As he prepares for his ring return, Abner Mares happily surrenders control to new trainer Robert Garcia

Abner Mares heard the whispers that he was a shot fighter. So leading up to his August scrap with Leo Santa Cruz, Mares decided the best way to quiet his critics was to take complete control of his training camp.

Abner Mares

In hindsight, Abner Mares says his decision to call all the shots in training camp leading up to his August fight with Leo Santa Cruz was a mistake. (Ryan Greene/Premier Boxing Champions)

In essence, everything related to training—when, where, how and for how long—would be dictated by Mares, rather than his longtime coach, Clemente Medina.

Flip ahead nearly six months since Mares lost a tough majority decision to Santa Cruz, and the former three-division champ humbly admits that usurping Medina’s authority was a mistake. 

“I don’t know if respect is the word, but it came to the point where I told Clemente when I wanted to work, and once that happens in any training camp, you’re not learning anymore,” Mares says. “Clemente’s a great coach who guided me to three world championships, but I’m being brutally honest about it. I felt like I’d learned all I could [with him].”

Enter Robert Garcia, the former Trainer of the Year who has guided such champions as Marcos Maidana, Nonito Donaire, Mikey Garcia, Brandon Rios and Kelly Pavlik, among others.

Four weeks ago, Mares, through one of his associates, arranged a meeting with Garcia, then drove more than an hour from his Del Mares Gym in East Los Angeles to Garcia’s facility in Riverside. Once the student arrived, the teacher laid down the rules.

“Medina’s a good trainer, but it came to a point where Mares was the boss and in his own gym, where he was very comfortable and he was calling the shots,” said Garcia, a former 130-pound champion. “He was telling his trainer what time he wanted to train, how long he wanted to run, so all of that had to change.

“I told him, ‘Look, you have a beautiful state-of-the-art gym in Los Angeles, but if you want my services, you have to train in my gym. And it’s going to be my way, my time and when I tell you to train.’”

Mares knew that’s what he needed to hear. So he hired Garcia, who will be in the corner March 12 when Abner Mares (29-2-1, 15 KOs) squares off against four-division champion Fernando Montiel (54-5-2, 39 KOs) in a scheduled 10-round clash of Mexican-born 126-pounders from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. The bout will lead into the Keith Thurman-Shawn Porter 147-pound title showdown (CBS, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT).

“Robert’s been a helluva trainer for so many fighters. I thought his style would complement mine,” said Mares, 30. “I needed someone who, if I’m sparring 12 rounds today, he makes me do 14, not let me say, ‘We’re going to only do nine rounds’ when we’re supposed to do 12.”

Garcia, in fact, began tutoring Mares literally minutes after ending their initial powwow.

“We hopped in the ring and did a couple of rounds,” says Mares, whose list of career coaches includes Floyd Mayweather Sr., Oscar Suarez, Nacho Beristain and Joel Diaz. “Robert immediately instructed me on things he saw me doing wrong in the Leo fight. He’s taken me out of my comfort zone.”

I told him, ‘If you want my services, you have to train in my gym. And it’s going to be my way, my time and when I tell you to train.’ Robert Garcia, new trainer for Abner Mares

Known as a strategic, crowd-pleasing, boxer-puncher with calculated power and infighting prowess, Mares appeared to display those traits to everyone who watched the 12-round war with Santa Cruz. 

Garcia, however, saw things differently.

“First of all, he was throwing wide punches and standing right in front of Leo Santa Cruz,” said Garcia, “I’m getting him to throw those punches down the middle, move more, side to side, and to use his jab. 

“Abner has a lot of talent, and he’s a very skillful boxer and counter-puncher, but he hasn’t shown the skills that he has in his past few fights.” 

Those skills were on full display during a five-fight run between August 2011 and May 2013, when Mares earned world championships at 118, 122 and 126 pounds. The title-winning victories came against Joseph Agbeko in back-to-back matches at 118, Eric Morel at 122, Anselmo Moreno at 122—snapping Moreno’s 27-fight winning streak—and Daniel Ponce De Leon at 126. 

At that point, Mares stood at 26-0 and appeared headed for big things in the 126-pound division. Then came his next fight against veteran Jhonny Gonzalez in August 2013, and it ended in shocking fashion: Gonzalez knocked out Mares in the first round. 

His psyche admittedly fragile following the defeat, Mares stepped away from boxing for nearly a year. When he returned against Jonathan Oquendo in July 2014, he had replaced Medina with veteran trainer Virgil Hunter. 

But after overcoming a cut over his left eye to defeat Oquendo by unanimous decision, Mares returned to Medina for his next two fights: wins over Jose Ramirez in December 2014 and Arturo Santos Reyes in March 2015.

Despite the trio of victories, though, Garcia claims Mares displayed bad habits, which he was able to overcome against lesser fighters, but not against Santa Cruz. Now Garcia says it’s his job to tighten up Mares’ game as he prepares for Montiel, a tough 37-year-old brawler who is coming off an action-packed, unanimous-decision loss to Lee Selby in October.

“Abner was comfortable winning without having to use all of his skills. That will change against Montiel,” Garcia says. “I’ll push him to bring out those old skills again. In his next two or three fights, you’ll see that.”

For complete coverage of Mares vs Montiel, check out our fight page.

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