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Steve Garcia dug out of mental hole ahead of short-notice debut at UFC Norfolk

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Steve Garcia (pictured) fights Luis Pena in a lightweight bout at UFC Norfolk on Saturday
Zuffa LLC

What was supposed to be the biggest opportunity of Steve Garcia’s career instead left him feeling flat.

A first-round TKO on the Contender Series, Aug. 20, 2019. That’s what would show up on his record. The other thing people would probably notice? He missed weight.

On a night where only one UFC contract was handed out, Garcia’s finish of Desmond Torres would almost surely have earned him one too, but those extra pounds were enough to drag his UFC hopes into the dirt.

It was a devastating blow for Garcia at the time.

“I’d say from the Contender Series, obviously we had a good showing and we didn’t get the contract due to the missed weight,” Garcia told MMA Fighting. “I was really happy with that [performance], I was kind of bummed out though and mentally I was really drained because I really put my body through a rough weight cut to try to even get to 130. I think I was at 138 or something like that.

“I don’t want to say I, like, fell into a pit, but just mentally I wasn’t in a good spot.”

Little did Garcia know that would only be part of a whirlwind eight-month stretch in which he and his wife two years, Mariah, would finally have a proper wedding, then a proper honeymoon in the Bahamas following his Contender Series appearance, and then Garcia would turn a one-fight stint in the LFA into a short-notice call-up to the UFC.

Garcia, 27, found out on Monday that he’d be replacing an injured Alex Munoz to fight Luis Pena at UFC Norfolk this weekend. His plan was originally to take another fight with the LFA after defeating Jose Mariscal in January, having become discouraged at his prospects of fighting in the UFC.

“To be honest, I was very frustrated,” Garcia said. “I didn’t know what I needed to do to get a UFC contract or a UFC call. I understand that you’ve got to earn your spot, so I was hoping that if I got an LFA title then that would do it to me. I’m just trying to get on the fastest track to be in the UFC.”

That journey started for Garcia when he was 15, which marked the time that he became involved with martial arts. It began with Garcia and some friends learning a few moves and scrapping at a Greg Jackson satellite gym, then he moved on to focusing more seriously on jiu-jitsu and kickboxing, first at Luttrell’s MMA in Rio Rancho, N.M., and them making a full-time move in-state to JacksonWink MMA.

Being part of one of MMA’s most famous gyms has gone a long way towards helping Garcia to keep his head on straight, but he also credits his family for instilling proper values in him and providing perspective.

“My grandpa, my dad, they kind of led the way for me and they went through a lot of trials just so I didn’t have to follow the same path as dealing with a lot of difficulties,” Garcia said. “They were able to provide for me, they were figures for me as I grew up.”

“They used to work in the beet fields, they used to pick cotton and all the stuff like that,” he added. “My whole family was just really hard workers. My grandparents were traveling pastors, going to different churches, just really did a lot of different work in different states. They worked for the ministry. What’s kind of funny is how they ended up in Albuquerque. My grandfather just flipped a coin, I think heads was Albuquerque and tails was Texas. Heads won.”

Were it not for that fateful coin flip, Garcia might not be in the position he is now: Days away from facing Pena, a 26-year-old already making his sixth UFC appearance. This is Garcia’s first-ever fight at 155 pounds. At six feet all, he’s used to having a height advantage, but he’ll be giving up about three inches to the towering Pena.

Garcia put in time with his taller brother Elijah to prepare for Pena, and despite being a newcomer to the UFC he’s been battle-tested since early in his pro career. His 6-0 start included three Bellator wins and in his eighth pro bout he fought multiple-time champion Joe Warren.

He’s confident, but given the circumstances, Garcia can’t help but see Saturday’s challenge as another uphill climb.

“I’m a major underdog,” Garcia said. “Anybody that replaces anybody in a last-minute situation is an underdog. Look at James Krause, he just stepped and he was an underdog. And he almost won the fight.

“But yeah, they know who he is and they may be familiar with my name, so I’m really just going to go out there and go for broke and let’s see what happens. I’ve had a lot of experience, I’ve been fighting for a long time. I have more professional fights than he does, but he’s a very, very skilled athlete and a very good fighter and I’m sure he’s just as hungry as I am. I know he’s game, so it’s going to be a very good fight.”