By Jake Donovan
At just 32 years old, Orlando Salido has spent more than half of his lifetime as a professional boxer.
Soon approaching his 17th anniversary as a prizefighter, the Mexican veteran boasts a strong claim as the best featherweight on the planet. That status gets put to the test when he faces unbeaten contender Miguel Angel Garcia on January 19 in The Theatre at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Salido (39-11-2, 27KO) has only played the Big Apple once before, way back in 2001, in fact a week after his 21st birthday. His win over former alphabet titlist Rogelio Tuur extended way beyond what took place in the ring – it was part of a rebirth just months after he considered finding another way to make a living.
“It was around the beginning of 2001, shortly after I just moved to the U.S.,” explains Salido, who was just 11-6-1 (7KO) at the time. “I was told to come here (from Mexico) by an old friend of mine (Fernando Rojo) who moved to the U.S. and knew people who could help out my career.
“I wasn’t interested in the fights they were offering me at the time. So I turned them down, and just began working in construction. They kept calling and offering me more money and I kept turning it down. Eventually, they offered enough to convince me to go back to boxing.”
Oddly enough, Salido’s ring return produced the same outcome as his original introduction to boxing – a loss. Five years after suffering a knockout loss in his pro debut, Salido dropped a six-round decision to William Abeylan.
It wasn’t until his next fight – an eight-round draw against a prospect named Mark Burse at Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas – when Salido once again became serious about fighting. He returned to the very same venue just one month later, properly prepared as he scored an upset stoppage over Dustin Kim. Less than a year later, he bumped off then-unbeaten Lamont Pearson.
However, it wasn’t any of his wins over his stretch, but a decisive – yet competitive – points loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in Sept. ‘04 that led him to believe he could compete among the best.
Both fighters have carved out a heck of a career for themselves in the aftermath. Marquez has put together a run that has him heading for Canastota and the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. There was no greater confirmation of his deserved legendary status than last month’s shocking knockout of longtime rival Manny Pacquiao.
“When I see those kinds of wins, it invigorates and motivates Mexican fans and Mexican boxers,” Salido says of his countryman’s late-career success. “I fought him and he beat me by decision. I know how tough he is.”
Salido learned two things on the night of his fight with Marquez; that his conqueror was on the path for future greatness, and that Salido himself was destined to win a championship.
“Once I was done with that fight, I felt I was competitive and ready for the elite level. It was a key for me. I made the right changes in my team and in my training. We both went up from that fight.”
The rest isn’t history; it’s still the present as far as he’s concerned. Little has changed in the decade or so since his rebirth.
“The only real changes in my career have been just the big wins,” insists Salido, who is at the hottest point of his career. A pair of wins over Juan Manuel Lopez has thrust him to the top of the rankings, with both Fight of the Year-worthy performances elevating his status as a cult favorite.
It also further convinces him that the choice he made more than a decade ago to stick it out was in fact the right call.
“I need to keep it going. It’s the most important point in my career. I just take everything day by day and make sure I’m at my best prepared for each fight.”
Salido was prepared for this fight to happen late last year. However, an untimely injury suffered during training camp forced him to the role of spectator as he watched Garcia instead face late replacement Jonathan Barros. Garcia kept the fight alive after getting past Barros, scoring an 8th round stoppage in their HBO-televised co-feature last November.
The fight wasn’t quite as entertaining as many expected Salido-Garcia to be on that night, or as they now expect it to be when they finally meet next weekend. By his own admission, Garcia’s goal was to win that night. He was confident of winning, but also knew that a fluke injury or cut suffered would further push back his long awaited first title shot.
The lack of sustained entertainment seemed to bother Salido even more so than not being in the ring himself that night. Still, he knows better than to treat the night as a blueprint for their upcoming fight.
“I was frustrated that night because I didn’t get to fight (Garcia),” Salido admits. “I thought Garcia was a little caution. He didn’t go all out because he didn’t want to get cut. He got the win, he kept our fight alive and I expect him to be at his very best when he faces me.”
It still amazes some in the industry that it takes the very best available version of the top fighters in the world to outlast Salido these days. Yuriorkis Gamboa was the last to solve the riddle, scoring a decision win in their alphabet featherweight unification bout in Sept. ’10.
The surprise that comes with Salido’s success is that he has never enjoyed a long stay at the top – or even in the win column. The battle-tested veteran has never won more than nine fights in a row at any point in his career.
He enters the January 19 show – HBO’s first of the 2013 season – riding a five-fight win streak, all coming by way of knockout. There has been no shortage of scares over that stretch; both fights with Lopez – who was favored and fighting at home in Puerto Rico – were fought on even terms prior to the stoppages. Salido was also twice dropped in what was supposed to be a tune-up fight with fringe contender Weng Haya in Dec. ’11.
Still, he continues to find ways to win. While the expectation was to pursue his sixth straight win in November, the injury – once healed – gave him two more months to prepare for Garcia, who is 25 years old and entering the optimal prime of his career.
“I know I have a tough fight against Garcia, but I’m fully prepared for it,” says Salido. I see him as a complete fighter. He’s strong, undefeated and an up-and-coming star.”
The unbeaten challenger is wise beyond his youth, and full recognizes a tough fight in return.
“Salido is a great fighter,” admits Garcia, who earned contender status with a win over Bernabe Concepcion on the undercard of Salido’s repeat win over Lopez last year. “He never backs down from a challenge. “He’s upset a few guys in the past; he’s a warrior and is champion for a reason. Beating him puts me on top, it’s why I’ve trained non-stop since my last fight and through the holidays.”
Of course, Salido was forced to make the very same sacrifices. The only break he’s had in the past several months came during physical rehabilitation following the freak injury that left him with a broken index finger.
It was the first time in his career in which he had to withdraw from a fight due to injury. Even then, he still did road work and whatever else didn’t involve making a fist. There was no way he was going to leave anything to chance leading in to this fight; he’s come way too far and has overcome way too much to go about his job any other way.
“I feel very blessed,” Salido reveals. “I’m very proud of my accomplishments. It’s a sense of my accomplishment and to just keep doing it. I want it even more. All of these accomplishments made me believe that it has been worth pushing myself.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox