Unified junior welterweight world champion Danny Garcia had already blazed his way through many of the top names in the 140-pound division: Lucas Matthysse, Zab Judah, Amir Khan and Erik Morales twice.
The little-known Mauricio Herrera has nowhere near the profile or accomplishments of any of those guys, so perhaps Garcia was taking him a little bit for granted. And perhaps Garcia's first fight in Puerto Rico, where he wanted to make a big impression because his parents were born there and he still has family there, was a bit of a distraction.
Whatever Garcia's issues were -- not to mention that the unheralded Herrera was prepared to a tee -- led to a very difficult fight for Garcia, who hung onto his belts with a majority decision victory on Saturday night at the Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez in Bayamon, and then talked of a possible move up to welterweight.
The fight was perhaps the toughest Garcia has had in his eight-year professional career. He had all kinds of problems with Herrera's awkward style, but pulled out the decision 116-112, 116-112 and 114-114 as he retained his 140-pound title for the fifth time. ESPN.com also had the fight 114-114.
The 25-year-old Garcia (28-0, 16 KOs) likely knew he was ahead after the fourth and eighth rounds. That is because the WBC, which sanctioned one of Garcia's titles at stake, convinced the Puerto Rican boxing commission to use the rule under which the judges' scores are announced twice during the bout, and Garcia was ahead both times. Open scoring is not used in the United States.
Herrera (20-4, 7 KOs), 33, of Riverside, Calif., who owns a 2011 victory against titleholder Ruslan Provodnikov, before he went on to win his belt, seemed to frustrate Garcia for much of the fight. He moved well, landed a lot of hard jabs to the body, threw more punches and landed more punches. He also connected with a higher percentage of his shots.
Garcia's saving grace, however, was that his punches were clearly the heavier shots.
"He's a crafty veteran," Garcia said. "I know every time I step in the ring every contender I fight wants what I got. So they gonna train their heart out and give everything they got, so expected that. He's a good fighter and it was a good challenge. I had to make adjustment and I'm a true champion."
According to CompuBox, Herrera landed 221 of 995 punches (32 percent) while Garcia connected on 204 of 675 (30 percent).
Herrera believed he won the fight.
"I was perfectly prepared for the fight. I was the one who had to put on the pressure. I went to make the fight," he said. "I felt I won the fight. I threw more punches. A lot of his shots weren't landing but the crowd was screaming. I thought I finished strong, too. I thought it was close but that I won the fight."
Herrera was certainly in a difficult position of trying to win the title in what amounted to Garcia's homecoming fight to the land of his heritage. Puerto Rico, one of the great boxing hotbeds, lost its only native titleholder in November when Mikey Garcia knocked out junior lightweight titlist Rocky Martinez.
Garcia, although from Philadelphia, believed he could fill the void because of his heritage. He had long wanted to fight in Puerto Rico, too, and the fans there embraced him during what was nearly a disastrous fight. But Garcia was the star of the show and seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in a fight with many close rounds.
"When you are one of the best fighters in the world, which Danny clearly is, you have a big target on your back," said Golden Boy Promotions chief executive Richard Schaefer, Garcia's promoter. "When you fight somebody like Herrera after you've fought fighters like Amir Khan, Matthysse, Morales, guys with big names, maybe you take it a little step slower in the training. It's normal and the results are what they are. But I believe Danny won.
"I think Danny was looking for that big punch too much because he wanted to knock out Herrera and make a statement in Puerto Rico, and that is not the Danny we usually see. He had all the pressure on him fighting in Puerto Rico. It was a dream, for him and he was looking for the knockout."
Herrera's defense and movement rarely allowed Garcia to effectively counter and also prevented him from landing his best punch, the left hook, with any regularity. Angel Garcia, Danny's father and trainer, appeared to realize early on that his son might be in some trouble, yelling at him after the fourth round, when Garcia was announced as leading 40-36, 39-37 and 38-38.
Garcia opened a cut under Herrera's left eye in the eighth round, after which the scores had narrowed. The open scoring announcement had Garcia ahead 78-74 and 77-75 with Herrera leading 77-75 on one card.
Herrera cut Garcia on the bridge of the nose in the ninth round and the action heated up in the final two rounds. Garcia finally began to land solid left hooks and combinations, and they traded feverishly down the stretch.
"He was a little crafty and I had to find my comfort zone," Garcia said. "Once I found it I started pressuring him and getting him to the ropes and landing my combinations. I knew I was doing good. I just had to keep my composure and throw power shots. I was trying to knock him out in front of my fans, but he's a tough guy and he kept fighting. I know nothing is easy. I thought I won the fight."
After Garcia beat Matthysse in September on the undercard of Floyd Mayweather's record-breaking fight with Canelo Alvarez, Garcia was prominently mentioned as somebody who could be Mayweather's opponent in May.
However, Garcia elected to remain at junior welterweight. He wanted to fight Herrera and then have one more defense at 140 pounds before moving up. Now that time table may accelerate.
"Fighting at 140, making weight might have affected my performance a little bit," Garcia said. "I got to sit with my camp and see about going up to 147. I've been fighting at 140 for eight years, since the amateurs. It's getting a little hard so I have to think about moving up."
Whatever division he fights in, expect to see him back in Puerto Rico.
"The way Puerto Rico has embraced him, my plan is to have Danny Garcia back in Puerto Rico," Schaefer said. "The Puerto Rican fans deserve it and I know Danny wants to go back."