By Jake Donovan
Ask any fighter in the game what’s in store for the future while they are training for a fight, and the answer most likely given is that they’re focused solely on their next opponent and not anything else.
Orlando Salido didn’t have that luxury heading into his vacant featherweight title fight with Orlando Cruz last October. The veteran cult favorite already knew his destiny; worse, it was literally in front of him, dangling like a carrot on a stick. An hour or so before he would step into the ring with Cruz, Salido couldn’t help but look up and observe his future opponent on screen while in the dressing room.
Vasyl Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic Gold medalist and one of the most successful amateur boxers in the history of the game, appeared on the same Vegas card as Salido, with both fighting in separate supporting bouts to Tim Bradley’s pay-per-view headlining win over Juan Manuel Marquez in Las Vegas. In his pro debut, Lomachenko starched veteran Jose Ramirez in four rounds, with talks immediately turning to his next fight – a title shot in just his second pro fight.
“I knew why we were both on the card,” Salido recalls of the night. “I saw him in his fight with Ramirez and knew he’d be my next opponent.”
Salido did his part, destroying Cruz in seven rounds to reclaim the featherweight belt he lost earlier in the year to Mikey Garcia. In both fights – which comprised of his entire 2013 campaign – Salido was forced to play the role of afterthought in the pre-fight build-up.
The discussion heading into last January’s showdown with Garcia weren’t focused on making his third title defense, but that he was being served up to a rising young star. Even entering as the prohibitive favorite in his showdown with Cruz last October, the main pre-fight story line was how a win by Cruz would make him the first openly gay boxer to win a major title.
That never came close to happening, as Salido remained focused on becoming a three-time featherweight titlist. The 33-year old Mexican warrior has long ago grown used to taking the back seat, and expected it to be the case the moment his fight with Lomachenko was made official.
“It’s just that much more motivation to me,” Salido (40-12-2-1NC, 28KO) insists. “I go into most big fights as the underdog and have to prove the so-called experts wrong. Whether it was Garcia, (Yuriorkis) Gamboa, JuanMa (Juan Manuel Lopez, whom Salido knocked out twice, both times in Puerto Rico), Cruz and now this guy (Lomachenko), I get talked about as the other fighter. That’s fine, I’m used to it and only work that much harder.”
As evidenced by his not-so-glossy ring record, he doesn’t always manage to win ‘em all. Now 18 years into the fight game – having turn pro at aged 15 – Salido truly came up the hard way before finally rising towards the top of the featherweight mountain late in his career. His loss to Gamboa in their featherweight unification bout in Sept. ’10 was his 11th career loss, but hardly the end of his career.
Salido has since won six of his last seven heading into his title defense versus Lomachenko, which takes place March 1 in San Antonio, airing live on HBO. Not only has Salido seen his opponent steal the majority of the headlines, but the fight also has to share news space with the show’s accompanying bout, a rematch between Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Brian Vera.
At the very least, he heads into the fight with momentum. That same luxury was lacking prior to his bout with Cruz, as he was forced to sit for nine months on his worst loss in years.
“Mikey Garcia is a heck of a fighter, and I hope to one day get a rematch with him before he moves up in weight again,” Salido says of last conqueror, who has since won a title at 130 lb. “Going into that fight, I just felt like something was wrong that night. It happens to all fighters. I picked the wrong night and fighter to not be at my best, but I had to rebound and move on from it.”
Salido did just that, calming concerns that he was at the end of his career. Cruz was unproven at the championship level, but was the younger fighter and also at the hottest point of his career. Whether or not the extra attention that came with his “outing” himself a year prior impacted him any outside of the ring, he was in way over his head once the opening bell rang. Cruz never stopped trying, but his problem that night was that Salido never stopped charging forward.
Nine months after picking the wrong night to be at less than his best, Salido finally landed in the right place at the right time. Garcia was forced to vacate the belt last June, showing up over the 126 lb. limit for his intended title defense versus Juan Manuel Lopez, whom Salido knocked out to win the belt in 2012. Garcia would blast out the Boricua southpaw in four rounds, but not before conceding his title at the scales.
Five months later, the title was returned to its prior owner, though immediately followed by the suggestion that his role was to simply keep the belt warm for boxing’s next young featherweight star. Even with just one pro fight to his name, big plans are already in store for Lomachenko.
Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum, never one to pass on an opportunity to oversell any occasion, was talking about the path the Ukrainian wunderkind could travel even before his first pro fight. A win in October would lead to the title shot he receives in March. A win there could lead to a showdown with current undefeated 122 lb. king Guillermo Rigondeaux, with Arum’s vision that it would mark the first time in boxing history pairing two fighters who each won two Olympic Gold medals.
As for Salido’s future? For now, all roads lead to and end with March 1. Where he goes from there entirely depends on his performance.
“None of that bothers me,” Salido says of the one-fight-at-at-time approach taken with his career. “I’m boxing for the long haul and still have a lot to offer the sport. That’s all that matters to me. They can plan whatever they want for this kid. It won’t mean anything when I beat him on March 1.”
Though always confident of victory no matter whom the opponent, it’s not to say that a win is always automatically assumed.
“When (Lomachenko) fought Ramirez, that was the first time I ever really paid attention to him. I don’t really follow amateur boxing, but knew his name. I paid attention when he fought before me, knowing that he would be my next opponent. He has a great amateur pedigree. I’d be foolish to underestimate him just because he hasn’t been in the pros that long.
“This will be a very tough fight. I’m training for a very tough fight, which is why I’m confident I will win. A lot has been said about Lomachenko, and he says he’s ready for this fight. Now he’ll have to go in there and try to prove it.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox