’s no joke,” Gholar said. “He is a serious individual who trains seriously. And he’s a solid all-around athlete. This kid eats, breathes, drinks MMA.”
Jackson, still on an emotional high from the big night his fighters, including Nate Marquardt, had at last weekend’s UFC 95 in London, said Garcia’s most impressive attribute “is that he just loves to fight. He smiles. He grins. I’ve never had a fighter that looks forward to it like that.
“He’s the happiest in his life when he’s at war. He’s unflappable. And that’s scary to go against a guy like that, who you know is just going to keep coming at you and that you can’t break.”