- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Robert Salters keeps his boxing trophies on a bookcase in the dining room of his Fayetteville home. There hasn’t been a new one added to the collection since the early 1990s.

In the meantime, the boxing awards have gradually ceded space to the basketball and volleyball trophies won by his daughters, who are now adults. While explaining this, he points out that those sports weren’t even what his girls did best.

“Their claim to fame is that they danced and played violin, both of them,” Salters said. “I’m pretty proud of those girls for that.”

In a lot of ways, Salters’ life isn’t that different from most 53-year-old guys in the city.

He spent some time in the Army. He’s held down the same job as a correctional sergeant at Harnett Correctional Institution for 21 years. He’s been married to his wife, Shirley, for even longer.

Their house has gotten a lot quieter since his youngest daughter, now a junior at North Carolina A&T;, went off to school. His oldest daughter lives in Charlotte with her husband, and their 1-year-old daughter has turned the Salterses into doting grandparents.

These days, Robert Salters spends his spare time working on service projects with his Masonic lodge, the Eureka Lodge No. 3, and playing with his two dogs.

For all the things that make Salters seem ordinary, there’s one part of his story that shatters that image. His heavy hands were once among the most feared in amateur boxing. They once knocked out a future world champ.

Those boxing trophies in the dining room and the photos that line the walls of his living room are reminders of his run as the best super heavyweight among military boxers and one of the elite fighters in the nation.

“He had to be up there,” said Al Smith, who coached with the highly successful Fort Bragg boxing team from 1980-89. “When you’re talking about super heavyweights (that came through Fort Bragg), he’s up there at the top.”

There’s a photo of Salters in the ring the night he won the 1988 amateur national title. There’s another snapshot taken at a Las Vegas casino of him and fellow Army boxing stars Alfred Cole, Anthony Hembrick and Ray Mercer holding up four fingers, an homage to the “Four Horsemen” nickname the feared group had earned.

Then there’s the photo of the finalists for spots on the 1988 Olympic team. Salters is in the crowd near the back. Among the faces are future world champs Mercer, Roy Jones Jr., Kennedy McKinney and Michael Carbajal.

Riddick Bowe is in there, too. He’d go on to win silver at the Seoul Games, rack up 43 professional wins and have two reigns as the heavyweight champion of the world. One of the biggest names in the sport in the 1990s, he owns two wins against boxing icon Evander Holyfield.

But when he crossed paths with Salters during his days as an amateur, he was humbled. Salters beat Bowe twice, and knocked him out the first time they fought.

Once, when Salters was at work, an inmate got wind of his past and reacted incredulously.

“I’ve known Riddick Bowe my whole life. Nobody knocked him out,” the inmate said.

“OK,” Salters said, sensing his words alone wouldn’t be convincing enough.

“Man, I know you didn’t knock this guy out as a professional,” the man continued.

“No, but I was the baddest thing out there as an amateur,” Salters said.

Later, the inmate, who hailed from Bowe’s corner of Brooklyn, wrote the former champ to ask if what Salters was saying was true. Bowe wrote back and told him it was.

Sitting in his recliner, retelling the stories of his fighting days, Salters shares some of that inmate’s bewilderment.

“I still can’t believe I used to do that,” Salters said.

There was little conventional about Salters’ path through boxing. Just stepping into the ring was a bit out of character.

“I was a bully target,” Salters said, his voice still carrying a hint of the accent he picked up during a childhood spent in Brooklyn and Queens. “People picked on me all the time because they knew I wasn’t going to fight.”

Salters, who wears a 68-long jacket these days, was always big. But as the son of parents who stressed discipline and education, he shied away from confrontation. He remembers a day when a neighborhood bully tried to bait him into a scuffle. His little sister Tammy ended up being the one standing up to his tormentor.

Salters said there were a few instances when he did have to defend himself. When he did, things usually went poorly for the other kid, and it was usually followed by bouts of remorse. He remembers one day when, after much prodding, Salters hit a classmate. One punch sent the kid to the floor and later to the hospital.

“From that time on, it took an act of Congress for me to throw my hands up on anybody,” Salters said. “You could push me, but you were not going to get the reaction that you wanted because of what went on with that young man.”

Eventually, Salters’ family moved to South Carolina. He then ended up playing basketball for Claflin University and, in 1983, joined the Army in search of a dose of stability for the family he hoped to start with Shirley, whom he married two years later.

