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Los Angeles once again proves it is boxing's spiritual center

Los Angeles once again proves it is boxing's spiritual center
Mikey Garcia raises his arm after the 11th round against Robert Easter Jr. during their WBC and IBF world lightweight title bout Saturday at Staples Center. At right is Judge Jack Reiss. Garcia won by unanimous decision. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

More striking than the size of the crowd was the noise it produced.

As Mikey Garcia walked to the boxing ring to take on Robert Easter Jr., the fans at Staples Center were loud.

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Scratch that. They were louder than loud. They were deafening.

The cries heard in the arena weren’t mindless screams of bloodthirsty drunks. They were focused chants of a knowledgeable crowd intended to inspire the hometown fighter.

“Mi-key! Mi-key!”

The most important news that emerged in the wake of Garcia’s lopsided decision victory over Easter on Saturday night was that the newly unified lightweight champion’s proposed challenge to welterweight titleholder Errol Spence Jr. was informally accepted.

Almost as notable was the atmosphere in the arena, which confirmed something that has been widely suspected in recent years: Las Vegas is the boxing capital of America, but Los Angeles is the sport’s spiritual center.

Las Vegas will continue to stage the majority of the highest-grossing fights, as the casinos are willing to pay exorbitant site fees to place them on the Strip. If the proposed pay-per-view showdown between Garcia and Spence is made, that’s where it likely will land.

But when there’s a major fight in Las Vegas, many fans are coming from Los Angeles. And as important as boxing is to that city’s economy, the sport isn’t as dear to the casino town’s heart as it is to Los Angeles’.

There was ample evidence of Angelenos’ love affair with boxing on Saturday.

As talented as Garcia is — the opinion here is that the four-division champion is one of the three best fighters at any weight class, maybe the best — the rap on him was that he couldn’t build much of a following.

The Oxnard-born and Moreno Valley-based Garcia couldn’t be placed into a neatly defined category, unlike the last two Mexican-American superstars to emerge from Southern California, Oscar De La Hoya and Fernando Vargas. Garcia has an associate’s degree and studied to become a police officer. He’s well spoken but reserved. He also likes fast cars and guns.

The fighter who was once described as a hard sell attracted an announced crowd of 12,560 fans to take on a capable but little-known opponent — a smidge more than the attendance for the more competitive rematch between Southland rivals Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares last month.

While the top deck of the arena was closed, the lower bowl was almost entirely packed.

The spectators chanted Garcia’s name with unusual intensity. The last time a boxer received this kind of support in the building was when De La Hoya fought Shane Mosley in 2000.

Promoter Richard Schaefer heard the calls of the crowd, which is why the promoter already was talking about Garcia returning to the venue.

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“I’d like to have Mikey fight here twice a year and make this his home,” Schaefer said.

Spence heard the calls too, which is why he said he was “licking my chops” at the prospect of a fight with Garcia.

Garcia’s fight against Easter was contested at lightweight, which has a 135-pound weight limit. To take on Spence, Garcia will move up 12 pounds to the welterweight division.

Sounding skeptical about how Garcia’s power would translate at 147 pounds, Spence wouldn’t concede that Garcia represented the greatest challenge of his career. Spence knows that if he defeats Garcia, he will be accused of taking advantage of a smaller fighter.

“It doesn’t matter what people say,” Spence said.

What does matter to Spence is the opportunity to expose himself to the crowd that cheered on Garcia as he destroyed Easter. Many of the same fans who watched Garcia will make the four-hour drive to Las Vegas to watch his attempt at dethroning Spence.

“Definitely, especially with the Spanish fan base and things like that,” Spence said of the proposed bout. “It would definitely help my fan base and help me grow as a superstar in the sport.”

Considering the demographics of Los Angeles, there are definite advantages to being Mexican or Mexican American when attracting an audience here. But the city has embraced fighters from a wide variety of backgrounds. What ultimately matters is whether they can fight.

Because of their histories of training in the area, Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines and Gennady Golovkin of Kazakhstan are viewed as Los Angeles fighters.

There’s a reason there are countless cards in this area every year, including championship fights at the Forum, blood-and-guts brawls at StubHub Center and club fights at the Belasco Theater and Avalon Hollywood.

Outside of Garcia, the fighter who received the loudest ovation Saturday night was a Cuban on the co-feature, heavyweight Luis Ortiz.

Between Ortiz’s second-round knockout of Razvan Cojanu and the start of Garcia’s fight, the video scoreboard above the ring showed several champion boxers in attendance, including Spence.

None of them was a household name and most weren’t Mexican or Mexican American. They all received warm ovations. The fans were intimately familiar with their backgrounds and accomplishments.

The exception was Adrien Broner, who was wildly jeered. And even that was appropriate. The audience was aware Broner actively markets himself as a villain.

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