The Friday Interview: Bobbing-and-weaving with the Star of David

Observant Jewish boxer Dmitriy Salita pulls no punches in his relentless pursuit of a title belt.

Dmitriy Salita jewish boxer 248 88 (photo credit: )
Dmitriy Salita jewish boxer 248 88
(photo credit: )
"Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish, fights black," is how 83-year-old African-American trainer Jimmy O'Pharrow has so often and so affectionately described his star pupil over the years. Dmitriy Salita has pared down the catch-phrase just a bit. "Being a Jew is who I am, boxing is just what I do," the 27-year-old #1 junior welterweight title contender and IBF International Champion tells The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview from New York, where he lives and trains. And, boy, does he do it well. Since turning professional in 2001 at the age of 19, just after winning New York's Golden Gloves title and taking home the Sugar Ray Robinson Award for most outstanding fighter of the tournament, Salita has compiled an eye-popping 29-0-1 undefeated record in the ring. A victory in his upcoming fight this Sunday night in Las Vegas against Raul "El Toro" Munoz would land him his first World Boxing Association title bout, "the shot" that Salita has long been waiting for and dreaming of. "I believe I'm the best fighter in the world in my weight class and I'm just looking to get my opportunity," Salita states with strong conviction and yet without any trace of cockiness. "Sometimes I get very frustrated that who I fight is out of my control, but I know that all I can do is train hard, perform well in the ring... and keep my faith in Hashem strong. The rest will hopefully take care of itself." The story of Dmitriy Salita clearly goes well beyond any boxing ring or training gym. Having moved to Brooklyn from Odessa, Ukraine as a nine-year-old child "because of the escalating violence against Jews in our country," Dmitiriy grew up within the Russian community of Flatbush, where shared culture was much more of a unifying factor than religion. He was raised in a non-observant Jewish home, "but I always had strong belief in God, one that I was very aware of even without connecting it to any practice, per se." It was only in his teenage years, well after his bright amateur boxing career had begun taking off, that Salita's Jewish heritage began taking on a much larger role in his life. "At the time, my mother, she should rest in peace, was in and out of hospitals being treated for cancer," Salita wistfully reflects. "She once shared a room with a Chabad Lubavitch woman and, in one of my many visits, I struck up a conversation with her husband. "A spark in me was lit, and slowly, very slowly, I began learning how to daven (pray) and what it means to be Jewish." He forged a relationship with one of the Rabbis at the Chabad center and, over time, continued to move towards an observant orthodox lifestyle. Bear in mind that Salita was already an up-and-coming amateur fighter, with huge dreams of making it big in a world that, to say the least, didn't exactly jive with his newfound dedication to religion. Friday night and Saturday fights are a staple in the boxing industry and while, at first, Salita continued to participate in the weekend amateur competitions, "I started making these little compromises with myself, based on upcoming events. After one fight, I stopped turning off lights on Shabbat, after another I started being more strict on myself with not eating meat and milk together." Today, Salita is what most people would refer to as a devoutly Orthodox Jew, although he still prefers the word "observant - I try to stay away from the pervasive labels." He has spent significant time learning in Yeshiva, keeps kosher and Shabbat 100 percent, prays three times a day, regularly goes by Dovid (his Hebrew name) to friends, sports a newly-grown beard and keeps his head covered at all times in accordance with Jewish law. (He does not cover his head in the boxing ring) "I recently starting wearing a kippa publicly, whereas before I always used to wear a baseball hat in the professional sphere of my life," Sailta notes. "It's very important for me now to show Jewish pride and Jewish presence." Ironically, while most people who hear his story at first focus on the startling contrasts between being an observant Jew and a professional boxer, it almost seems as if boxing helped Salita find his faith as much as anything else. Indeed, it is a daily juggling act for Salita to balance his Jewish faith, including all the details of being an observant Chabad follower, with the extraordinary rigors of being a professional boxer. However, as he sees it, "there is no contradiction between boxing and Judaism, at least how it happened with me." "Life is a challenging thing and all people have a lot of different components to their lives. So do I. I do what I have to do to be true to my faith - davening, keeping kosher, learning. But just like you or anyone else, I have other interests or loves in my life and boxing is a real love of mine that was there before I became observant and that doesn't get in the way of my religious practice." Like many pugilists, Salita began learning his chosen trade at a young age. "I was five years old when I saw my first boxing fight, before we moved to the States. It was Mike Tyson and I remember dancing around my room that night imitating the moves." Similar to many