Garcia all grown up (but still recognizable)

Leonard Garcia celebrated his 35th birthday Monday.

"Bad Boy" Garcia (18-11-1) is no longer a boy at all, at least by professional athlete standards. The featherweight fighter's career is 15 years long and counting.

He says he has grown up a lot within the past 15 months, since the UFC was basically left no choice but to cut him on the heels of a five-fight losing streak. His wild, swing-from-the-hips style was always fun to watch, but also very beatable.

Since 2007, Garcia has lost more fights than he has won.

The Jackson-Winkeljohn featherweight went 3-0, however, outside the UFC last year and won Legacy Fighting Championship's 145-pound title along the way. He will look to defend that belt against Damon Jackson (8-0) on Friday, at Legacy FC 33 in Allen, Texas.

As much growing as Garcia has done, make no mistake -- he’s still Leonard Garcia.

Earlier this year, Garcia's half-brother and professional boxer Bryan Vera told ESPN in an interview: "Back in the day you just don’t care [about getting hit] but as you get older, you start realizing it could play a part and you see people getting hurt. As a younger fighter you don’t really think about that. Getting hit is not that big of a deal."

When asked if, at 35, Garcia has found the same to be true, he responds immediately.

"I haven't gotten to that point yet," Garcia said. "I still love it. It's almost comical. I'll hit pads and I'll put my hands down and tell my mitt guy, 'Go ahead and let me have one.' Just so I know I’m fighting.

"I'm not saying that day will never come, but I love it man. I love that 'wake-up' feel. 'Oh man, I just got hit.' You smell a little blood. It is one of the best feelings. People think I'm nuts because I say that but it’s true. It makes me feel alive, man."

Here's more on what Garcia had to say about his evolution in the past year and his upcoming title defense.

ESPN: What's on the line for you in this fight on Friday? In addition to defending your title, could this punch a ticket back to one of the bigger MMA promotions?

Garcia: To be completely honest, my motivation for this fight is just the same thing it’s been the past three fights: Become a better fighter, more complete, coming in and listening to my coaches instead of making a fool of them.

ESPN: In your past three wins, it's not as if you have avoided exchanges, so what is different about your game now that might not be obvious to those watching?

Garcia: It happens in the gym for me. It used to be that I would learn a technique real slowly, and then I'd try to do it 100 mph. That was my way. Now, I'm becoming more of a wrestler, more of a jiu-jitsu fighter, I have my feet underneath me when I throw combinations.

Everybody knows my trademark punch is the right hand. I used to always just fling it. Pad holders used to complain because I would always land it in a different spot. Now, I actually bought a pair of mitts just for me and I am wearing them out in the one area I'm supposed to be landing the punches. That never used to happen.

ESPN: Your tendency to get wild and go for broke definitely hurt you at times in the UFC, but that pace can also be hard for opponents to deal with. Is it about finding a balance at this point?

Garcia: I hear so many people say, 'I am so afraid to get tired.' I actually invite being tired. I love that. I've noticed when I'm in the cage and I'm tired and the five guys that just went with me were fresh -- when they came in and when they leave -- they are just as tired as I am. That means that [approach] works for me.

I think I'm starting to get a good grasp on it and learn when I can recover and when I can pressure a guy. Pressure is my style.

ESPN: The way you have fought throughout your career, it's almost seemed like you would rather fight an entertaining fight and lose than a boring one and win. Is that still true after the UFC cut you in 2013?

Garcia: Now, absolutely the win is most important. I think there have been several times in my fights since where I would get hit early on and I've learned to kind of find the medium point and not get so wild and reckless at that point. I know I have to hit my opponents more than they hit me. I definitely don't like trading as much as I used to if my legs aren't beneath me.

ESPN: What can you say about the challenge you've got Friday in Jackson?

Garcia: I think he's a great, great test for me. I think he's the toughest guy I've fought in Legacy. He's undefeated, which is good. The thing about that is you have to teach him to love. You have to make him lose. Those are the types of guys I want to fight -- guys who will fight me tooth and nail to the bitter end.