ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Nearly every morning during his most recent camp, Leonard Garcia began his day by reading passages from the Bible aloud in his room at the ranch he shares with UFC lightweight contender Donald Cerrone.
In doing so, the popular brawler known as “Bad Boy” attracted something of a following in his Edgewood, N.M., residence. At any given time, Garcia and Cerrone provide lodging and training opportunities for multiple mixed martial artists, most of whom harbor dreams of reaching heights similar to those achieved by their celebrated hosts. Recently, many of those same fighters have found themselves drifting into Garcia’s room to listen as he reads.
While it was never his intention to draw an audience, the presence of his training partners is most certainly welcome, Garcia says.
“What’s crazy is I never invited anybody,” said Garcia, who faces Max Holloway at UFC 155 on Saturday. “They just kind of heard me reading. I read out loud because I feel like I shouldn’t be ashamed of it. I think reading the Bible out loud is a great thing. [Now] they come in and tell me, ‘Hey, are you gonna read?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I was just waiting on you guys.’”
Not everyone at the ranch is following the same path. According to Garcia, Cerrone has taken it upon himself to find a scripture that can easily be identified with his friend, like the “Austin 3:16” handle that become famous during professional wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s rise to prominence in the WWE. At least that means Cerrone is reading, Garcia points out.
“Cowboy makes fun of me a little bit. He says he’s gonna bring Bibles to the gym and beat me up with them so I can have crosses all over me – so I can go praise God,” Garcia said, chuckling at the memory.
Garcia discovered his faith during a recent trip to his hometown of Plainview, Texas, where he served as a guest speaker at a local youth ministry. The appearance had a profound effect on the UFC featherweight talent.
“I got up there and talked, and I noticed that everyone was holding on to my [every] word,” he said. “All these kids were paying attention to me – they wanted to know what was going on in my life. I had a great feeling come over me, and I wanted to keep it. I knew that feeling wasn’t something that can be given by anything normal. I knew it had to be God. It took off from there, and it hasn’t left yet.”
A newfound devotion to religion is just part of the shift in philosophy adopted by Garcia. After three consecutive losses in the UFC, the Jackson’s MMA product realized that, despite his reputation for entertaining slugfests in the cage, his position in the Las Vegas-based promotion had grown tenuous. This revelation did not come easily for the 33-year-old Texan, as he admits to coasting on his reputation since a wild, split-decision triumph over Chan Sung Jung at WEC 48, a bout that was one of the most entertaining fights of 2010 – and one that some believe Garcia didn’t deserve to win.
“I remember after that fight just believing: I can go into a fight on this many week’s notice, train kind of hard and still win. It turned out to be a curse for me. After that (Jung) fight is when it really turned on, and after my last one is when it turned off,” Garcia said.
Garcia’s last appearance reminded no one of the Fight-of-the-Night-worthy performances for which he has become known. Taken down at will by wrestler Matt Grice, “Bad Boy” landed just two significant strikes en route to a one-sided unanimous decision loss at UFC on FX 3.
“I had a fractured ankle in that fight. The last Thursday of sparring I went with Clay Guida, I kicked him right in the knee and my foot blew up the size of a basketball,” he said. “I iced it all weekend – couldn’t run, couldn’t do anything. I took the fight for financial reasons. I had no choice. I had to take the fight or lose my home. Everybody knows when you make choices in life, you pay for them. I made the wrong decision.”
Despite being hindered by an injury in that loss, Garcia didn’t lie to himself. He still realized he needed to renew his focus in the gym. Four-day workout weeks had become the norm, and the fighter was finally beginning to notice the negative effects of his relaxed approach.
“It took all this to humble me and to make me realize that I wasn’t the superstar I thought I was,” Garcia said. “You don’t want to think about stuff like that when you’re training. I ‘m here with the best guys in the world. I’m in here hanging with them every day. I wasn’t pushing them anymore. I was just satisfied with hanging in.
“Guys started passing me up. Guys started getting better. I realized that something was going wrong,” he continued.”I had to come back in and do the classes like everybody else. I had to put my time in on the mat. Now it’s getting back to normal. The main guys are talking about me like I’m a main guy again. They’re asking me to be part of their rounds again. Whereas it used to be, I’d volunteer and they’d be like, ‘That’s all right.’”
When Garcia squares of with the 21-year-old Holloway, he knows his back is against the wall. While the WEC veteran is officially 3-6-1 in his last 10 fights under the Zuffa umbrella, the presence of three split-decision wins and a split draw on his ledger suggest that Garcia could just as easily be 0-10.
The road doesn’t get any easier with Holloway, a promising talent who has been impressive in dispatching Pat Schilling and Justin Lawrence in his last two Octagon appearances. That said, Garcia relishes his current position.