By Joe Scalzo
The first time Alejandro “Popo” Salinas traveled to a boxing tournament, he stopped at a highway rest stop and spotted a claw crane filled with stuffed animals.
“He never knew what it was, but he puts a quarter in, picked up [a prize] and my son goes, ‘No way,’” said Salinas’ trainer, Jack Loew. “Puts another quarter in, picks up another prize and we made him leave.
“He’s just one of those kids that, everything he does, he does well.”
And what he does best, he does better than any 16-year-old in the country.
On Oct. 8, Salinas, a junior at East High, won three amateur fights to capture the 2011 National Police Athletic League boxing tournament in Toledo, becoming the first Youngstown boxer since Kelly Pavlik to win that title. (Lightweight Dannie Williams, who trains at the Southside Boxing Club, won the PAL tournament twice.)
The PAL tournament and the National Junior Olympics (which was held earlier this year) are the two top national tournaments. This month’s title makes Salinas the top-ranked fighter in the 15-16 age division in the United States.
“There’s a lot of tough lions out there,” said Salinas. “But there’s only room for one king of the jungle.”
Fighting at 125 pounds, Salinas, 16, first stopped Shakarri Grimsley of West Palm Beach, Fla., in the second round. Grimsley was the No. 6-ranked fighter in the country.
He then won a decision over Wyoming’s Abram Martinez in what he called “the toughest fight I’ve ever had.”
“I’ve got to give it to that kid,” Salinas said of Martinez, who placed third at the Junior Olympic tournament. “But I still beat him.”
In the championship match, Salinas defeated Pittsburgh’s Matt Conway for the fifth time in his career. Conway recently finished second at the Ringside world tournament.
“He’s definitely a natural,” Loew said of Salinas. “He’s like those kids you see at 12 years old that are throwing the baseball way different than everybody else.
“He’s like Kelly Pavlik in that way, just one of those natural little kids that, the first time you show them something, they catch on and perfect it.”
Salinas, who trains at the Southside Boxing Club with his older brother Juan and younger brother Julian, is nicknamed “The Body Snatcher” for his ability to pile up points (and, occasionally, knockouts) by going to the body.
That talent comes from his work ethic, where he is usually one of the first to arrive at the gym and one of the last to leave, Loew said. He works on all aspects of the sport, often coming up with strange exercises (such as push-ups where he moves his hands from the floor to the wall) that make older, more accomplished fighters take notice.
“Most fighters, at 16 years old, are following around the older fighters and watching what they do,” said Loew. “With him, it’s vice-versa.”
Salinas will fight in the upcoming Bob Roth Memorial on the day before Thanksgiving and will compete in the U.S. championships early next year.
“It’s a long shot, but if he wins that [U.S. championship], he’s got a spot on the Olympic team,” Loew said. “He’d need a little bit of luck and the right bracket, but it’s possible.”
In the meantime, Salinas said he needs to focus on his schoolwork and not to look too far ahead.
“I just want to move forward and just see where my career will be headed,” he said.