LAS VEGAS -- Although Mikey Garcia lost 2½ years of his prime while engaged in battle with former promoter Top Rank over his promotional contract, he has said time and again the same catch phrase: The best is yet to come.
The best very well may have come Saturday night, when Garcia scored a sensational third-round knockout of Dejan Zlaticanin to win a lightweight world title at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Fighting in the co-feature of the Carl Frampton-Leo Santa Cruz featherweight title rematch, Garcia, who has also won world titles at featherweight and junior lightweight, became a three-division world titleholder. He demolished Zlaticanin, who was on the mat out cold for a few minutes before he could get to his feet. It's very early, but it's surely a candidate for knockout of the year.
"I'm very happy he's OK and I'm glad he was able to recover from that," Garcia said. "The natural response is to be celebrating and to be cheerful, but then concern does kick in when I saw he was still laying there for a few minutes. I'm glad he's OK."
Garcia (36-0, 30 KOs) got off to strong start and never stopped. He controlled Zlaticanin with his jab and range in the opening round while mixing in combinations as the crowd almost immediately broke into chants of "Mikey! Mikey!" The shorter Zlaticanin tried to press forward in an attempt to get inside but found it difficult to get past Garcia's jab, which was sharp and accurate.
In the third round, Garcia, 29, of Oxnard, California, connected with a clean right uppercut that badly hurt Zlaticanin and followed with a cuffing left hand. As Zlaticanin staggered toward the ropes, Garcia obliterated him with a clean right hand that knocked him out cold. Zlaticanin slammed his head on the mat and came to rest under the bottom ring rope on the edge of the ring, and referee Tony Weeks immediately stopped the fight at 2 minutes, 21 seconds.
"I'm very happy with the performance," Garcia said. "We were controlling the pace and distance right away from the first round. I saw some openings and I thought I could hurt him later down the road, but I wasn't expecting it to be that soon in the fight."
Zlaticanin said he was caught with the big shots by surprise but gave Garcia credit for his victory.
"I was just getting ready to pick it up a little bit and I got between the ropes and then he hit me with a good, hard punch," he said. "Mikey is a good fighter without a doubt. I never was able to get into the fight."
Zlaticanin (22-1, 15 KOs), a 32-year-old southpaw and the first fighter from Montenegro to win a world title, was making his first defense since pulverizing unknown Franklin Mamani in three one-sided rounds in July. Zlaticanin had outpointed Ricky Burns, who now holds a junior welterweight title, in 2014 and also upset then-hot prospect Ivan Redkach by fourth-round knockout in June 2015. But Garcia, who earned $375,000 to Zlaticanin's $320,000, was a big step up for him.
"He's a tough guy," Garcia said. "He was able to take some good punches. But when I finally did hurt him, I went for that right hand. I knew it was a good shot."
Garcia said he wants to go after more of the lightweight title belts.
"I'm available to unify any titles. If we can get the organizations to come together and unify titles we would love that (and then) maybe move up to 140 pounds by the end of the year," Garcia said.
Benavidez crushes Mamajonov
Powerful super middleweight prospect David Benavidez (17-0, 16 KOs) blew out Sherali Mamajonov (14-2, 7 KOs), knocking him down twice in a one-sided, second-round knockout victory.
The 20-year-old Benavidez, the younger brother of fringe welterweight contender Jose Benavidez Jr., had the much smaller Mamajonov, a natural junior middleweight, in big trouble at the end of the opening round when he nailed him with a left to the body and a right to the head to knock him down. Mamajonov beat the count, but the round ended before Benavidez could throw another punch.
Benavidez, of Phoenix, continued the attack in the second round of the scheduled eight-rounder. He eventually landed a left hand that knocked Mamajonov down again. Mamajonov, a native of Uzbekistan fighting out of Kissimmee, Florida, took out his mouthpiece while on his knees and got up at the count of eight, but he turned his back and referee Jay Nady waved it off at 1 minute, 4 seconds.
"I am a little disappointed because I wanted to give the crowd a spectacular knockout," Benavidez said. "This is my first time fighting at MGM Grand and I will never forget it. The atmosphere here is amazing. This fight week has been the best experience of my life. I want to continue to fight as much as I can. I want to perfect my craft, train as hard as I can and be the best that I can be."
Junior welterweight Josh Taylor (8-0, 7 KOs), regarded as the best prospect from Scotland, went the distance for the first time as a pro in a dominant decision win against Mexico's Alfonso Olvera (8-3-1, 3 KOs), who got rocked many times but never went down.
Taylor landed many quick punches and powerful punches, including a left hand in the second round that rocked Olvera. But Taylor was also warned for hitting Olvera low during the round. When Taylor hit Olvera below the belt again in the sixth round, referee Vic Drakulich took a point from Taylor.
In the end, however, it was all Taylor, who won 79-72, 78-73 and 78-73 in his third fight in the United States, each of which has come on the undercard of stablemate Frampton.
"I wasn't surprised he didn't go down. I wasn't looking for the knockout. Just wanted to get the win," Taylor said. "He was very awkward. I couldn't get going like I wanted to, but I did get some shots off and felt like I hurt him at times."
Taylor was a 2012 Olympian for Scotland. He turned pro in June of 2015 and won the Commonwealth junior welterweight title in just his seventh fight, the record for fewest fights needed to claim a Commonwealth belt.
According to CompuBox punch statistics, Taylor landed 166 of 390 punches (43 percent) while the largely ineffective Olvera connected with 101 of 602 blows (17 percent).
Ukrainian lightweight Ivan Redkach (20-2-1, 16 KOs) knocked out New Orleans' Demond Brook (13-4-1, 4 KOs) in the final minute of their eight-rounder.
Once a top-flight prospect who had a strong amateur background, Redkach came into the fight 1-2-1 in his past four fights, including a lopsided, 10-round decision loss to contender Tevin Farmer in July, but he bested Brock in a tough fight.
Late in the final round, Redkach, who fights out of Los Angeles, landed two hard left hands that dropped a fading Brock. He beat the count, but Redkach was on the assault and eventually referee Jay Nady stepped in and stopped the fight with 30 seconds remaining.
Junior lightweight Ledaun Barthelemy (12-0, 6 KOs), a Cuban defector and brother of former lightweight titleholder Rances Barthelemy, won a unanimous decision against Jesus Aguinaga (5-5-1, 0 KOs), of Phoenix, who won over the crowd but not the judges. Barthelemy, the slicker boxer, got the nod 59-55, 59-55 and 58-56.
Los Angeles bantamweight Antonio Santa Cruz (5-2, 2 KOs), a cousin of Leo Santa Cruz, got knocked down in the second round by Victor Torres (2-5-1, 1 KO), of Modesto, California, but otherwise swept the rest of their hard-hitting four-rounder. All three judges scored the fight 38-37 for Santa Cruz.
Harbor City, California featherweight Jerry Perez (1-0, 1 KOs) made his professional debut in explosive fashion, scoring three knockdowns en route to a first-round knockout of Javier Cepeda (0-5), of Roswell, New Mexico. Perez overwhelmed Cepeda, knocking him down for the first time with an unanswered series of shots. Moments later, it was a left hand to the body that sent him to the canvas and then a booming right hand that rocked him badly and sent him to the mat yet again as referee Nady waved off the fight at 2 minutes, 54 seconds.
Los Angeles junior welterweight Herbert Acevedo (13-2, 6 KOs) cruised to a near-shutout decision against Chris Singleton (17-4-2, 8 KOs), of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. All three judges scored the bout 59-54 for Acevedo.