By Tim Smith
The criticism came through loud and clear, from the usual sources and some unexpected precincts. It was an immediate reaction to the announcement that Rod Salka would be fighting Danny Garcia, the WBC and WBA junior welterweight champion.
The dissenting voices were not muted when it was announced the fight would be at a catch weight and Garcia’s world titles would not be on the line. It didn’t matter. Salka became emblematic of everything wrong with boxing. Salka’s nickname is “Lightning Rod.’’ He certainly has lived up to it since he signed to fight Garcia.
Salka expects to hear the crowd’s displeasure when he steps into the ring against Garcia on SHOWTIME at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Aug. 9. But he thinks it is within his power to move them over to his side before the night is over.
“Boxing fans are easily swayed,’’ Salka said. “They could be cheering for him (Garcia) when the bell rings and they could be cheering for me when it’s over. They just want to see a good fight.’’
Salka isn’t completely surprised by the lambasting that he’s taken.
“I expected it from the standpoint that it’s a stacked division and it’s hard to come up against good fighters,’’ he said. “The fans only want to see fighters that they know. SHOWTIME and Golden Boy (Promotions) know that you have to give other fighters a shot so that they can give fans someone else to know.
“As far as the experts go, it was a little bit of a surprise that they were acting like they didn’t know who I was. I had fought twice in a span of five months on TV. In saying I’m not deserving of a shot and all, this is nonsense. I’m not trying to say I’m the most deserving, but I am definitely deserving.’’
Salka is coming off a surprising 10-round decision victory over lightweight Alexei Collado, who came into the fight unbeaten, on ShoBox in April.
There are questions as to whether Salka, who has a record of 19-3 with 3 KOs, can deliver against the unbeaten Garcia. Salka describes his own style as a “boxer and a mover’’ who would rather beat a guy from outside than stand toe-to-toe to slug it out.
“I’m hard to hit. Quick, fast on my feet, use angles,’’ he said. “I can punch hard enough to keep you honest. If you get lazy I can put you down. That’s not what I’m shooting for. I’m shooting to remember my name and remember my kids’ names.’’
Salka, 31, has only fought a few times at junior welterweight. He has spent most of his seven-year career at lightweight. Not only is he moving up in weight, but he also is moving up in class of boxer. Most of his opponents have not been at the skill level of Garcia.
Salka fought Ricardo Alvarez for a minor WBC junior welterweight title on the undercard of the Saul “Canelo’’ Alvarez-Alfredo Angulo show at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas last Dec. 14. Alvarez is the older brother of “Canelo’’ Alvarez, considered the best 154-pound fighter in the world. Salka acquitted himself well, but lost a 12-round majority decision. Many people thought Salka was robbed of a decision in the fight because he was fighting the brother of one of the sport’s biggest stars.
After that fight Salka petitioned the WBC to get into the 140 pound rankings and he thought it was going to happen in July. When he signed to fight Garcia he was not ranked in the 140 pound division, but instead ended up in the 130 pound division.
“I have never fought at 130, but they have me ranked at No. 36. I’m like, whatever,’’ Salka said. “At the end of the day all that matters is I have the fight and if I beat this guy it will all go away.’’
Eric Gomez, Golden Boy Promotions Vice President and chief matchmaker, said Salka has bottled all of the displeasure over his being named an opponent for Garcia and he’s using it as fuel.
“I think people are going to be surprised. It’s his Rocky moment,’’ Gomez said. “Rod is a tough, feisty guy. He’s pumped up. This is his moment. He’s taking this personally because everybody is counting him out. He’s taking it to heart. He’s using all that and he’s going to fight like hell.’’
Salka, who is from Bunola, Pa., doesn’t have a high profile in boxing because he got a late start and had a limited amateur background. He started going to the gym after he graduated from Elizabeth-Forward High School in Elizabeth, Pa., which is south of Pittsburgh. He played golf, baseball and wrestled in high school and was looking to stay in shape. The gym that he went to had boxing equipment – heavy bags and speed bags. He began training and he liked it. Though he played a lot of team sports in high school, it was the individual sports that he was attracted to.
“If I was working really hard, I wanted the outcome to be up to me,’’ he said. “If we’re on a team and you’re out partying hard the night before and I’m resting and doing the right thing and we lose the next day, I don’t like you. If it was up to me whether I win or lose, then I can deal with it.’’
Salka connected with Paul Spadafora when Spadafora was the IBF lightweight champion. Spadafora still works his corner as a chief second and instructs him while he’s sparring.
Even though he was training and sparring in the gym after high school, Salka never had designs on being a professional boxer. His parents wanted him to be a lawyer and that was his plan. He mapped out a way to attend college with the intentions of going to law school. He joined the Pennsylvania Air National Guard to help pay tuition to attend California University of Pennsylvania.
“I enlisted in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard on Aug. 21, 2001 and less than a month later the Twin Towers were attacked,’’ he said. “I went to basic training four days after Sept 11. It was crazy.’’
After basic training, Salka returned to Pennsylvania to work as a mechanic for the 171st Air Refueling Wing at the Pittsburgh International Airport and attend classes at California University where he majored in political science. When the war against Iraq began in 2003, Salka was deployed with the refueling jets from that wing to various places around the world. He spent time in Kandahar, Turkey and Guam.
He started his professional boxing career in 2007, while he was still in the military. Four years later he left the military after a 10-year career and began concentrating on building his pro boxing career. He had finished college, but never started law school. His parents’ plans would have to remain on hold.
“When I told my parents that I was going to focus on boxing, they weren’t happy,’’ he said. “But I don’t want to look back when I’m 60 years old if I was a lawyer and had a family and wonder what I would have been able to do if I had been a boxer. There’s no going back. I wanted to give myself a chance at being successful in boxing without having any regrets.’’
If he pulls the upset against Garcia, he will have something to talk about with the kids and grandkids when he’s 60 years old.
It’s enough for him to ignore the droning sounds of the critics who say he doesn’t belong in the ring with Garcia. Salka said if any boxer, fan or expert were in his position, they would be climbing into the ring against Garcia, too.
“Anytime you have a chance to fight a superstar you’re not going to turn it down,’’ he said.