By Thomas Gerbasi
Rod Salka isn’t angry. He isn’t bitter, and he doesn’t get annoyed every time someone questions his August 9th fight with unified 140-pound champion Danny Garcia at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Why would he be? Regardless of what anyone outside the ropes has to say, he’s still getting the biggest fight of his career on a huge stage in a Showtime main event. It’s a done deal, and it doesn’t matter that it’s a non-title fight, one being fought at a weight (142 pounds) the lightweight Salka was last in the vicinity of in 2011, or one in which he is a prohibitive underdog.
The fight’s happening. And at this point, you can’t say anything about the Bunola, Pennsylvania native that he hasn’t heard before. It’s all just noise now.
“I don’t take it personally,” he said. “Everybody has their opinion and they’re entitled to it. Showtime has seen me in the gym and in fights and they know what I can do, and Golden Boy (the event promoter) and those guys know what I can do because they’ve seen it, but everybody else really hasn’t yet, so I can’t blame them if that’s what they want to think. It doesn’t make it true.”
He laughs, clearly at ease a little over a week before fight night. Then he pauses before continuing.
“Well, maybe some of the stuff that was flat out disrespectful, that might get an initial reaction out of me, but short of it bothering me for about five seconds, I really don’t think about it.”
He shouldn’t. Regardless of the critics, he’s the one who controls his own destiny against Garcia, and let’s face it, what’s the big commotion about anyway? Did Salka deserve a title shot at 140 pounds after not even being ranked at 135 pounds? No, even though he was led to believe he was going to see a WBC ranking at lightweight after defeating Alexei Collado in a WBC FECARBOX title fight in April.
But what’s wrong with a non-title fight for Garcia? Back when boxing was a vibrant part of the sporting landscape, fighters fought and champions didn’t defend their title every time out. Non-title fights were part of the gig, something Salka completely understands.
“I guess in this day and age, with the way fights are today, fighters don’t fight that much, so fans want to see the people they know fight people who have already gotten chances,” he said. “It makes it even more difficult, especially with not as much TV coverage and boxing not being as mainstream. It makes it harder for guys that can really fight that maybe don’t have backing or don’t have this or that to get an opportunity.”
As for the rankings, the 31-year-old sees not only through the garbage from the sanctioning body side, but also from those looking at Garcia-Salka as a sign of the impending apocalypse.
“One month everyone says how BS the rankings are and people just pay to get in there anyway and it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “Now that I’m not in the rankings, everybody’s like ‘well, all these other people are more deserving because they’re in the rankings that last month I said don’t mean anything.’”
If you talk to enough people in this sport, you find out pretty quickly who knows the game behind the game and who doesn’t. Salka knows the ins and outs of this business, something he picked up when he was managing and promoting himself on the local Pennsylvania scene. He was always a smart kid, one his parents expected to go to law school before heading down an entirely different path.
“They were not happy,” he laughs, before noting that they’re now “on board” with his career. Salka doesn’t even rule out a visit to law school in the future, but not now.
“Honestly, you only live one time, and I love the sport of boxing and I love the people that I met here and that I train with,” he said. “When I’m looking back on my life when the athletic days are past me, I want to be able to know that I did something and I did it to the best of my ability and I gave everything I had.”
That’s the romantic version of this sport, the one every fighter has in his head when he or she laces on the gloves for the first time. In reality, this is a business that will eat you alive and scrape all the love you have for it from your bones, piece by piece. Salka recalls a conversation with a prospective manager years ago, when he was asked why he didn’t sign a horrible contract.
“I told him ‘I wouldn’t even sign a piece of paper that was on the same desk as that contract.’”
Most fighters would sign and get taken advantage of. Salka doesn’t have a rose colored view of the world from the other side though, having been a promoter for several of his own fights.
“I could never be a promoter,” he laughs, “and that being said, I can completely sympathize with promoters at the same time.”