When he wasn’t enduring the rigors of basic training, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Salters played basketball and ran cross country. At the urging of a soldier stationed with him at Fort Jackson, he decided to give boxing a try and compete in an informal tournament, or what’s known in boxing as a “smoker.”

Salters underwent some whirlwind training, during which a coach gave him a piece of advice that stuck: “If you don’t know anything else about boxing, just remember double jab, right hand,” he said.

When the night of the tournament came, Salters was matched against a fighter he remembers bearing a resemblance to the cartoon character “Popeye.” Early in the first round, Salters was hit in the nose with a straight right hand.

“When he hit me, I was like, ‘Oh, God, if he hits me again, I’m going down for sure,’” Salters said.

After settling down, he started attacking with the double jab, right-hand combination. The shots were landing. In fact, they did so much damage the referee finally stopped the fight, making Salters extremely popular among the officers who had put money on him.

While Salters appreciated the adulation, he still didn’t consider himself a boxer. When he was moved to Fort Bragg in 1984, he viewed his experience in the ring as little more than a one-time thing.

But there was a chance to compete in another smoker. Once again he decided to fight, and, again, he won.

This time he got the attention of coaches with Fort Bragg’s powerhouse boxing team. They told him that if he re-enlisted, he might be able to earn a spot on the squad. He signed up for another hitch with the Army and, not long after, he was training with Fort Bragg’s top fighters.

The next few months saw Salters get a taste of just how stiff was his competition. He remembers sparring with Wesley Watson, a former national amateur champ, and spending the next week eating soup with a straw because his jaw was too sore to chew. Watson later admitted he felt bad but also said he couldn’t go easy on the new guy.

Salters began fighting for the Fort Bragg team in 1986. A year later, the prestigious Forces Command Championship came to the post’s Lee Field House. To the delight of the home crowd, Salters rolled to the championship in the super heavyweight title.

In January 1988, Salters was moved to Fort Huachuca in Arizona to train with the All-Army Boxing Team for the upcoming Armed Forces Championship. He won that, too, beating fighters from the other branches of the military. That win earned him a spot in the Olympic Trials and made him a name to watch in the U.S. National Amateur Championships that March.

“We’d been around boxing for a long time,” Smith said. “We were seeing the progress and saying ‘This guy Salters…where did this guy come from?’”

Among those who followed the sport, the super heavyweight division of the U.S. National Amateur Championships in Colorado Springs was a forgone conclusion.

At 19 years old and with a sterling amateur resume, Bowe was expected to win. In fact, most observers expected this title to kick off a year of dominance that would carry him through the Seoul Olympics and into a promising pro career.

Bowe knew this and came into the event overflowing with brash confidence.

Salters won his early bouts and drew a meeting with Bowe in the semifinals.

At the pre-fight weigh-in, Bowe irked Salters by showing him a list of fighters he’d faced. Next to most of them was a note saying that they’d been barred from fighting for 30 days after Bowe had beaten them so badly.

“I said, ‘OK, not a problem,’” Salters said. “Being in the military, we’re disciplined. These guys, they’re from the streets. They’re not as disciplined as we are. He said ‘That’s all you have to say?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll see you in the ring tonight.’”

Once there, he remembers flustering Bowe with his jab and then stunning him with a hard right hand. Bowe went down, but in the midst of a clinch, he pulled Salters down, too. When the round ended, Salters sensed Bowe was in trouble when he retreated to the wrong corner.

In the second round, Salters got Bowe pinned in the corner and unleashed a furious barrage of punches. That’s when Bowe went down.

Eventually Bowe staggered to his feet. As the referee’s count hit eight, he stared at the still-woozy fighter and decided to stop the fight.

Then, for a moment, it was chaos. The ring flooded with coaches and officials. Once he got his bearings, Bowe was furious, charging at Salters and shouting about a rematch.

Salters reminded him that they would meet again at the Olympic Trials. Bowe wasn’t interested. He wanted another shot right then.

After things calmed down, Salters called Shirley and told her he’d won.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.

“No, I knocked him out,” said Salters, who would go on to win the national title the next night with a third-round knockout. “I can’t believe it.”

The reluctant boxer had become a champ.

Years later, Hank Johnson, the longtime coach of the Fort Bragg boxing team, told Salters that he’d changed one of his core beliefs about boxers.

“I always thought you had to be born with the heart to fight,” Johnson told him. “You didn’t have the heart to fight when you first came to the team, but you developed the heart to fight.”

