Wrong place, wrong time -- it's a thought Leonard Garcia knows well. Misfortune seems to follow him wherever he goes. Fighting in the cage is one of the only times he feels right.
"When it comes time to fight, no matter what happens, for 15 minutes, you're going to see red, so the doubts to me aren't in the cage at all," Garcia said in a recent teleconference for his upcoming fight against Jens Pulver at WEC 36.
Garcia traces his bad luck to an incident when he was 18. He was at a late night diner when an apparently intoxicated man entered the restaurant and tried to shove the food his girlfriend was eating down her throat. At the time, Garcia was a football player at Plainview High in Lubbock, Texas, and wanted to play for Texas Tech University. Garcia confronted the man, who shoved him back.
Never one to back down from confrontation, Garcia knocked the man out in front of stunned diners. No one called the police. The man eventually woke up and left the diner, but continued to make a scene outside. As Garcia and his girlfriend left, the man challenged him again. When Garcia accepted, the man pulled a knife. Garcia was stabbed nine times; both of his lungs were punctured.
"I don't know if I would have been good enough to play college ball, but he took that chance away from me," he said.
Not long after that, Garcia's sister died in a car accident.
Garcia credits his family for saving him in those troubled times, but he takes the memories of those days with him into competition.
He took up mixed martial arts in his 20s and eventually made it to the UFC. His fight with Roger Huerta at UFC 69 almost stole the show. He won his next UFC fight against Alan Berube, but lost to Cole Miller at Ultimate Fight Night 11. By then, the Zuffa-owned WEC was going full steam, and Garcia decided he could shine in its featherweight division.
The Texas native turned in an impressive performance at WEC 32, knocking out K-1 and Shooto veteran Hiroyuki Takaya in the first round. Then, misfortune caught up to him again.
On March 27, Garcia was arrested along with 12 others in connection with a drug investigation led by the DEA. Garcia vehemently denied any role in drug trafficking, and said he was guilty of hanging around with the wrong people. He was eventually cleared of the charges, but says he still faces a year of probation for refusing to testify against the main conspirator in the case.
"The guy is already going to go to jail," Garcia explained to MMAWeekly.com. "He's gonna get three to five years. I guess they really want everybody to get something. They said if you don't say he was doing this or he was doing that, you're probably going to get a year of probation. I can deal with a year of probation. I can't deal with somebody chasing after my family because they think I said something. My lawyer said to think of it as a punishment for hanging out with this guy."
Garcia said the WEC has supported him through the whole ordeal, and sees a bright future for him in the organization. On Nov. 5, Garcia faces perhaps his toughest challenge yet -- in the cage -- against Pulver.
In fighting styles, and maybe even in life, the two share many similar traits. They fight to knock out or get knocked out.
"A lot of the things that I do are similar to what he does," he said. "Of course, I run on emotion a lot, and I'm a highly agitated person by nature, so when they offered this fight, I gladly accepted. I think Jens is one of those fighters that brings the best out of everybody."
In a media teleconference call for WEC 36, Pulver said his move to AMC Pankration in Seattle has broken him through a long plateau in his fighting career. But Garcia doesn't buy that.
"He says he doesn't want to be the guy just coming forward," he said. "I don't think you can change that after 15 years of fighting."
Like his toe-to-toe slugfest with Huerta, Garcia says he's best when his opponent pressures him.
"It's the people that are slow and methodical that give me problems," he said. "I like fast paced, hard fighting, back and forth action. Jens possesses all the problems that I like to deal with."
Besides, Garcia would much rather dealing with problems inside the cage, than out.