If you look back through boxing history, August has been the month of some truly notable matchups: John L. Sullivan’s bare-knuckles KO of Jake Kilrain (in 75 rounds!) in 1889; Henry Armstrong’s 15-round points nod over Lou Ambers in 1938; Beau Jack’s 10-round decision over Bob Montgomery in the “war bonds” fight in 1944; Thomas Hearns’ electrifying second-round knockout of Pipino Cuevas in 1980, and Ivan Robinson’s epic 10-round split decision over Arturo Gatti in their first fight in 1998.
August also has been the month of some of boxing’s most egregious mismatches: Heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson’s sixth-round stoppage of Pete Rademacher, the Olympic gold medalist who was challenging for the title in his pro debut, in 1957; Muhammad Ali toying with a totally outclassed Brian London until the inevitable stoppage in the third round in 1966, and Mike Tyson’s one-round beatdown of the oafish Peter McNeeley in 1995.
Want to venture a guess on which list the pairing of Danny “Swift” Garcia and Rod Salka is apt to be placed?
On Saturday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., WBC/WBA super lightweight champion Garcia (28-0, 16 KOs) was to have defended those titles against mystery guest Salka (19-3, 3 KOs). That bout will still be held as scheduled and still be televised by Showtime, ostensibly as the main event. But before the first punch is thrown, the biggest stunner of all – heck, probably the biggest of the year, and maybe of the decade – was registered when the sanctioning-fees-loving honchos with the WBC and WBA withdrew certification of Garcia-Salka as a championship contest. The expected rout for Garcia has been downgraded to a 10-round, non-title affair, and at a catch weight of 142 pounds, two pounds over the super lightweight limit.
It isn’t often that the alphabet bandits do the right thing, so maybe what took place behind the scenes in this instance will go down as boxing’s greatest reversal of expectations since Buster Douglas took a wrecking ball to the notion of Mike Tyson’s invincibility in Tokyo on Feb. 11, 1990.
In a teleconference with skeptical or downright disapproving media members, Garcia, Salka and Golden Boy Promotions president Oscar De La Hoya did their best to apply lipstick and dangly earrings to what would seem to be one ugly pig of a fight.
“I don’t pick my opponents,” Garcia said, countering the inevitable criticism of something that appears to be little more than a glorified sparring session. “My manager, Al Haymon, does. He picked the (Amir) Khan fight, he picked the (Lucas) Matthysse fight, he picked the Zab Judah fight, he picked the (Mauricio) Herrera fight. I never question him about his decisions. My job is to train hard, go in there on Aug. 9 and give the people at the Barclays Center a great performance. My style always brings out the best in my opponents, so I’m looking forward to an action-packed fight.”
And what of the fact that Salka is a natural lightweight who would seem to pack the punching power of a third-grade girl, and whose quality-of-competition in comparison to Garcia’s is about the same as, say, Slippery Rock’s against Alabama in college football?
“That’s the media’s problem,” he said of the widespread depiction of Salka as a no-hoper. “He got two hands, I got two hands, and we’re gonna fight. It don’t matter who they put in there. It’s going to be two guys giving their all and it’s going to be a great fight.”
For some reason, I couldn’t help but recall the immortal words of Peter McNeeley a few days before he was offered up as a human sacrifice to Tyson, who was making his first ring appearance following a three-year incarceration on a rape conviction.
“I’m Peter McNeeley, from Medford, Mass,” the son of onetime heavyweight title challenger Tom McNeeley pronounced in his thick Massachusetts accent, “and I’m here to kick Mike Tyson’s ass.” Cute. Who said Muhammad Ali was the only boxer capable of uttering trite poetry?
His attempt at rhyming notwithstanding, this is how close the brash but unrealistically optimistic McNeeley came to kicking Tyson’s ass: He went down seconds after the opening bell, and he was on his way to taking a first-round stomping when Vinny Vecchione, McNeeley’s manager, entered the ring and wrapped his arms around the stricken fighter before Tyson committed pugilistic homicide. It went into the books as a disqualification after just 89 elapsed seconds.
A few years later, the semi-notorious McNeeley landed a commercial in which he got knocked out by a slice of pizza.
“For the money they paid us, Peter will let himself be knocked out by a pizza any time,” Vecchione reasoned.
Most would agree that Danny Garcia is the finest 140-pound boxer on the planet, but he’s not a star on the level of Mike Tyson, nor is he ever likely to come within telescope distance of that lofty status if he follows up a relatively pedestrian majority-decision victory over Herrera with anything less than an emphatic blowout of Salka and then wins over some of the bigger names in and around his weight class. Saturday’s fight has been roundly criticized, seemingly with ample justification, and one has to wonder what, exactly, could Garcia gain from even a thorough drubbing of Salka after previously having survived tests by fire from the very capable likes of Morales (twice), Khan, Judah and Matthysse? Why isn’t he set to swap punches in a unification bout with IBF champ Lamont Peterson (32-2-1, 16 KOs), who defends his title against Edgar Santana (29-4, 20 KOs) in Saturday’s co-feature at the Barclays Center?
De La Hoya said that, yes, Garcia-Peterson would have been far more palatable than Garcia-Salka, but, in boxing, wishing counts for very little. (See Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao, which remains the stuff of dreams.)
“It’s a fight that has been talked about, but there’s nothing that we can push for now,” Oscar said of a Garcia-Peterson showdown that appears to have gotten hung up on that most common of sticking points, money. He added that, “Making this card, we’re going to have a lot of shockers, a lot of surprises, a lot of great performances. We’re going to get it all.”
If would be a shock, all right – a lightning bolt to the public’s sensibilities – if Salka were somehow to score the biggest boxing surprise since, well, Buster Douglas’ puncturing of the Mike Tyson legend. The odds of his doing so range from 33-to-1 to 50-1, depending on which oddsmaker you choose to believe.
“He’s coming off a huge upset against highly touted Alexei Collado, when he handed Collado his very first professional loss,” De La Hoya noted. “He expects to shock the world against Garcia.”
It is true that Collado was undefeated before he ran into Salka, but that bout, on April 18 in Monroeville, Pa., was for the vacant WBC FECARBOX lightweight title, whatever that is. But, like Garcia said, Salka has two hands and he presumably puts his trunks on one leg at a time, the same as the Philadelphian. So, sure, he has a chance. It’s just not a very good one.
“It is what it is,” Salka said of the rulings by the WBC and WBA to withdraw certification of the fight as being for their bejeweled belts. “There’s nothing I can do about that. I’d rather it had been for the titles, but what am I going to do?
“I’m fighting the best fighter at 140 pounds in the world. Would I rather fight somebody nobody ever heard of for a title, or would I rather fight somebody that everybody knows for no title? Why wouldn’t I want to fight Danny Garcia? He’s the best guy out there.”
If only the well-spoken Salka had ripped a page from the Peter McNeeley’s bombastic playbook, this could have been so much more interesting, if not necessarily more competitive. “I’m Rod Salka, from Bunola, P-A (Pennsylvania),” he might have said, “and I’m here to make Danny Garcia hit the hay.”
And if it doesn’t work out for Salka the way he hoped, like it didn’t work out for McNeeley, there is always the possibility some pizza company might be looking for a new endorser.