The set-up of the 1988 Olympic Trials featured a simple tournament in early July in Concord, California, followed, a week later, by a box-off in Las Vegas between the tournament champ and the opponent that gave him the most trouble. If the champ wins once, he’s on the Olympic team. If the other fighter beats the champ twice, he gets the spot.

Heading into the first segment of the trials, Salters and Bowe were on a collision course, both breezing into the finals.

Once there, Salters hit the canvas early in the first round, but recovered and finished the round by hitting Bowe with a vicious volley of blows as he leaned against the ropes. Salters controlled the second round and endured a flurry from Bowe early in the third.

This time, after the judges announced their 4-1 decision for Salters, there was no anger from Bowe, just a congratulatory hug.

“He said ‘You did it again,’” Salters said.

The only thing left between Salters and a trip to Seoul was the box-off, where the natural choice for his opponent was Bowe.

In the first fight, Salters decided to play it safe, staying close to Bowe in order to negate some of his knockout power while still trying to land enough blows to win. In hindsight, he admits he didn’t do enough to convince the judges and lost 3-2.

He’s still irked by the rematch the next day. While his nose was bloodied in the first round, Salters feels he got the better of Bowe. A New York Times story on the fight describes Salters as “landing the heavier blows.”

But after what Salters describes as an unusually long delay after the fight, the judges ruled it 3-2 in favor of Bowe, ending Salters’ Olympic dreams.

To this day, Salters wonders if politics played a role in the decision. He was 25 - somewhat old for an amateur - and still new to the sport. Bowe had been pegged for stardom for years. There were already many powerful forces in the fighting world ready to reap the rewards of his rise.

In the post-match news conference, a magnanimous Bowe said he’d never felt threatened in a boxing ring until he faced Salters. Still smarting from the defeat, Salters just wanted to go home.

Back at Fort Bragg, Salters watched the Seoul Olympics and pulled for the American boxers, many of whom he knew. He even pulled for Bowe, who lost to future champ Lennox Lewis in the gold-medal bout.

“My heart was out there with those guys,” Salters said.

While many other successful members of the Fort Bragg boxing team viewed the end of the Olympic cycle as a good time to turn pro - it helped that many of their enlistment periods ended in 1988 - Salters didn’t. He wanted to leave the Army with an honorable discharge, which meant he’d have to honor his commitment and stay in the service another five years.

He kept competing in boxing tournaments and training with the Bragg team. He also did some coaching. But with his oldest daughter, Lenniah, nearing school age, he admits that his commitment to the sport waned.

He tried to make the 1992 Olympic team, but lost early to a younger fighter.

A year later, Salters’ time in the Army was up. He got interest from promoters to fight professionally, but nothing ever felt right. In 1994, Salters began working at the Harnett Correctional Institution.

As time went by, his family grew, his Fayetteville roots got deeper and his boxing days receded into memory.

He said he’s thankful to get out of the sport what he did. His mind is fine. The only physical price he’s paid is in the form of arthritic knees.

He admits he does think about what it would have been like to turn pro and potentially have the kind of career Bowe had. But he doesn’t dwell on it. He’s too content with how things have turned out to let such thoughts weigh on him.

And as far away as his boxing career seems, it has a habit of coming back up.

A few years ago, Salters got a call from Mercer, who lives in Fayetteville, alerting him that Hembrick and Cole were going to be in town. That night, the “Four Horsemen” hung out at Mercer’s place, swapping stories late into the night. At one point, they even got Bowe on the phone.

“When you going to share that championship you stole from me?” Bowe asked Salters, referring to the 1988 national title.

“When you going to share some of those millions?” Salters replied.

There was another afternoon when Salters woke up from a nap to the sound of his daughter Imanni shouting.

When he went to investigate, he found her in front of the computer. She’d found the video of Salters’ second match with Bowe on YouTube.

“It took me right back to that time,” Salters said. “My daughter was cheering like I was actually fighting right now.”

Salters had never shown his children footage of his fights. He felt that seeing their dad getting hit would be upsetting. But with Imanni in her teens, he figured that by now, she was old enough to see it.

So he just sat down next to her and watched.

With his rapid-fire fists, the 25-year old Robert Salters got the better of a future world champ. His daughter was thrilled.

“That’s a part of my past,” Salters told her. “A very proud part of my past.”


Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, https://www.fayobserver.com

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