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Leonard Garcia reflects on career, rivalry with The Korean Zombie after announcing retirement with win at BKFC 16

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After a unanimous decision win over Joe Elmore in the main event of BKFC 16 this past Friday night, Leonard Garcia did what all fighters hope to do; go out on top.

Garcia defeated the No. 1 ranked 165-pounder in a hard fought five-rounds and went on to announce his retirement from combat sports. “Bad Boy” competed in MMA from 1999-2014, stepping away from competition following a first-round submission loss to Daniel Pineda at Legacy FC 37.

The 41-year-old competed for the UFC and the WEC, compiling a pro MMA record of 18-13-1. When the opportunity arose to compete for BKFC, Garcia saw it as a sign, as well as something that had a shelf life.

“I had been retired for two and a half years when I got the call from Bare Knuckle [FC],” Garcia told MMA Fighting while appearing on What the Heck. “I was done. I was retired, but I got this opportunity and it took about a week to talk to my wife into it. The first fight was in Cancun, so that helped a lot, but it was a spiritual search. I’ve been heavily involved in church ever since I had retired and it was one of those things where I wasn’t sure if I was gonna come back or not, if she was gonna let me, I didn’t know if my job was gonna let me, I wasn’t sure how it was going to play out.

“I prayed a lot, and really, really sat down and thought about it. [David Feldman] offered me a three-fight deal, I presented those three fights and I said if I play my cards correctly, if I beat this first guy I know it’s for an international title which could lead me to the title within these three fights, I could be the No. 1 ranked guy. I made the deal with her, I prayed about the deal so I essentially made the deal with God as well and made the deal with the company. It all worked out that way. It all made sense to do the three fights.”

Garcia picked up a second-round KO win over Julian Lane in his debut at BKFC 4 and decided to enter the promotion’s 155-pound tournament. He was stopped in the second round by Jim Alers before coming to an important realization about the direction he should take heading into his final fight.

“That was a funny way of telling me don’t veer from the path,” Garcia said of the loss to Alers. “I thought it was crazy that Joe Elmore was calling me out when he was ranked No. 1. I felt like this was it. Everything lined up.

“The only problem was Joe Elmore was a scary individual. To say yes to that was like, holy crap. Is this really the path? After watching him fight and Tom Shoaff coming down to help was massive mentally. Tom has no idea what kind of impact he had but for him to spend five rounds in there with a guy like Joe and then come down here to tell me, ‘Hey, you’re ready,’ it felt like everything falling into place.

“You don’t really hear about a guy losing a fight and then fighting the No. 1 guy so that’s how I knew God had a little intervention in there. To walk away after that with the deal being made, it was like a surreal thing. I’m a man of my word and it was the best thing. After performing like that, everyone has been saying, ‘Why?’ I think that’s when you walk away, when they don’t want you to leave. You don’t want to walk away when they’re asking you to go.”

After going through a lot of the entertaining battles he had in his long career that spanned over two decades, it’s natural for fans to show concern for fighters moving forward. However, for Garcia, the loss to Alers was the first time in his career he had been stopped via strikes. In his prior stoppage losses, they were all via submission.

Garcia saw his fight with Elmore not just as a tremendous challenge from a competitive standpoint, but as a way to alleviate those concerns.

“I almost lost my eye in my second fight [with BKFC] against Jim Alers, he got me with a knuckle,” Garcia explained. “In this fight with Joe Elmore, I really wanted to prove that my chin hadn’t been compromised. With the Alers fight, I just couldn’t see anything with my eye. I couldn’t see a thing, just a red blob. My pupil is actually dilated twice the size bigger than my other eye for the rest of my life because of the damage I took in that one fight. Thank God he didn’t detach my retina.

“But Joe Elmore was the No. 1 [ranked] guy for five months straight. He was crumbling people with every punch. If he touched you, you were going down. So I made a deal with my coaches in the back that I wasn’t going down one time, I’m never gonna show it if he hurts me, and I’m gonna put him down. In the first round, I don’t care what anybody says, I put him down. That was a knockdown.”

When longtime MMA fans think of Garcia’s career, almost unanimously they go to his two-fight series with “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung. Their first meeting took place in April 2010 at WEC 40 where Garcia would earn a split decision in one of the wildest fights in the history of the sport.

The rematch would take place 11 months later, this time inside the octagon. This time, it was Jung getting the victory with the first twister submission in UFC history—the second didn’t come for another eight-plus years from Bryce Mitchell over Matt Sayles.

Garcia was asked if there was a piece missing from his long career not having the trilogy fight with the current No. 5 ranked 145er in the UFC.

“I always thought about that and if you look at the numbers in our second fight, we were identical on punches landed and everything else,” Garcia stated. “It’s always been a crazy matchup between me and him. I think our styles just blended so well together. I thought about a third fight with him for years, and of course he was climbing up the ladder and I was falling down it so it made way more sense for me, and didn’t make a lot of sense for him.

“Our paths did cross twice, we’re 1-1, and I’m comfortable with that. I think he is as well. We’re actually pretty decent friends. We have a speech difference, but his translator tells me good things. Seeing his last fight, it was saddening to me. I always want guys who had beaten me before to go higher and higher. But I thought about that when I first got into Bare Knuckle calling him out to see if we could do a third one there. But I don’t have a taste for it. I’m really happy with the way it all ended, and the results of everything.

“I’m at peace. I feel really good about the decision and, at 41 years old, the clock is working against me no matter what.”

Garcia picked up one victory during his six-fight stretch with the UFC—which bought the WEC in 2006—a split decision win over Nam Phan at the TUF 12 Finale in December 2010. He would drop rematches to both Jung and Phan, along with decisions to Matt Grice, Max Holloway and Cody McKenzie before ending his career with Legacy FC, going 3-2 which included capturing the promotion’s featherweight title with a first-round TKO win over Kevin Aguilar.

When it comes to his most memorable moment, Garcia says he can’t limit it to just one.

“I hate thinking about one fight being more important than the other,” Garcia explained. “I would love to have a library of all of them—without the clips, without the stories, without everything—to watch the rise, the fall, the rise, the fall, the rise. And I got lucky because I rose quickly, and I fell, I rose quickly again, then I fell, and if you watch my career throughout every single organization I fought for, I either won the title, or I competed for it. I always reached the highest point of every organization I worked for.

“I think that’s the story: strive for the best. I always wanted to be the best with everything that I did. Now that I’m doing oil field automation out here in Texas, I want to be the best at that. That’s always my goal to be the best at everything I do, and teaching my kids to do that now. My focus has to be on them and seeing them tackle their goals.”

When it comes to combat sports retirements, they don’t often stick. Garcia had tried it once before and came back to compete in the world of bare-knuckle boxing. This time around, with zero regrets, Garcia is sticking to his guns.

“Absolutely [it was the last one] because the way that it happened and the way that I felt,” Garcia said. “God kept every promise to me, so I’m gonna hold my word and keep my promise to him as well. Maybe people won’t understand that but I still have all my cognitive tissue in my brain, I can still talk well, I can still see well, I feel good. So why risk that?”