Utter the name Leonard Garcia to die hard MMA fans, and they will likely smile before launching into a verbal tornado of praise and admiration that parallels the very fighting style of Garcia himself.
Whether it’s a fan-pleasing brawl against Roger Huerta in the UFC or battles with the likes of Jens Pulver, Mike Brown, or “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung in the WEC, Garcia embodies a gameness that silently states his willingness to fight to the death every time that trademark smile creeps across his face following a blow from his adversary.
Maybe it’s just the way he’s wired, or maybe he’s been taught to love chaotic clashes. Then again, maybe it’s because Garcia is a man who has had to literally fight for his own physical survival, well before MMA was even a twinkle in his eye.
“I loved football growing up, I loved it,” Garcia says. “I walked-onto the football team in college and barely squeaked by in the tryouts to make the team. I became friends with the other players, and we’d go out on the weekends together.”
Unbeknownst to Garcia, such success and new found friendship would inadvertently lead him into a scuffle that would change—and threaten to claim—his very life.
“One night me, a girl, and some teammates were at a taco stand.The other players decided to cut out early, but I stuck around to eat,”he says. “After I went to the counter and got my nachos, I was going to my seat and this guy was standing right in my way.”
Leonard sidestepped the man, giving him room to pass, but instead,the man pawed at Garcia’s nachos and stuffed some of them into his mouth. Resisting the immediate urge to throw down, Garcia questioned the man, who responded by reaching for seconds.
“I dropped my tray and blasted the guy right in the face and dropped him,” Garcia says. “The management saw everything, so they just kicked the guy out and didn’t call the cops on me.” Although the avoidance of law enforcement seemed to be a blessing in the moment, time would show it to be more of a curse in disguise.
When Garcia left the building, that same man was sitting on the hood of a car.
“The driver asked me, ‘Did you hit my brother?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, dude, he ate my nachos.’ So the driver got out and said, ‘Why don’t we go back here and fight then?’ I shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘Ok.’” Garcia was untrained at the time, but his scrappy Mexican spirit seemed to be helping him along just fine as the two men went at it.
“We were fighting from a clinch and we were wailing on eachother when I felt a hard pain in my back, like someone boot-kicked me in the spine. I kept fighting, but then I felt it again,” Garcia recalls. When Garcia looked over his shoulder, expecting to see the nacho stealing brother feeding him cheap shots, he spied nothing but empty air. Garcia secured a crude body lock on his foe, and forced him backward and onto the ground, knocking him out as the man’s head hit the asphalt. It was only then that Garcia realized something wasn’t right. He stood up and couldn’t uncock his left arm. Then he heard what he now describes as the sound of running water. At his feet, he noticed blood pooling on the ground.
Garcia had been stabbed eight times.
When his female companion came around the building and began screaming, Garcia noticed the knife sticking out of his left shoulder. He nearly died that night, the holes in his back, chest, and sides oozing what blood wasn’t filling his collapsed lungs. His recovery took months and it essentially involved learning to breathe again, using a machine that gave him resistance to inhale and exhale. As the weeks passed Garcia by, so did the spot on the football team that he had narrowly secured during tryouts. After rehabilitation, Garcia struggled with direction in his life, as he considered dropping out of school. Football had been the only reason he’d pursued college.
“That’s when I met Clay Pittman, a Machado BJJ black belt and a teacher at the school I was attending,” Garcia says. Pittman had heard of Garcia’s competitive spirit through the grapevine, and he soon enticed Garcia into stopping by for a free lesson in BJJ. “He told me that he had some 14-year-olds that could give me a run for my money in a fight,” Garcia says. “Obviously, I wasn’t buying it.” With his curiosity piqued, Garcia went to the school, donned the kempo gloves and shin pads that Pittman handed him, and listened as Pittman brazenly stated that the kid would put Garcia on the ground and make him give up. When Garcia asked how the kid planned on making him give up, Pittman simply shrugged and invited Garcia to find out. Rear-naked chokes, armbars, and triangles awaited Garcia on the ground, and from that moment, he was hooked. But his journey was only still beginning.
Soon, Garcia found himself in attendance at a local MMA show, where a promoter—desperate for a fill-in on the card—combed the crowd for a suitable replacement. Arriving at Garcia, the promoter assured him that he was the perfect size for his would-be opponent. With little more than one month of training under his white belt, Garcia made the jump into MMA.
“I beat the guy up very quickly,” Garcia says. “I caught him with a big left hook and tried to follow up with an uppercut, but he fell right into a guillotine and I got him. They were really impressed because apparently he was this guy who was supposed to come in and mess shit up, but I beat him.” For his efforts, the promoter handed Garcia a check for $300. The wheels in his head began turning—he once again had an athletic purpose in life, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The road taken by some fighters is as straight as their punches, but others do things a bit differently. For Garcia, it took gridiron dreams being sliced to ribbons in a flash of steel, a long and torturous recovery, and a chance taken on a fledgling sport to find out what he was put on this earth to do. And as the smile on his face always shows, Leonard Garcia couldn’t be happier about it.