Gabi Garcia had a year to forget in 2017.
The jiu-jitsu ace competed twice in July in Japan, but both fights ended in no-contests due to an illegal soccer kick in Shootboxing and an unintentional eye poke in MMA. Garcia had a chance to end the year on a better note at Rizin’s Dec. 29 card in Saitama, but only entered the ring to apologize.
Garcia was heavily criticized for accepting an MMA fight with 53-year-old Shinobu Kandori, who hasn’t fought in 17 years, and the criticism became even worse after she showed up 26 pounds overweight. The fight was canceled, and Garcia returned to California with nothing to show for it.
In a lengthy interview with MMA Fighting on Wednesday night, Garcia opened up about what went wrong before her fight, the company’s decision to continue booking her against older opponents, and what the future holds for her in MMA.
Guilherme Cruz: How are you feeling after this troubled end of the year?
Gabi Garcia: The entire year was troubling, right? It was a rough year. I’m not sad. I’m aware of what happened. I’ve learned a lot about my life and my body this year. It happens. Every time I go through something difficult, I come out better. I think it was a learning experience. But there are a lot of things behind the scenes that people don’t know that I hope I can say one day. It’s complicated.
When did things start to go downhill last month?
I had some personal problems with my family. My father was sick, and my grandfather and my uncle were sick as well. I was taking dancing classes with Cris (Cyborg) and went to physical therapy, because of my knee, and my physical therapist checked my blood pressure. She asked me if it was normal of my blood pressure to go up and down like that, and it was not. I also had problems with some people in the Rizin staff, in terms of communication, some things I didn’t agree with, and that was hurting me inside.
I was breathing heavily, my heartbeat wasn’t normal, but it wasn’t really affecting my daily life. I left California to Japan 17 pounds over the limit, but I’m used to this weight cut. I made weight four pounds under (in 2016). I wouldn’t say I don’t suffer making weight, but I have a strong mind. But when I got to Japan, I worked out that night and my nose started to bleed a lot. I texted my manager George (Prajin) and he told me to let Rizin know of the situation, but I said I was alright.
I woke up the next morning and trained, and again my nose started to bleed. I was stressed because my team wasn’t there with me. Three visas were denied, other coaches were with Cris (Cyborg at UFC 219), and I only had one coach with me in Japan. My head wasn’t that confident anymore. I was too stressed.
I was 18 pounds over, but my coach told me to start cutting weight in the morning of weigh-in day. When I woke up at 6 a.m., I couldn’t move my hands, my vision was blurry. I entered the bathtub, and I couldn’t see anything anymore. I said, “I can’t do it, I can’t. I’m going to die in here.” When I left the bathtub, it was full of blood from my nose, and I freaked out a little bit.
I’m 32 years old, and the only time my period changed was when I took a birth control pill because of ovary issues, but this was the first time it came earlier. I couldn’t control my body.
I went to talk to my boss (Nobuyuki Sakakibara) and told him I wouldn’t cut weight anymore. I went to the weigh-ins, they saw I was overweight, and I couldn’t even stand. I laid down on the floor next to the scale. Kandori knew about it, and I was going to lose 30 percent of my purse. They offered me to fight her on Dec. 31, and I said yes, I said I’d get better. I wouldn’t give up because I knew it was an important fight for TV there. I was dehydrated, feeling ill. [Kandori] freaked out at the ceremonial weigh-ins, and my blood pressure went high again. She knew what was going on and had accepted to fight on Dec. 31 if I made weight, but then she said I had to make weight right before the fight, and I’d die in the ring if I did that. That’s the first time I felt my machine fail after all these years competing. It was my fault.
When you say you had problems with Rizin officials “in terms of communication,” what do you mean?
I spoke with my boss about several things. The Japanese audience understands what’s going on, my opponents and everything else, but where’s the focus? Are they focused on the Japanese market? On the American market? I live here in California. I have a career in jiu-jitsu. I understand when people want to see me fight other girls. There are eight girls ready to fight in a grand prix. I don’t pick fights. I’m under contract. People don’t understand that. I can’t say no. This time I didn’t say anything about the opponent, because I knew the Japanese fans really wanted this fight.
I want tough fights, too. I’m getting ready. I can’t blame Rizin. Who doesn’t want to get in there and get in a fight — I can’t say it would be easy or not, it’s always 50-50 no matter who you’re fighting — but who doesn’t want an easy fight to make money? They are giving me an opportunity to gain experience and fans. I’ve accepted that fight, but I’ve made some requests now. We’ll see what happens.
Many people criticize that you chose to stop cutting weight, but wouldn’t choose to not take a fight against an older opponent and fight someone at your weight class. Is that what you spoke with Rizin about?
I was supposed to fight her last year. Sakakibara asked me and I talked to several people about it, (Mirko) Cro Cop, Wanderlei (Silva) and even Rickson (Gracie). Many of them fought pro wrestlers back in the day. [Sakakibara] said she was a star in Japan, and I needed to fight a Japanese fighter to win the Japanese audience. I didn’t think that was true, but I believed him. When the fight was cancelled, everyone asked me about this in the streets of Tokyo. I was not Gabi. I was the girl that was fighting Kandori.
