'Salita's not a leader yet, but he's going to be'

Brooklyn trainer taught religious Jewish boxer from Ukraine how to fight black.

dimitriy salita 298 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
dimitriy salita 298 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The hometown fighter climbs into the ring to the thumping bass of Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae singer. Orthodox Jewish men in black suits with long beards and unlit cigars bounce and chant to the rhythm. "Dima!" "Dima!" "Dima!" "Dima" is Dmitriy Salita, a 23-year-old super lightweight from Brooklyn, by way of Odessa, Ukraine. He is also a religious Jew.
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He is 1.75 meters, and officially 143 1 /4 pounds (65.2 kilograms), with close-cropped brown hair and an unscarred alabaster face. His robe is black silk with white lettering: "Dmitriy 'Star of David' Salita." It's a Thursday night. There's more money in a Friday night fight - live TV and bigger crowds. But Salita doesn't fight on the Sabbath. The Manhattan Center is packed anyway. Fans from Brownsville, Brooklyn, have come for Curtis Stevens, a hard-hitting middleweight backed by the hip-hop money of producer Irv "Gotti" Lorenzo and his brother Chris. Fans from Spanish Harlem are here for Edgar "El Chamaco" Santana, also fighting on the under card. They all mingle with the Orthodox crowd. They all scream for Dima. Following Salita to his corner are his manager, Israel Liberow, who is the brother of the boxer's rabbi; Hector Roca, a Panamanian trainer of world champions and Hollywood stars; and Jimmy O'Pharrow, a black trainer well-known on the amateur circuit. "With me, Hector and Israel, we've got a league of nations," O'Pharrow says. O'Pharrow, known to friends as "Jimmy O'," has been a mentor to Salita since he taught the young boxer to jab at the age of 13. Jimmy O' is 80 years old now. He's given up training on a daily basis, even with Salita, who works mostly with Roca now. But Jimmy O' follows Salita's moves closely. The boxer's career might be the old trainer's last project. "Dmitriy and I became very close friends," he says. "When he gets hit, I feel it." Jimmy O' wants the young boxer to be more aggressive, to follow a sharp jab or punishing left hook with combinations. Salita is the World Boxing Association's eighthranked fighter; his friend and trainer thinks that maybe, in a year or so, he'll be ready for a title fight. SALITA AND his opponent touch gloves in the center of the ring. Salita knows little about Robert "Red Hot" Frankel. He's from Denver. He signed on for the fight at the last minute after another boxer dropped out. It's Frankel's eighth fight of the year, another payday for a fighter with children and a day job installing carpet. He is 12-4 and said to throw 100 punches a round, which is a lot. Salita is heavily favored, but a loss would be devastating to his chances of getting a title fight. As the first round opens, Salita probes with jabs. The men circle, feeling each other out. With two minutes gone, Salita bulls in close. Frankel clubs at him with an overhand right. Salita ducks, but the blow glances off the top of his head. Salita pedals backward and lands on his back. The referee begins to count. "One." "Two." "Three" Turns out, the dad from Denver has come to New York to win. IT'S BEEN more than 60 years since Jimmy O' first strapped on boxing gloves and 30 since he started training kids. He's tall, lithe and close to his old fighting weight. His beard and hair are gray and his long hands are wrinkled. But his jab is still quick. So is his mouth. "Dmitriy looks Russian, he prays Jewish, he fights black," Jimmy O' likes to say. "I came up with that. Don't quote it from someone else." Salita is focused on being a champion and Jimmy O' wants it for him. But he knows there is more to life than boxing. In the unlikely relationship that began over 10 years ago when a smooth-faced kid walked into his gym, Jimmy O' has found a quest that gives meaning to his later years, and a second act in the sport he loves. It sounds like a Hollywood story, and Disney has taken notice, with a screenplay in development and Eminem penciled in to play Salita. IN THE third round, Salita starts clawing back. He'd popped right up after hitting the floor in the first, claiming he had just tripped. But it didn't matter to the judges, who put Salita two points in the hole. Salita is fighting like Jimmy O' taught him now. "Hit and don't get hit," he always said. Jabs and hooks. Ducks, feints and dodges. Frankel is awkward. He charges with his head down. Salita is worried about tripping again or knocking heads. An accidental butt could end the fight with a gash and douse a promising career. JIMMY O'S boxing story begins in the 1940s. He started fighting in the street. Then he wised-up and paid dues in Manhattan gyms, like Grubb's and the legendary Stillman's. He's among the last who remembers seeing Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion, who occasionally visited Grubb's before he was killed in a car crash in 1946. "He seemed in all of the pictures such a large man, but he wasn't much bigger than I am," Jimmy O' remembers. The gyms were filled with GIs returning from the war. He had wanted to sign up himself, but the Army medical examiner said he had a bad heart. At 80, he laughs remembering it. After a brief amateur career, Jimmy O' hung up his gloves, got married and found a job at a corrugated cardboard factory. But for 30 years, he never forgot his jab. In the mid-'70s, he