A Hard-Headed Jew

by Jeff Fleischer

(World Jewish Digest, December 2007)


From the time he was 13 years old, learning his craft in a boxing gym in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, Dmitriy Salita has remained committed to one goal: becoming a world champion.

Now 25, he’s ranked No. 3 in the world by the World Boxing Association in the junior welterweight division, and fighting for the world championship is the next logical step in his accomplished career. Salita was hoping to have his long-awaited title shot Nov. 3 against newly minted champ Gavin Rees of Wales, but that proposed fight fell through, leaving him in limbo about when his next contest is coming.

“Boxing can be a very tough business and can be very disheartening,” Salita, who is 27-0-1, with 15 knockouts since turning pro in 2001, told World Jewish Digest. “Boxing and athletics is a short life, and I know I have to accomplish my goals within a certain amount of time. I did whatever I could do to make that fight happen, and it not happening really disappointed me. It’s very painful, but I’m still focused on my goals.”

Given his high ranking and undefeated record, Salita will eventually get his chance at the title. When he does, that fight will mark the next chapter in the remarkable story of an athlete who’s successfully combined his twin passions of boxing and Judaism.

Salita grew up in Odessa, Ukraine, where religious observance was forbidden under Soviet rule, but bigotry was still rampant. Children harassed him and Salita once kicked a boy who hurled an antisemitic epithet at him. When he was 9, his parents moved the family to Brooklyn, where they felt their children would have a brighter future.

The adjustment wasn’t easy. Dmitriy’s parents, Aleksander and Lyudmila, were professionals with master’s degrees in Odessa, but had to struggle at first to make a living in America. Dmitriy, though, soon found his own professional calling when his older brother Michael took him to Starrett City Boxing Club. While he had taken karate and kickboxing lessons, he had never tried traditional boxing before. He took a liking to it right away.

“Somehow, watching the fights on TV, watching Rocky, it would inspire me,” Salita says. “I won a very big bout in kickboxing when I was 12 years old, and my older brother Michael saw some kind of talent and suggested I try boxing. I did, and from the first day, I was addicted to the atmosphere.

“Boxing traditionally is the sport of the poor, so I guess there was some relationship there – we were immigrants, we weren’t doing well at first financially. Being a young kid growing up in a new culture and being poor made me have a lot of frustration, and I guess the boxing gym was a place for me to release it.”

Starrett City and its director, Jimmy O’Pharrow, have trained more than their share of top fighters. But O’Pharrow has said he never saw one like Salita, a kid who “looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black,” and has trained him ever since.

Salita’s first big test came at age 13 with the Silver Gloves tournament in Rochester, N.Y. His first-round opponent already had 20 fights under his belt, but Salita defeated him and wound up winning the tournament for his first of many gold medals.

“I remember I was so nervous before the fight, I was sweating,” he says. “I remember it was bad weather outside, and I wished that the rain and wind would come, and lights would go out and I wouldn’t have to fight. I was that nervous. But with time you learn how to deal with that and use it to your advantage.”

Soon, he was one of the country’s top amateur boxers, winning the New York Metropolitan Championship six times and compiling an official amateur record of 54-5. In 2001, he won both the U.S. Under 19 National Championship and the prestigious New York Golden Gloves tournament, turning pro soon thereafter.

At the same time that his amateur career was taking off, Salita was also delving into his faith for the first time. His mother was fighting a long battle with breast cancer (she passed away in 1999), and Dmitriy would constantly visit her at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. At one point, his mother was rooming with a religious woman, and Dmitriy began to talk with her husband about Judaism. The man passed his information along to a local Chabad rabbi, Zalman Liberov, who invited him to attend shul.

“I began to go, and I felt good,” says Dmitriy, who was 14 at the time. “I saw that people were there from different walks of life, praying in a non-judgmental environment. I felt that going to synagogue, which in the beginning was 10-15 minutes on Shabbat, gave me strength for the week, made me feel good about what I was doing that week. So, bit by bit, it grew.”

