Roberto Garcia was only 10 years old, when his world came crashing down around him.
Living in his native Weslaco, Texas, young Garcia witnessed as his father, Rafael, shot his mother to death, then turned the gun on himself.
Although Garcia had two older brothers, he felt very alone.
“I went from house to house,” Garcia said. “I tried hard to find a family life, but I was basically alone.”
At the age of 17, Garcia took his aggressions out by becoming a boxer.
“I always liked boxing,” Garcia said.
But Garcia didn’t exactly find success. He spent a lot of time taking drugs and drinking.
“I did a lot of partying, with cocaine, marijuana and alcohol,” Garcia said.
In 2003, Garcia sought a different life and moved to North Bergen to train with local boxing trainer Butch Sanchez.
Hoboken native Sanchez has had his share of world champions in his stable, the latest being another North Bergen resident Carlos Tamara, who won the flyweight championship of the world in 2010.
Sanchez also trains top contender Jonathan Maicelo, who still resides in North Bergen, as well as North Bergen native Julian Rodriguez.
“I always wanted to come to the East Coast,” Garcia said about his first affiliation with Sanchez. “Every place in this country has a different taste. I sent Butch a VHS tape of me fighting and I got the call a week later to come here.”
So Garcia bought a one-way bus ticket from Texas to Port Authority in New York.
“I came here on a bus,” Garcia said. “It took two days.”
But at that time, Garcia had not ridden himself of the demons of drugs and alcohol.
“I was still doing those crazy things,” Garcia said. “I maintained my dirty habits.”
“When we had him in 2003, he was proving his worth,” Sanchez said. “I always believed that Roberto could be a world champ.”
Things didn’t work out well. In 2007, Garcia fought Freddy Hernandez for the International Boxing Association’s vacant welterweight title. Hernandez was not able to continue fighting after the third round because of an accidental head butt and the bout was declared a non-contest. He then had only two fights over the next 17 months.
“I spent four months here in North Bergen, broke and having no fights,” Garcia said. “I would go to the gym every day for 17 months and I had nothing. But having that time off helped me fix my life.”
At the time, Garcia met his wife, Nana.
“I hit the lottery with her,” Garcia said of his wife. “We’ve been together for nine years and married for seven. She’s an amazing woman. She is the one who took me away from the other stuff.”
Garcia and his wife have two daughters, Gia, age 3, and Bobbi, who is 5 months old.
“I have a model I follow,” Garcia said. “It’s God, family and boxing. That’s my life.”
Since 2011, Garcia has not lost a fight, winning eight straight.
“I’m getting better as I get older,” Garcia said. “With my career, I’m doing this all backwards.”
Now 35 years old, Garcia thought he was getting a great shot at the big time, but his former trainer set him down a wrong path that eventually led to a hospital stay. He went to 10 different training camps over the last 10 years, including stays in Las Vegas and stints with famed trainer Freddie Roach.
Knowing that he needed to return to his roots, Garcia reached out to old friend Sanchez.
“I had maintained a good relationship with Rob’s brother, George,” Sanchez said. “It’s a close-knit family that looks out for each other. I’ve always kept in touch. George told me that he would love to have Rob come and train here again.”
So when Garcia lined up a welterweight fight against Javier Molina April 24 at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion, a bout that will be televised nationally on Spike TV on a card that also features world middleweight champ Danny Jacobs, he needed assistance from Sanchez.
It meant moving back to the crammed North Bergen apartment that he shares with Maicelo and hitting the gym every single day. Garcia is getting assistance from his best friend and “right-hand man” Eliud Rodriguez, who has come from Texas to be with Garcia as he trains.
“I feel really good,” said Garcia, who now has a professional record of 36-3. “I’ve gone through 16 days of camp and I love being back here. Every day here is a positive day. I have had good sparring and training. We’re all on the same page. As I get older, I’m getting better. I have put my whole heart into this and I’m so much better than I ever was. This means the world to me being back. I’m looking forward to this fight.”
Garcia was asked if what he has endured in his lifetime, the tragedy of his youth and the indiscretions with drugs and alcohol, has made him stronger.
“I’m making the best of every situation,” Garcia said. “I still haven’t fully recovered from that day, but I’ve learned to accept it. It actually made me more of a family man, because I’m going to make sure that my kids don’t have to go through things like I did. Life always makes you stronger. I’ve gotten stronger.”
Sanchez got emotional when he spoke of the plans he has for Garcia, whose nickname is “La Amenaza,” which translates into “The Threat” in English.
“I always said that when Rob becomes a world champ, we’re going to his mother’s grave and putting the belt there,” Sanchez said, fighting back tears. “It’s a promise I made. Rob’s more mature than when we first had him. He’s determined. I think he’s ready to make that step.”
The first step comes in Chicago Friday night on national television.
“We’ve had 17 incredible days in training camp,” Garcia said. “I’m glad I came back here to my old Jersey neighborhood. I actually wanted to come back two fights ago. I ran the streets here in North Bergen. I know this area well. It feels good to be back. Since we’ve been here, everyone can see the difference in me. I’m doing the right thing being here. I just know that it took me all this time to find a family life and I didn’t have that until I had my own family.”
And an extended family in North Bergen. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. The regular Athlete of the Week feature will return next week.