Salka chuckles, knowing that there’s a lot of experience that his 19-3 pro record just doesn’t show.
“It was a rough road. Several times I thought what in the heck am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”
But he’s still here, and he’s not going anywhere. So after all that, don’t expect him to worry about what people are saying about him on Twitter.
“People want to see what they want to see, and you can’t convince these people of anything different,” he said. “Every single person that has ever watched a fight knows better than the next guy. Everybody’s an expert in this sport, so you can’t get mad about it. If I would have got mad about it, I would have quit a long time ago.”
The million dollar question still remains though: can he win?
The odds aren’t in his favor, which is what everyone has been saying since the fight was announced, but beyond pure righteous indignation, Salka is behind the eight ball because he’s fighting a much bigger opponent who will likely be looking to take the bad taste out of people’s mouths over his tougher than expected win over Mauricio Herrera in his last fight in March. And frankly, if Garcia does anything but blast Salka out in three rounds or less, this fight will be seen as a failure for the Philadelphian. In short, Salka shouldn’t expect Garcia to be looking past him, and he doesn’t.
“If anything, maybe he looked over Herrera,” said Salka. “He (Garcia) had just had a bunch of tough fights, it wass supposed to be a homecoming for him (in Puerto Rico), and when you’re the champion and you’re beating all those guys like he was doing, it’s got to get hard eventually to get up for fights. When you’re beating the best in the business and then you know that you’re fighting this guy that you’re supposed to beat, maybe you get a little lackadaisical. But then after that fight, I feel like he is completely renewed and completely back into it. You combine that with the backlash from this fight and him getting heat on this, I feel like he’s going to be the best Danny Garcia that maybe anybody’s seen in the last four, five fights. It doesn’t make my job any harder; I just gotta really be on point and do what I can do – be smart and go in there and be effective.”
If you’re waiting to hear bluster disguising doubt, or outlandish statements having nothing to do with reality, they’re not going to come from the mouth of Rod Salka. He knows what he’s up against, he knows what people expect (or don’t expect) from him, and yet he knows what he brings to the table. He’s not a knockout puncher, but he throws plenty of punches. He’s not a big guy, but he can get out of the way of home run shots and box. He also knows what it’s like to be the B-side in a big fight, and both times – against Collado and Ricardo Alvarez - he performed well, even if the judges didn’t agree in the controversial Alvarez fight. As far as bluster, the most you’ll get out of him is “I know I wasn’t the most qualified to fight for the title at 140, but I’m definitely qualified.”
On August 9, he gets the chance to prove it, and that’s all he’s wanted, to fight the best and prove that he belongs here. And he’s not saying he’s going to win, but he will say that Garcia will be seeing the best Rod Salka yet.
“There are so many guys out there that can fight,” he said. “And you always hear people say ‘styles make fights’ and it really works that way. And the problem when you’re Lamont Peterson or Danny Garcia or any of those guys is that you’re getting the best of whoever you’re fighting. When I fought Collado, I was home watching my kid and I had obligations to take care of. This kind of fight allows me to pay somebody to take care of those obligations, so now I’m at camp. Now I’m going to be more ready than I’ve ever been for any other fight because I have the opportunity to fight Danny Garcia. He actually puts himself in a position to have the toughest fight possible just because he’s the champion.”
Salka won’t be the champion if he beats Garcia. Who knows if he’ll even get a shot at the belts or whether he’ll go back to 135 pounds. One thing is for sure though, and that’s if he pulls off one of the biggest upsets in recent years, Showtime will put a microphone in front of him after the fight, giving him the opportunity to say “I told you so” to the world.
Will he take it?
“I thought about that,” he laughs. “But I’m not gonna do it. There are so many funny things that I thought about saying, but I’m not going to. I think about it and I joke around, but things don’t always come across the way you want them to whenever you’ve got that mic in your face right after you went to work. I’m going to keep it simple and just be thankful.”