I had no idea how famous she was. After all that happened, I went out for dinner and everyone was asking me about it. The Japanese people really wanted to see that, and it was disappointing for them. Japan is like a world outside our world, you know? They live something completely different than us. They believed this fight would be something epic, you know?
[Kandori] said she was feeling well, that she trained. She’s one of “King” Reina’s coaches, and Reina was supposed to fight me in a grand prix in the future. There’s a story behind it. [Kandori] was getting paid to fight me. It’s not like, “Hey, let’s get a random girl to get beat up by Gabi.” She asked for this fight, she was getting well paid to be there. People treat her like “this poor woman,” but she was putting money in her pocket.
After everything that happened, I asked Sakakibara to do this openweight grand prix. They have a list of girls, and I’ve asked to fight them. There are two Brazilians, two Americans, one heavyweight girl that trains with Mark Hunt. There are a lot of girls. I’ve asked to fight them. I understand their side, the marketing aspect, that it was an important fight for them because they are growing. They need to win the Japanese market before they win the worldwide market. I didn’t have much choice. They help me a lot. What can I say? I can’t say no. I can, but that might come back against me in the future in terms of negotiations or other things.
I have to trust Sakakubara and (Nobuhiko) Takada because they opened doors for me. If it wasn’t for Japan, I wouldn’t have a place to fight MMA. I have options today, visibility, but they opened doors for me and I like fighting in Japan.
I had already asked [Rizin] not to be in this type of fight, but it had to be her. She came back and asked to fight me, and they agreed. I went in the ring and apologized to her and to the fans. I don’t know if she will come back for another fight with me because she trained for this fight, considering her age, but if she wants to, I will fight her. I know there are other girls training to fight me, so it’s not like I’m wasting my time training. I’m waiting for something good to happen.
I’m under contract with a company. I’m different than the MMA market. I don’t… how can I say? I have a different contract than most, and I have to follow certain rules. Not that I think it’s bad. It might be bad on one side, what people say, but in one week I’ve gained many followers on social media. Is it bad press? It is, but my name is up there. Maybe that’s what they want, so people will look at them.
What do you mean when you say your contract is different than other fighters?
I can’t talk about Rizin because I don’t know how their contracts are, but I know some people in Invicta and the UFC. I have good pay. I have my sponsors there. They help me with everything I need in the U.S.. They need my image, and I work for them. I’m fine there. I’ve fought for medals for many years in jiu-jitsu — that has made me who I am today, so I can’t complain, and I have the option to open my own jiu-jitsu gym in the future — but in order to make money, I have to submit myself to certain things. I think that’s what caused all that stress. I asked them to fight on every card this year, and asked for this open weight grand prix. That will give other girls a chance to compete, and give me a chance to show I’m ready to fight MMA.
By submitting to certain things, you mean fighting these types of opponents?
Fans understand about this fight in Japan, but in the United States they don’t. I hope the promotion would talk about why they chose these fights instead of me being the only one talking. I think they should explain to international media because people here judge me. Sakakibara talks to the media in Japan, but I’m judged in the United States. That’s it.
They are focused on the Japanese market now. TV ratings are great, fans want to see us fighting. The international market is paying attention too, but you can’t win the international market like that. I just wanted an explanation as to why they are booking these fights. I don’t see them talking about it anywhere. I’m the only one talking.
They say I can’t pick opponents, but I hope other girls will come. There are a lot of girls calling me out online, talking crap about me, and I hope they sign them to fight me. I want to fight girls that will put some pressure in a fight.
It bothers you that fans outside of Japan see these fights as freak shows.
Yes. That’s it. The Japanese audience wants it. They target the Japanese audience, but there are international athletes on there, so the whole world ends up knowing about it. It’s good for them that the world watches it, but I believe many things will change this year. The Japanese market likes me, and they have this answer from the market there, but the media here doesn’t, so it’s my word against everyone’s. I just wanted this from them.
I asked them to put me on the next card in Fukuoka (on May 6) against someone that fans want, too. I think I’ve evolved a lot in MMA, my striking is better, and I want to be tested. I don’t want it to be seen as a freak show. I’ve done fights before, so I want to be seen in a better way.
After a 2017 to be forgotten, what do you expect from 2018?
2017 was a complicated year in my personal life, and that’s not an excuse. I won the ADCC, which was good. I just want to fight in 2018. I want Sakakibara to put me on every card this year. I want to be more conscious about my body. Wanderlei told me I don’t have to train that hard all the time before the machine just stops. I will talk to Cris, she helps me a lot. She’s spectacular.
I’ll see who I’m going to fight next, and I hope I have an open channel to talk to Rizin. It’s not that I will turn down fights, but I want them to explain why I’m fighting. My goal in 2018 is to win a belt — at light heavyweight or heavyweight.