Because he is guided as much by his immense talent and steadfast dedication as he is by his Jewish faith, Dmitriy Salita, the 27-year-old native of the Ukraine who fights out of Brooklyn, New York, is certain that he will emerge the winner in his December 5 challenge of WBA junior welterweight titlist Amir Khan in Newcastle, England.
Although Salita, 30-0-1 (16 KOS), has received no shortage of negative press over the level of his opposition since turning pro in 2001, he couldn’t be more thrilled about challenging the 22-year-old Khan, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist, who despite a shocking September 2008 first knockout loss to unheralded Breidis Prescott, is still being talked about as a potential great.
The 5’10” Khan, 21-1 (15 KOS), rebounded from the Prescott loss by stopping Oisin Fagan in three rounds, winning a technical decision over Marco Antonio Barrera in five, and beating Andres Kotelnik by unanimous decision to take his title in July 2009.
“I’ve dedicated my life to this moment, from when I was a little kid, running before school, not going on trips, training in the gym for years,” said the 5’9” Salita. “It’s all for this chance to prove myself on December 5 in Newcastle,” said Salita.
Should Salita win, he will become the second Jewish champion to be crowned in less than a month. On the undercard of the November 14 matchup between Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto, another New York-based native Russian, a rabbinical student named Yuri Foreman, won the WBA junior middleweight crown from Daniel Santos. His life has been a whirlwind ever since.
Bruce Silverglade, the owner of Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn and a non-devout but proud Jew, said there is a lot of significance attached to Jewish boxers in today’s world.
“I haven’t been in a synagogue in probably 30 years, but I’m proud of my heritage and I was extremely proud when Yuri won the title last month,” said Silverglade. “There was a time when Jewish champions abounded in boxing, but that was a long time ago. To have two Jewish champions today, at the same time, would be a source of pride to Jews all over the world.”
Because Khan is a Muslim and Salita is a Jew, much is being made about the social and ideological significance of their matchup. Silverglade scoffs at the notion, and says that while promoters might be doing ugly things to sell tickets, the motives of the fighters are pure. He talks about Foreman, who prior to arriving in the United States after leaving his native Belarus, had lived for a time in Israel where he trained in an Arab gym.
“At first they might have looked at him cross-eyed, but once they saw he could fight all that went out the window,” said Silverglade. “In boxing gyms, all assumptions and negative notions related to race or religion go out the window when you can fight. Even the worst of enemies can become friends when they train alongside each other every day.”
Salita remembers being teased and taunted as a youngster in his native country. After being called one particularly derogatory Jewish term, he kicked the boy who said it in the crotch. His father later told him that he did the right thing.
When the Ukraine declared its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union and anti-Semitism was rife, the Salita family made their way to New York.
This time the taunts continued toward the young Salita, although more often than not it had little or nothing to do with being Jewish.
“I had very bad clothes, stuff from Russia, just the cheapest stuff, because we didn’t have any money,” he said.
Salita described once being surrounded by seven boys, whereupon he picked up the desk that was closest to him and fought his way out of the room.
He made his way to the Starrett City Boxing Club, which was run by a wise old black sage named Jimmy O’Pharrow. While O’Pharrow took some pity on the pale, skinny foreign kid, many of the gym regulars, nearly all of whom were black, at first were not so kind.
“They looked at me as a white boy who couldn’t fight,” said Salita. “I knew I had to establish my respect. Slowly I got better, and eventually I put a whipping on some of them. Many of us are still friends today.”
While Salita’s late mother hated the notion of her son boxing, Salita would not be deterred. O’Pharrow was shocked not only at how often he came to the gym, but by how hard he worked when he got there.
“Most of the people he fought were black boys, so they’d look at him and say, ‘I’m gonna kick this white boy’s butt,’” said O’Pharrow. “Then they’d get in there and say, ‘Oh bleep, this kid is a handful.’”
When Salita was 16 he represented New York State in the Junior Olympics and won a bronze medal. “That’s when I really felt like an American,” he said.
Around that time, the colorful O’Pharrow, who is still with Salita, would tell anyone who would listen that, “The kid looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black.”
When Salita won the 2001 New York City Golden Gloves, he also received the Sugar Ray Robinson Award as the tournament’s outstanding boxer. By that time, he had also become an Orthodox Jew, which he had become interested in a few years earlier while visiting his mother in the hospital when she was dying from breast cancer.
She had shared a room with a member of a particularly devout sect. During a heated debate with that woman’s husband, the man told Salita that boxing was “not a Jewish thing to do.”
The conversation only served to pique Salita’s interest in his spiritual background, while also increasing his commitment to boxing. After turning pro he often had conflicts with his promoters because of his refusal to train or fight on the Sabbath, which begins at sundown every Friday and lasts until sundown on Saturday.
Salita is as stubborn as he is determined to make his mark in the world the best way he can. He is as rabid a student of Judaism as he is of the sweet science. He always praises his religion for giving him the discipline and patience to succeed in such a tough sport.
While many orthodox Jews couldn’t care less about Salita’s pugilistic aspirations, there are scores of them that do. They were always a ubiquitous presence when he fought in and around New York, and many of them have made the trek overseas to see him challenge Khan. He and Khan both speak freely about their religions, and how they hope their boxing match can bring some much-needed understanding and camaraderie to both sides.
As big of an attraction that Khan is in England, as well as the Muslim world, Salita has been generating buzz for many years in New York – and beyond. He has been the subject of a documentary film, “Orthodox Stance,” which was produced and directed by Jason Hutt.
Prior to leaving for England, he appeared on “Last Call With Carson Daly,” the popular late-night talk show, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote him a letter praising his “hard work, dedication [and] stellar career.” Speaking for all New Yorkers, the mayor said he is “looking forward to welcoming you back to New York as the new junior welterweight champion of the world.”
As proud as Mayor Bloomberg might be of Salita’s goals and accomplishments, it will pale in comparison to what the now 84-year-old O’Pharrow will feel. He believed in Salita from the moment he met him, and always dreamed along with the young fighter about the day he’d finally compete for a world title.
When Salita’s mother was near death, it was O’Pharrow who told her he’d look after her beloved son. In the glorious melting pot of New York, Salita and O’Pharrow, despite hailing from opposite sides of the spectrum, have, from a pugilistic standpoint, become extensions of each other.
“Nobody deserves success more than Dmitriy does,” said O’Pharrow. “Him becoming a champion means we did something right. It means God put us together for a reason, and everything worked out right.”