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UFC’s Dana White, boxing’s top promoters are in an arms race to sign Mikey Garcia

World champion Mikey Garcia is arguably boxing’s most sought-after promotional free agent, but who will land him? Will he even sign with anyone?

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Adrien Broner v Mikey Garcia Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This Saturday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, WBC lightweight champion Mikey Garcia (38-0, 30 KOs) will take on IBF champion Robert Easter (21-0, 14 KOs) in a unification bout, with the winner laying claim to having half of the 135-pound division’s major titles.

A four-division champion who’s widely considered one of the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world, Garcia has beaten the likes of Orlando Salido, Rocky Martinez, Juan Manuel Lopez, and Adrien Broner. He is the rightful overwhelming favorite to hand Easter his first loss. If there isn’t much drama to be expected inside the ring this weekend, then what the future holds for Garcia after Saturday night is the real storyline.

The 30-year-old Garcia is part of Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions stable, but while the powerful yet seldom-seen Haymon is officially his “adviser,” he doesn’t actually have a promoter. For instance, Garcia’s last four fights (as well as this weekend’s Easter showdown) have been held under Tom Brown’s TGB Promotions — which both Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions alleged in separate lawsuits to be one of Haymon’s “sham promoters” in order to skirt the Muhammad Ali Act — but Garcia is not under contract with TGB Promotions.

Back in 2016, Garcia finally broke free from his promotional contract with Bob Arum’s Top Rank following a bitter two-year legal dispute, as he was unhappy with his pay. Before his lawsuit to get out of his agreement, his final fight under the Top Rank banner saw him receive a fight purse of $725,000 for his January 2014 junior lightweight (130 lbs) title defense vs. Juan Carlos Burgos. He’s been a free-agent ever since, but with his star profile on the rise and potential blockbuster matchups to be made, there is a clear jostling for position by fight promoters (except Top Rank, obviously) to sign him to a deal. In fact, interest in Garcia is so wide-reaching that New York Yankees legend and current part-owner of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins, Derek Jeter, recently had a meeting with him to discuss possibly staging one of his bouts at Marlins Park.

Ringstar Sports’ Richard Schaefer, once again in the promoter world after a messy exit from Golden Boy Promotions, made an effort to get Garcia to no avail, but has worked with him in the past.

Golden Boy Promotions made a push to have Garcia under contract late last year. Attempts to ink him to a four-fight contract, starting with a $2 million offer (with a win bonus worth up to $500,000) to face Miguel Cotto in his retirement fight. That didn’t materialize, and neither did an attempted unification bout vs. then-champion Jorge Linares under much less restrictive terms.

[Golden Boy Promotions president Eric] Gomez said Golden Boy offered him a 50-50 split of the money in the fight, agreed to a one-fight deal without having any options on future Garcia fights -- a big issue for Garcia -- and also agreed that if Garcia wanted adviser Al Haymon, a bitter rival of Golden Boy’s, involved in the bout it would not be an issue.

Garcia said that he had another fight offer and accepted that one, which ended up being a move up to 140 lbs to face IBF champion Sergey Lipinets in March of this year. In an entertaining bout, Garcia won by unanimous decision and captured a major title in his fourth weight class, but immediately vacated the belt so he could drop back down to defend his 135-pound title. It is believed that Garcia earned as much as $3.5 million for that contest, a decidedly large sum for a non-PPV fight, and emblematic of the top-tier PBC fighters getting paid well above market rate. In case you’re wondering, Garcia has never headlined a pay-per-view.

With Ringstar and Golden Boy out of the equation, the next name to emerge was none other than UFC president Dana White, whose Zuffa Boxing venture has yet to get off the ground. As recently as May, it was reported by Kevin Iole that White was “closing in on a deal” to be Garcia’s promoter, but within two weeks, Garcia confirmed that he’d been in talks with Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn.

White has had his eye on Garcia for quite some time, as evidenced by their Super Bowl encounter last year. In a recent interview on the In This Corner podcast, Garcia went a little bit more in-depth with his thoughts on Dana getting into the boxing business.

