PAYSON — Even at just 18, Aaron Maxiumus Garcia Jr. knows the worst pain life has to offer doesn’t come on the canvas floor that has given him both challenge and refuge.

So when the recent Payson High honors graduate steps into the ring this weekend at the Rocky Mountain Regional Golden Gloves tournament, he will ignore the butterflies and chase a dream he holds for himself — and his younger brother. Garcia won the state Golden Gloves title at 112 pounds in May, and hopes to do the same at the regional tournament this weekend at the Utah State Fairpark.

Garcia already has a long list of accomplishments in the sport he was introduced to by his father, Aaron Garcia Sr., who found his way to the sport after being bullied as a boy in California. Most recently, Garcia won the elite division of the 112-pound weight class at the 2021 USA Boxing National Championships in Louisiana.

His win earned him the chance to train with Team USA this summer. Now he hopes to add another regional title, which would ensure him a trip to the Golden Gloves National Championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in August.

“I love all the challenges that (boxing) brings you,” he said of why he wants to pursue both an Olympic dream and a professional career in boxing. “I’ve basically been around it my whole life. … Just the mentality and the lifestyle of boxing — waking up early, training — even though it’s not fun sometimes. It’s a good mental strengthening sport. It helps me in the real world.”

Boxing is something of a birthright for the Garcias. 

Garcia said he grew up in a gym as his father, Aaron Sr., trained boxers. Aaron Sr. began going to the gym with his father as a way to deal with the bullying he experienced as a child. Aaron Sr. learned firsthand how the sport built toughness, dedication and resilience. 

But he had no idea the sport would become their lifeline after tragedy struck a family celebration about 10 years ago.

It was his birthday and the July 4th weekend, and the family gathered at Yuba Lake, a state park about 25 miles south of Nephi. The father of five was cooking food when he said they lost track of Maximus for just a few minutes. When they realized the toddler was missing, they began the frantic search. They found him in the lake, and despite rescue efforts, it was too late.

“I was just lost,” Aaron Sr. said of losing his son. “We were just trying to deal with the pain and figure out a way that we can keep him alive, keep moving forward.”

The father of five said they changed the name of the boxing gym he owned in Payson to Maximus Boxing Gym, and then he tried to corral the pain that never really leaves him. 

“I was so mad for so many years,” he said. “But there is a lot of good stuff going on in our lives. Boxing is the same way, and it teaches you. … Sometimes life isn’t fair. How do you deal with that pain?”

His answer, and that of his son, Aaron Jr., is to “turn it into something good.”

Last year, Aaron Jr. decided that he wanted to do more to honor his little brother, Maximus. So he decided to make his brother’s name his middle name when he competes. Some tournaments have resisted the name change, but USA Boxing allowed it when he won his national title last December.

“Maximus,” Aaron says when asked about his brother. “We were best friends. He was tough as nails. We would fight all the time, and we were so competitive with each other. … We were always competing with each other, like racing to the mailboxes and even who finishes our food first.”

Garcia has a long list of accomplishments, including a state high school wrestling championship he earned his junior year, and some impressive tournament wins and achievements in both boxing and martial arts. His aspirations are lofty, but Garcia puts in the kind of work that will help him find success in life and the ring.

He said he’s long felt his brother’s love and guidance in his life. Now he will hear his name every time he competes. 

“I am fighting for him too,” Garcia said. “I’m sure he would be, if not better than me, just as good. He was just so tough. It’s cool that he’s watching over me, maybe even helping me out on my journey. It’s an honor to have his name.”

Amy Donaldson is a contributor to the Deseret News.

Aaron Garcia Jr., of Payson, Utah, poses with the hardware he has won over his years of boxing. This weekend he will be looking for another trophy to add to the collection when he competes in regional Golden Gloves tournament in Salt Lake City. | Courtesy Garcia family