The discipline of Judaism made him a better boxer, he says. And the reverse was equally true.

“Boxing is – for me especially because I care so much about it – a very strong emotion- generating sport and a sport that’s one-on-one,” he explains. “And because boxing is so intense and so personal to me, I prayed and prayed before my training sessions and all my fights, even before I started going to synagogue. That helped me develop a personal relationship with God because it was a way I felt I was being helped and guided in something. That was very, very important to me.”

Salita immersed himself to the point that he refused to fight after sundown on Friday, a premier night for fight promoters. His adherence to the Sabbath meant he had to skip the amateur world championship in Budapest in 2001, but after turning pro, he sought out promoters who could accommodate his observance.

By September 2002, just seven years after he first set foot in the gym, he was fighting in Las Vegas in a bout televised on an ESPN network the night before one of his boxing role models, Oscar De La Hoya, would face a championship fight in the same ring. Salita continued to rattle off victory after victory, winning his first 24 professional fights (followed by his only draw, a 2006 bout where he came back from two early knockdowns to earn a split). In 2006, he was invited by President George W. Bush to a Chanukah celebration at the White House, and his career has seen him fight throughout the United States, from San Francisco to Puerto Rico to an American Indian reservation in Washington state.

His life story reads like the script for a movie, and thanks to Brooklyn-based director/producer Jason Hutt, it already is one. Hutt spent three years filming Salita, starting with a 2002 fight in Las Vegas. His film, Orthodox Stance, premiered in June at the SILVERDOCS international film festival, is currently showing at a number of Jewish film festivals and will air on BBC television in February. (Producer Jerry Bruckheimer also has a movie about Salita in the works, penned by Gregory Allen Howard, who wrote Remember the Titans).

“One of the things I think is admirable about Dmitriy is he is very much himself and never trying to be someone else, and I think that’s very rare,” Hutt says. “I started shooting with him when he was 19, so to see a young person who’s so comfortable in who they are, especially with a complex character such as his—being a Russian immigrant, being a boxer and being an observant Jew—it was sort of remarkable that he didn’t hide his Judaism in the boxing gym. Just the same, he didn’t hide or change his boxing personality when he was in the synagogue. He’s very much himself, and I think that’s his greatest appeal as a person and as a documentary subject.”

Orthodox Stance captures the behind-the-scenes complexity of Salita’s life. Preparing kosher meals in his Vegas hotel room with ingredients brought from New York. Going off to an isolated training camp in the Poconos to prepare for a big fight. Practicing his punching in a steam room as he tries to make weight. It also shows him laying tefillin, praying at shul and speaking with synagogue members about his career. The movie ends with footage of Salita’s Aug. 25, 2005, victory against Shawn Gallegos for the North American Boxing Association title, fought before a packed house at the Manhattan Center.

“The film is very much about how Dmitriy and his supporters – his trainers, his promoter, his manager, his rabbis – are helping him carve out a place in professional boxing as a religious Jew and also how Dmitriy is carving out a place in Orthodox Judaism for a professional boxer,” Hutt says. “So the fact that he’s got this great venue in New York City, the place is packed, people are hanging from the rafters, a huge crowd, and he has Matisyahu singing him into the ring, it’s that culmination of all those things happening. That night felt like the conclusion of the part of his life I was filming.”

Since then, Salita’s added four more victories to his resume while he waits for his shot at his sport’s ultimate prize. Though sometimes frustrated with the business end of things, he still speaks enthusiastically of the sport that’s made him a hero to his fans.

“I like the discipline, I like the dedication,” he says. “Jewish boxers throughout history were known as the thinkers, as the boxers of the technicians. I guess I follow in that route. My trainer has always preached to me that brains beat brawn, and so far brain has beaten brawn in my sense.”

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for publications including Mother Jones, the Sydney Morning Herald, The New Republic, the Chicago Daily Herald, Chicago Magazine and Mental Floss.

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