ROBERT EASTER will always call Toledo, Ohio home. But in order to grow, he had to uproot himself.

Easter has spent the past 10 weeks training in muggy West Palm Beach, Florida, hoping the different environment changes the forecast for his next bout. On Saturday, July 28, he puts his IBF world lightweight title on the line versus WBC counterpart Mikey Garcia in a unification bout at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.

This will be Easter’s first headliner on Showtime Championship Boxing. The magnitude of this opportunity isn’t lost on him. Garcia is a pound-for-pound talent and a heavy betting favorite. Most doubt Easter can pull off the upset. That negative chatter fuels him.

“They don’t think I got it,” he says, as he sinks two left hooks into the lower portion of the heavy bag. He moves closer to the bag—barely an inch away—drops his hands and unloads a combination with his chin hanging in the air. “They think this is how I’m going to fight.”

“They” would have every reason to. Most lightweights are on eye level with the average Olympic gymnast. Easter’s 5’11” frame dwarfs his opponents, like an angry parent scolding a child. Such physical assets are only useful if taken advantage of. In his last two bouts, versus Denis Shafikov and Javier Fortuna, Easter lingered on the inside, smothering his own shots and eating too many in return. He defeated Shafikov by scores that were largely considered too wide and escaped with a split decision over Fortuna that could have gone the other way.

The Fortuna bout convinced him that it was time for a change. Leaving behind family and friends in Toledo, particularly his one-year-old son, wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right one. Like many Midwestern fighters, boxing is in Easter’s blood. His father, grandfather, several uncles and even his aunt, were boxers. As a child, Junior would follow Senior to the gym and watch him train. The younger Robert began throwing punches almost as soon as he learned how to make a fist.

Easter went 213-17 as an amateur and was an alternate on the 2012 US Olympic team. As a pro, he first turned heads in April 2016, stunning a sold-out crowd at the Armory in Washington, D.C., with an impressive KO of former champion Argenis Mendez.

Against Mendez, Easter’s infighting skills recalled that of Diego Corrales, another tall fighter who eschewed his physical advantages in favor of a good old-fashioned scrap. Five months later, he claimed the vacant IBF title in just his 18th pro bout, beating Richard Commey by split decision in a Fight of the Year candidate.

“Commey made me fight for every second of each round,” he said. “If I had any doubts or setbacks in that fight, I would’ve lost. I was determined to win, no matter what.”

Easter was now one of boxing’s hottest young talents, and the biggest thing out of Toledo since Anita Baker.

“There were plenty of distractions. I was living a dream. I had everything my way: access to females, friends, everything that kept me from what I was supposed to do,” he said.

Bad habits began seeping through in camp. Easter would wait until six weeks to fight night before even entering a gym.

“My last four training camps were at home and it got worse and worse with each one. I was going into a lot of them fights using my talent because I didn’t focus on my skills in the gym. I wasn’t there with a game plan,” he said.

Even so, he’s quick to point out that his opponents were no slouches.

“I usually don’t have any problems with southpaws, but [Shafikov and Fortuna] are just awkward fighters,” he declares. “You can’t find anyone to imitate those guys. For the Fortuna fight, I was sparring sharp southpaws that could really box and move. Then I get in the ring and he’s throwing shots from everywhere.”

Afterward, Easter reached out to trainer Kevin Cunningham, who he knew from the amateur circuit out in the Midwest. Cunningham guided Cory Spinks and Devon Alexander to world titles. In 2016, he relocated from St. Louis to West Palm Beach and opened Camp Cunningham, where he trains Easter, Alexander, Adrien Broner, Gervonta Davis, Erickson Lubin and Sakio Bika, among others.

The blazing Florida weather is several degrees cooler than the temperature inside Camp Cunningham today. Alexander, having wrapped up another workout ahead of his August 4 date versus Andre Berto, chats with several coaches by the entrance, where there’s a breeze. In the ring, Easter shadowboxes under Cunningham’s watchful eye, pausing every so often to recite lyrics from Young Scooter & Future’s “Can’t Play Around,” blaring through the speakers.

“This was the perfect move for ‘Bunny,’” Cunningham says, using the nickname favored by those closest to the fighter. “Garcia is the biggest fight of his life. He needed to have a professional training camp with the right program. Here we have warm weather to sweat the pounds off, a live-in chef for the fighters and a strong gym regimen. I’ve never seen his body like this. He’s had a tremendous camp.”

Robert Easter

Three weeks away from the fight, Easter’s a sculpted 141lbs, though that number may be skewed by a wooly beard that suggests he hasn’t hit the barber shop in a while.

“When you become champion, you got to work harder, do the things you haven’t done or don’t want to do,” Easter says. “Being in camp right here has put me into a whole different world. I don’t leave the house unless I’m going to Walmart or something. I can’t go to sleep without watching boxing, shadowboxing or doing something related to boxing.”

Such as studying tapes of himself and of Garcia.

“Boxers don’t fight everyone the same way so when I observe them, I look for habits,” Easter notes. “Garcia is a great boxer. He’s a good counterpuncher and he has such good patience. And he knows how to use distance. Those are the things I’m paying attention to.”

Cunningham wants Easter to use his physical dimensions to control the ring space. They’ve also worked on balance, footwork and other subtleties, but there is only so much one can absorb over 10 weeks.

“A single camp isn’t enough to really do everything that I want to do with him and rectify a lot of the things that need to be rectified,” says Cunningham, sporting dark circles around his eyes like a mad scientist who hasn’t slept in weeks. “The more important things that will help him in this particular fight, that’s what we focused on.”

As today’s session winds down, Easter Facetimes with his son, Robert III, who just celebrated his first birthday several weeks before.

“He was born on my dad’s birthday, June 6,” Easter says, breaking into a smile. “I didn’t have to buy my dad a birthday present because that’s the gift God gave us. Being a father has changed me a lot. I’m no longer doing it for myself. I have someone else I’m thinking of every second of the day.”

Easter pauses and looks around the gym, the smile slowly disappearing as he recalls the task at hand.

“It’s been tough not seeing him, but I needed this. My son has given me a different drive, a different focus. A lot of people are overlooking my skills because of these last few fights. After people see how I beat Garcia, I’m going to be one of the biggest names in boxing. Not just in Toledo. The world.”