After title loss, Orthodox boxer punches into Israel for first visit
Reflecting on world championship fight, soft-spoken 27-year-old recalls being 'overwhelmed' by crowd's hostility.
"Israel is a good place for reflection," professional Jewish boxer Dmitriy Salita told reporters on Wednesday in Jerusalem, after they asked the Orthodox Brooklynite about his future plans following his dramatic loss last Saturday night in a world championship fight.
"I feel almost like the fight never happened," said the Chabad follower on his first visit to Israel, after falling in a title-bid to Pakistani-Brit Amir Khan in Newcastle. The fight was stopped in the first round after Khan delivered a flush of accurate jabs and a left hook, downing Salita.
But in a conversation with Haaretz, the soft-spoken 27-year-old later recalled being "overwhelmed" by the hostility from the crowd, where thousands of fans booed him when he entered the ring wearing a Star of David logo on Saturday.
"I was stunned from what happened in the beginning," Salita said at the Jerusalem offices of the immigration assistance organization Nefesh B'Nefesh, which hosted him and his wife this week.
The atmosphere of the fight - the first one in which he lost after a string of 30 wins - made it difficult for Salita to "switch into gear," he said.
"I felt like I was fighting 10,000 people."
Perhaps the level of hostility caught Salita by surprise because he and Khan, a Muslim, had agreed not to highlight the fight's religious aspect.
"Beyond the boos, the place was filled with Allah hu akbar calls," said David Roitman, Salita's friend who was there with him at the stadium in Newcastle.
"I have been to many boxing fights but I had never seen anything like it," Roitman added. "People were flying Pakistani flags. I don't want to say there was anti-Semitism there, but there was a very un-sportive atmosphere that really took everyone by surprise."
Salita, who emigrated from Ukraine to the United States with his family when he was 9, described the atmosphere in Newcastle as "crazy and extremely intense."
"I'm used to local crowds favoring the local fighter but this was something I was not prepared for and from now on I will better know how to deal with," he said.
But it could be long months or even several years before Salita - who describes himself as a "fast and technical" boxer - will get the chance to fight for the title again, since Khan is not obligated to give him a rematch.
Within 24 hours of beginning their visit as guests of Nefesh B'Nefesh, the Salitas faced a barrage of questions on whether they planned to immigrate to Israel.
This prospect, Dmitriy and his wife Alona said, is not something they are considering now.
"I very much hope Dmitriy will join us and make aliyah in the near future and join the Jewish People," said Erez Halfon, vice chairman of Nefesh B'Nefesh, which has brought 23,000 Jews to Israel from North America and the U.K since its foundation in 2002.
"Jews who come to visit Israel have spirit. But those who make aliya have a soul," said Eli Cohen, head of the Jewish Agency's Aliyah Department, which is Nefesh B'Nefesh's partner.
Finally, Claudia Katz, head of the Absorption Ministry's athlete department, said her office would offer Salita the same grants it affords Olympic athletes if he moves here.
Salita thanked Nefesh B'Nefesh "for the opportunity to visit Israel and, ideally, I guess to move here."
However, he said immigrating to Israel was not something he was "thinking of right now."
Back in Brooklyn, Salita is busy promoting a social project for Russian-speaking American Jewish youths, together with his rabbi, Zalman Liberow from the Chabad synagogue of Flatbush.
"This project gives teenagers something to do, it keeps them out of trouble," Salita said.
But some trouble is a crucial ingredient to the making of an excellent boxer, according to Salita. "It's probably true that good boxers come from a background of some adversity, and this also applies to my case," he said. "You need a kind of hunger. You don't see too many boxers from middle class homes."
Perhaps this is why Jewish boxers are today seen in America as "an oxymoron," as Salita puts it.
One question at the press conference, more than all others, grabbed the attention of Alona Salita. It pertained to how his recent marriage to her has affected his boxing.
"A professional athlete career takes a toll on marriage," he said. "The personal steps I make now are more measured."
Alona said she thought the question was very good, but preferred not to say what she thought about the answer.