When Danny Garcia barely scraped past Mauricio Herrera earlier this year in his debut in Puerto Rico, questions that supposedly weren't to be asked of Garcia anymore came creeping back into the conversation. How good is Garcia, really? Despite the wins over Amir Khan, Zab Judah, Erik Morales, and Kendall Holt, some (including myself) felt that Garcia was an odd duck elite fighter, a guy who rarely truly shined, with flaws to be picked at even in victory.
Garcia's win last September over Lucas Matthysse was supposed to be the end of that talk, and rightly so. Garcia had faced off with the guy perceived to be the most devastating puncher in the 140-pound division, whom many were picking to rather handily dispose of Garcia on the Mayweather-Canelo undercard. Instead, Garcia outboxed and outfought Matthysse, battering his eye en route to a very strong decision win, arguably the best of his career to date.
A fight with Herrera wasn't what anyone had in mind for a follow-up, but in some ways, it was understandable; on paper, a victory lap sort of fight. He'd go to Puerto Rico, where his parents are from, introduce them to a world champion fighter who shares their blood, and maybe find another market for his deserving talents.
Instead, Garcia (28-0, 16 KO) found the awkward style of Herrera rather vexing. He left Bayamon with his WBC and WBA titles still in his luggage, but did so via a disputed majority decision win. I scored the fight a draw, 114-114. Many fans and media believed that Herrera had done enough to earn the win, and called for a rematch. The rematch isn't coming, at least not yet.
What was supposed to be a tune-up turned into Garcia's biggest scare since 2010, when he beat Ashley Theophane on Friday Night Fights via debatable (at best) split decision. With those two fights, one might get the impression that Garcia has issues with the elusive "crafty righty," intelligent fighters who don't make lots of mistakes, don't give him many big openings, and can box with him. Garcia, in his own way, is a crafty righty, himself, though with bigger punching power than Theophane or Herrera possess. He's better than they are, or at least he's supposed to be. Styles make fights, however. And for now, at this point in his career, there seems to be a style that bothers Garcia and gets him off his game. It's not speed, it's not power, it's not southpaws. It's something weirder and far less expected.
On Saturday night, Garcia won't be defending his WBA and WBC belts, as both sanctioning bodies refused to give their blessing to his matchup with Rod Salka, a tune-up following a failed tune-up. And guess what? Salka (19-3, 3 KO) is a crafty righty, like Theophane and Herrera were. He's a guy who knows how to use his jab. He's a solid technician who has made some nice strides recently. He's also a little undersized, as he's a natural lightweight, even less of a puncher than Herrera or Theophane, and a massive underdog, just as they were. (For what it's worth, Bovada currently has Garcia listed at -5000, or 50-to-1, to win the fight, and Salka at +1400.)
Still, it would be unwise to sleep entirely on this fight. Garcia's struggles with Herrera may not be the one-off that they are perceived to be, and even if he learned a lot from that fight, there's no guarantee he can employ better tactics against a guy who will probably look to employ the same game plan that worked as well as it did for Herrera.
Salka, 31, is a very easy fighter to like. He's worked hard to bring himself into the picture, scrapping his way out of the Pennsylvania club scene, where he's lost to guys like Guillermo Sanchez and Dorin Spivey. His most recent loss came in December 2013, when he was robbed of a clear victory on Showtime Extreme, facing Canelo Alvarez's older, less talented brother Ricardo. It was nearly impossible to argue that Alvarez deserved to win that fight, but he got the majority decision, anyway, after Salka controlled him for the vast majority of their 10 rounds in the ring together.
Fittingly, Salka went on to knock off unbeaten Cuban prospect Alexei Collado on an April ShoBox, while Alvarez lost in March to Sergio Thompson. And it's Salka who now gets a big opportunity.
This is a tricky fight for Danny Garcia. Even if you expect him to have no trouble and to win this handily, what's the ultimate purpose of this fight, if that's the case? He has absolutely nothing to gain with this bout. It's been dismissed as terrible matchmaking from the moment it was signed, so he's not going to get any credit no matter how decisively he wins. And if he struggles again, even in victory, he'll take another hit to his credibility and status.
He's not defending his titles, so he doesn't have everything lose while nothing to gain. If he does lose to Salka, Garcia can still defend the belts again, as shockingly absurd as that might seem right now. Salka, meanwhile, has the very basic story: nothing to lose, everything in the world to gain. He wouldn't win Garcia's titles, but you can be damn sure he'd get a sanctioned rematch if he does beat Danny, and thus an even better payday.
Chances are, this fight will go as expected. Garcia really should win handily, at least if he's the elite fighter he's supposed to be. If he has problems with this opponent, then the reality is that yes, Danny Garcia is a very good fighter, but probably not in the true elite. It's true that everyone has styles that bother them, but even still, when the odds are this big, the styles aren't supposed to even be a problem. Talent should always wind up dominating in a 50-to-1 matchup. If it doesn't, Danny Garcia may have much bigger concerns going forward. And the same old questions will be there, as if the Matthysse and Khan fights never even happened.