“[White] did a great job in the UFC. He has definitely done a great job promoting it and turning it into the sport that it is,” Garcia said. “He knows how to promote and do huge events. If he wants to jump in and venture into boxing, he needs top guys. He’s going to need top names or else he is going to have a tough time launching his promotional boxing career. But if he gets the right names and he’s willing to pay what these names deserve, I think he can do well.”

It’s hard to ignore that without even signing anyone, White has straight-up said that Zuffa Boxing won’t work with any of the sanctioning bodies, and he’s shown himself to be quite adversarial with Top Rank’s Bob Arum, Golden Boy’s Oscar De La Hoya, Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza, and even recently Matchroom’s Hearn. Chances are that Garcia will find it hard to get the biggest and best matchups if White refuses to play ball with the key figures involved in the sport.

One potential scenario is that White’s “ballsy move” is to collaborate with Haymon in promoting the PBC roster; after all, PBC was essentially trying to become the UFC of boxing, but they blew threw hundreds of millions of dollars in investment money in their failed quest to land a major TV deal. This still doesn’t solve White’s stance against doing business with Top Rank, Golden Boy, or running his own league and eschewing the sanctioning bodies. It also ends up sounding a hell of a lot like the end-game would be to try and dominate the boxing market, and that might be recipe for disaster.

Given how his relationship with Top Rank cratered and he lost two years of his career as a result of the legal process, you can understand why he’s put serious thought into which promoter he’ll sign with (if at all). In an interview with Sporting News, he detailed exactly what he’s looking for.

“First, it has to make sense for me,” Garcia explained. ”Do I have control of my career? Do I have a big say in how we guide, opponents and who can we get as opponents for me? I just won’t sign a contract with a promoter if he offers me a lot of money. But if there’s no opponents, then the money really isn’t going to be exciting for me. I also need the challengers and the opponents.

”The secondary would be the financial aspect. Would it be worth it for me? I know what I’m doing on my own. I know what I’m capable of doing right now. That would be something that is not acceptable by me. If it makes sense and excites me and if it’s something great, then we can definitely work together. I don’t want long-term deals either where it’s like five years or whatever. We can probably work on short three-fight agreements. Maybe, if things go well, then we can extend it for another term and work things out that work well for me and for that person who promotes me.”

Just the first paragraph alone would lead you to believe that unless he’s willing to be vastly different from how he handles UFC fighters, White and Garcia in business together is a total mismatch.

The other competitor at the moment is Hearn, who has promoted heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua since his pro debut — you may recall Dana’s interest in co-promoting Joshua — and helped turn him into a mega-attraction. Matchroom Boxing is the predominant promotion in the United Kingdom, but Hearn is entering new territory by expanding into the United States, and there’s no guarantee that what works for him in the UK will translate the same way across the Atlantic. Hearn talks a big game, promising to reshape the US boxing scene as we know it, but if he’s to live up to his word, he needs major names and elite talent to justify that $1 billion DAZN deal. Last week’s grand announcement of new signings was underwhelming relative to the boxers he sought, but he did promise more announcements over the next several weeks. By having a supposedly larger budget than HBO and Showtime combined, there will presumably be hefty salaries and arguable overpays for those who are signed exclusively to the streaming platform.

A potential drawback for Garcia may very well be the exclusivity to DAZN, which in the short-term is a downgrade from Showtime in terms of viewership, and may hinder negotiations for desired “money fights.” A matchup with Vasyl Lomachenko, for example, could be a non-starter given Lomachenko is essentially an ESPN-only fighter, setting aside Garcia’s animosity towards Bob Arum in the first place. On the flip side, Garcia could flourish as the unquestioned centerpiece for Matchroom USA, with Hearn and company providing the heavy marketing push that the Mexican-American needs.

Garcia intends to resume conversations with White and Hearn (and anyone else making offers) following his bout vs. Easter. While these talks are ongoing, it can’t be ruled out that he’ll just turn everyone down and remain a free agent, as many PBC fighters do. He is one of the brightest, most talented competitors in boxing, with his best years still ahead of him. But on the cusp of superstar status, the next business move he makes (or doesn’t make) will go a long way towards determining just how much of a draw he can become, and how he’ll alter the boxing landscape.

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