boys of the '80s, never mind those destined to become world-class boxers themselves, Dmitryi fell in love with the Rocky movies and "even today, when I train for fights, I go to a camp in the Poconos [in Upstate New York] and train for weeks by myself Sylvester Stallone-style, like when was going to fight Drago." At the age of 13, Salita began training at O'Pharrow's Starrett City Gym in East Brooklyn. And before long he started making waves in the amateur boxing underground, with his technical proficiency and tenacious style. He accumulated an amateur record of 59-5 and when he was 16, Salita represented New York in the Junior Olympics and won a bronze medal. His Golden Gloves title three years later represented the pinnacle of what he could achieve at the amateur level and he signed with renowned promoter Bob Arum to fight professionally. Since then, Salita has knocked out 16 of his 30 opponents and won 13 more bouts on decisions, with his only draw coming in 2006. In his last fight, in November, he claimed victory in a unanimous decision over Derrick Campos at Madison Square Garden by dominating the contest with his lightning quick hand speed and staggering body blows. He is the number one contender for the junior welterweight (maximum fighting weight of 63.5 kg or 140 pounds) belt, a title that was just taken from Ricky Hatton by Philipino cult-hero Manny Pacquiao. Salita also has a huge following of his own. His rabid fan club, dubbed the Kosher Nostra, is a strong (and maybe somewhat strange) presence at each one of his fights with their beards and tzitzit flying as they cheer on their man and berate his opponents with their 'yinglish' taunts. Maybe even grabbing a mincha/ma'ariv minyan between the second and third rounds. Clearly, the sterling record in the ring is there for Salita, he is personable, polite, friendly (in speaking with him for the first time, you almost feel as if you are talking to an old friend), he certainly has a unique and intriguing story that is bound to grab the attention of fans and the hype around him has been building for a few years now. So, nu, why hasn't he gotten a title fight yet? "I can't tell you that. I wish I knew myself," Salita begins, before pausing for a second to decide how much to say about what he clearly feels may be part of the reason. "Let's just say that the politics of boxing may sometime be even harder than boxing itself," he laughs. "In my sport, it's basically all about HBO and the promotors and the power they yield in the industry as a TV network, because they put the fights on television, which is where the revenue in boxing is really generated. "Even though I may be the top challenger for the belt and have an undefeated record, it doesn't necessarily mean that HBO and the promoters will decide that I will get the title fight," Salita explains. "It a bit like a double-edged sword, or a catch-22, because the knock against me is that I don't have enough big fights or opponents to my name and that explains why I'm not chosen for the main event draws. "The thing is that I haven't ever been given the chance for a big fight because HBO and the other sources have made that decision, so how do I turn that around? "All I want is one shot." HBO did not respond to multiple attempts by The Jerusalem Post to be reached for comment. The double-edged sword theme has been a recurring one in Dmitriy's life. His decision not fight on Shabbat may help his publicity and status in the Jewish world (both this one and the next), but it has not helped his exposure to the hard-core boxing public, whose support, or least attention, he so desperately needs in a sport built as much on build-up and excitement as it is by true talent. It's not easy explain to the Nevada State Boxing Commission that it must schedule a special pre-fight weigh-in time of 9 p.m. on Saturday night for Salita because nightfall is especially late in Las Vegas this time of year. "Food is also a difficult hurdle, especially in training. But whatever," Salita figures, "what I do is no different than any other observant Jews who work and live in a secular world." Yes, that may be true, but most observant Jews aren't known by their work colleagues as "Kid Kosher" or "Star of David", and don't make their living trying to knock people unconscious. "Of late," Salita reflects, "I have began to think of myself and where my place is in the Jewish and boxing worlds as I've constantly had to deal with questions about how I mange with both extremes. "I realize how odd it may be to see me as an observant Jewish boxer, but I think that's important for people to see and it may be part of my mission to show other Jews and gentiles as well that there are many different paths of living as a religious person." So what's next for good ol' Dovid from Flatbush? Well, his performance on Sunday evening in the ring may help determine his professional future ("this fight is very important because a victory means that I fight for the world championship next"), but as for his personal goals, a slightly different bent. "I still have a lot of growth to do as a person, I want to visit Israel for the first time, I want to be a champion in all aspects of my life." Becoming a champion takes hard work, dedication, a delicate balance of priorities, fighting and succeeding in the face of all odds, and a hundred other things. But this is not something I need to tell Dmitriy Salita. He already knows.