moved to Starrett City, a mostly white housing project in Brooklyn, where his family stood out "like flies in the buttermilk." He wanted to start a gym and asked Starrett City's board. "Who knows why," he says. "But I used to look at people, who were older and thought about people in their 80s and 90s, who were accomplishing something." The board gave him a modest space below a parking garage with no windows and "nothing but the four walls." He focused on giving poor kids purpose; many were brought to him by the police. "It was not just about learning how to be a boxer. It was about learning how to live, how to grow up," he says. "I couldn't save every person, but I tried." Jimmy O's four walls became one of the country's top amateur gyms, producing dozens of Golden Gloves champions and some notable professionals, including heavyweight Shannon Briggs. One day in 1995, four years after the Salitas moved to the United States, Dmitriy was led in by his brother Michael. Dmitriy was one of the few white kids in the gym, but he didn't even notice. "It wasn't intimidating to me," Salita says. "That's how I knew America, just like my public school." Some of the other kids were not so color blind. "I would put him in the ring with black boys, who said, 'Let me beat on that white boy,' " Jimmy O' says. "Then when Dmitriy started doing what he was told, they would say, 'Uh-oh'." IN THE seventh, Frankel tires. Instead of charging forward, he's backing up now. Salita zeros in, scoring with combinations: jabs, followed by rights and left hooks. Then, bang, an uppercut right on the nose. Blood streams from Frankel's nostrils. Jimmy O' and Hector Roca scream: Finish him. But Salita can't find the knockout. YOUNG DMITRIY Salita would come home from Starrett City shadow boxing. He watched fight videos. He talked about nothing else. His parents, particularly his mother, Lyudmila, were not pleased. They wanted a doctor, a lawyer, a nice Jewish boy. Not a boxer. Then they met Jimmy O'. "He's a man of dignity, character and style and finesse. He's a gentleman," says Salita. "For my mother, the fact that I was around Jimmy brought her a certain amount of calmness, because she knew that Jimmy would look out and take care of me." So when Lyudmila got cancer, she came to talk with Jimmy O'. "She saw things in this kid that nobody saw, that I didn't see," he says. "She said, 'Jimmy I want you to take care of him.' I told her that I was, and she said, 'No I want you to really take care of him.' She knew she was dying, you see." Salita spent countless hours with her in the hospital. One day he met an Orthodox man attending to his own sick wife, and they debated the godliness of boxing. Salita, who had not been raised Orthodox, wondered how could there be anything immoral about the sport he loved. The man suggested he visit a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue and ask a rabbi. The rabbi, Zalman Liberow, encouraged Salita to strengthen his faith - and to box. Salita was glad he found the synagogue. He was bereft when his mother died. But it helped to go say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. At first, it was enough to pray. But gradually, he took little steps toward the Orthodox tradition, often marked by his matches. After one fight, he stopped turning on his coffee maker during the Sabbath, from twilight Friday until sundown Saturday. After another, he gave up the phone and the Internet while observing the Sabbath. Jimmy O', who is Catholic - "Irish Catholic," he likes to joke - encouraged Salita's spiritual development, though it complicated his career. At the New York Golden Gloves tournament, Salita was scheduled for Friday. Jimmy O', who carries weight in New York, spoke to the management. They rescheduled. Salita won his weight class, but Jimmy O' told him to skip other tournaments. "They are not going to change the whole system for you," Jimmy O' told him. Jimmy O' always thought there was more to Salita than boxing, anyway. Once, he visited the teenage Salita at his Hebrew school. "Here's this young kid talking with these learned men, with their long beards, listening and talking. It reminded me of the passage in the Bible when Jesus was in the temple with the older men, schooling them." Salita oozes ambition to be world champion; Jimmy O' worries that his friend will be pushed too far, too fast. Salita, he says, is a "scientific" boxer who has not yet learned to be mean when necessary. But he thinks the boy who came into his gym is now a man doing God's work. "I sometimes think that God put him down here for another reason. I don't think it's completely boxing." Jimmy O' says. "The fights are a gathering, you have the blacks, the Hispanics, the Jews all coming together. He doesn't know he's a leader yet, but that's what he's going to be. "I think his mother knew it and I think she's up in heaven now, looking down saying I put my son in Jimmy O's hands and he's going in the right direction." IN THE 10th and final round, the exhausted boxers tap their reserves, letting their fists fly to impress the three judges. The bell clangs. The crowd is tense. The seconds crawl by as the judges scores are tallied and Salita's career hangs in the balance. Jimmy O' is confident, but disappointed that his boy left room for doubt. The ring announcer booms the scores: 97-92. 96-93. 96-93. "For the winner, by unanimous decision, Dmitriy 'Star of David' Salita." He raises a hand high to his fans and hugs Jimmy O'. The men in the black suits and long beards resume their chant: "Dima!" "Dima!" "Dima!"