By Jon Moffett
Trainer Jack Loew says the Salinas brothers are the future.
YOUNGSTOWN — With a heart pounding just as hard as his gloves against the heavy bag, Juan Salinas is focused.
And as the buzzer signals for a cool-down period, the 16-year-old looks around the new South Side Boxing Club. A giant poster of Kelly Pavlik hangs above the ring, so no matter what he’s doing, Salinas looks up to the champ.
“He inspires us and he helps us out with our boxing,” Juan said of Pavlik.
Juan and his younger brother, Alejandro, 14, both train at the club under Jack Loew, who helped Pavlik rise from the son of steelworker to the city’s favorite son. And though “The Ghost” is Youngstown’s current star of the squared circle, Loew says the Salinas brothers are the future.
“I’d be extremely shocked if these two kids are not, at the minimum, in the Olympic trials,” Loew said. “That’s how good I think they are at this stage.”
Juan fights the division for 15- and 16-year-olds at 165 pounds while Alejandro – nicknamed “Popo” by Lillian, his mom – fights at 100 pounds for the 13- and 14-year-old division.
Loew said the pair has already made a name for themselves in the amateur boxing world.
“For Popo, we can’t even get him a fight around here,” Loew said. “If it’s not a tournament, we can’t even get him a fight. That’s how well known he is and how good he is already at 14 years old.”
The club remains in the heart of the city, which Loew said is important for the kids.
“The inner-city kids need us and need what I’m doing,” he said. “The kids who live in the suburbs can always get a ride to the gym. But these inner-city kids have a tough time as it is, just getting a ride to and from the gym when it’s located in the city.”
Membership for the club is $35 per year. The money goes toward amateur boxing fees for USA Boxing, Loew said. Other than that, the gym has no membership fees.
Loew has taught the Salinases how to be tough, which is something Juan says is important inside and outside the ring. It has taught him and Alejandro the difference between boxing and fighting.
“You try to avoid people in the streets because they’ll try to test you to see if you can fight,” Juan said. “Like in school, there are bullies and things like that, and you try to avoid them. It’s hard to avoid, but you try to stay out of trouble. They’ll try to start problems just to see if you can really fight.”
The streets may be tough, but Loew is tougher.
“You could be the bully on the playground, but when you come into the gym you’ll get humbled,” Loew said. He added that he is strict and instills discipline into the kids, many of whom don’t experience it anywhere else.
The Salinas brothers draw their inspiration from Pavlik, who started his career in a similar fashion.
Pavlik grew up on the South Side and the Salinases now reside on the city’s East Side. All three have experienced humble beginnings. Like Pavlik, the Salinases want to use boxing to focus their energy on something positive.
“It was something for them to do to get them off the streets, is how their mother explained it to me,” Loew said of the Salinas brothers. “She just wanted them to get involved in something. Their mom was looking for somewhere for them to get off the streets and stay in some type of activity.”
Though his mom originally got Juan got into the ring, Pavlik’s influence has kept him there.
“I didn’t know much about boxing,” he said. “I was into karate and martial arts stuff. But then, when I got into boxing, I fell in love with it. And knowing that Kelly is the champ, I just can’t get out of it.”
Pavlik’s accessibility has made for a special bond between the Salinas brothers and the champ. Juan and Loew heaped praise on Pavlik for helping young boxers with their workouts at the gym.
“Kelly, before and after [the fight], is still the same guy; he treats us the same,” Juan said.
Pavlik remembers his roots, and does his best to let everyone know he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, Loew said.
“He takes time out with people, he’s so humble, and he’s not fake,” Loew said of Pavlik.
Not only is the champ “real” but Loew said he is down to earth and respectful of everyone. Loew recalled a story of he and Pavlik playing basketball at the YMCA a few days ago. Four kids were playing on the court, and instead of asking the boys to leave, Pavlik offered the kids the chance to play with him.
“He’s the middleweight champion of the world; he could’ve shut down the ‘Y’ if he wanted to in order to work out on his own,” an impressed Loew said, beaming. “But ... instead of him telling the kids to go, he made them play with us.”
Loew said Pavlik’s accessibility to kids is one of the reasons “The Ghost” is able to connect with the younger generation which views him as a role model.
“He comes in the gym and loves to catch hand pads for these kids. He just likes to be involved with the little kids; he acts like a kid himself.”