All Laced Up With Nowhere to Go

Orthodox boxer Dmitriy Salita has found it increasingly hard to line up fights and says it may be time to look in other directions.

Dmitriy Salita combines the rare qualities of being an Orthodox Jew and a boxing champion. Born in the Ukraine and raised in Brooklyn, the 31-year-old welterweight fighter holds a 33-1-1 record with 16 KOs. He started boxing when he was 13 at the Starrett City Boxing Club in Brooklyn. He turned pro in 2001 and became the North American Boxing Association light-welterweight champion in 2005. He nearly made it to the top, but WBA light-welterweight champion Amir Khan knocked him out in 76 seconds in 2009 to defend his world title.
In this conversation with Haaretz, Salita discusses his inspirations, his challenges as an Orthodox Jewish boxer and his not-so-clear future in his profession.

When did you decide you wanted to be a professional boxer?

"I decided that I wanted to turn pro shortly after I started boxing, which was when I was 13 years old.  I was following my dream, although there were few instances in my life where if things went a certain way, I may have chosen a different path in life.  One of the most pivotal moments came when in my growth in Judaism I became Shabbos Observant.  I was 18 years old competing in the USA championships.  I was an underdog and after beating some good boxers I made it to the finals.  The finals were on a Saturday afternoon.  I told the USA amateur boxing association that I would not be able to box at 2 P.M. on Saturday, which is when my fight was scheduled. They told me that I would be disqualified. Leading up to the final bout I did an interview with a reporter who was asking me about my upcoming match against a seven-time U.S. champion.  I told him that I can't participate in it and explained my situation to him.  He spoke to USA boxing, and my match was changed to evening time – and thank G-d I won and became U.S. champion.  This was definitely a pivotal moment."|

How important was Starrett City Boxing Club to your career and what are your fond memories from there?

"The Starrett City experience was instrumental in my career.  The club had some of the best boxers in the world and the country.  As a young boy I had an opportunity to train around the very best. We had very competitive and hard sparring, boxing on a daily basis. That atmosphere helped develop my skills and mental strength.  It is also where I met my trainer and mentor the late and great Jimmy O'Pharrow.  Jimmy O gave me incredible education – not only about boxing but about life.

"Through his eyes, so to say, I experienced situations and seen him deal with people from all walks of life. He was like my guardian angel – an incredible man who helped me in my life in many ways."|

How did you come up with the "Star of David" nickname?

"It happened before my third pro fight.  Leading up to the fight I was going through the usual logistical procedure of medical examination, paperwork etc. I was asked by the commission if I had a nickname and I said I did not. Sitting next to me was Bill Caplan who was working on that show. He said yes he had a name for me: "Star of David" and that's how it started."

How difficult is it to be a professional athlete while being an Orthodox Jew?

"The actual sport participation can be challenging. During training, when going to camps that are outside of the Jewish Metro community cooking becomes difficult. I had many camps in the Pocono Mountains. I would bring my pots, pans, meat and fish from New York and be my own chef. My wife was pleasantly surprised that I could take care of myself in the kitchen. Getting fights I had certain periods that were smooth and others that were challenging. I could never fight on ESPN Friday Nights Fights or Showbox, which are regular boxing TV shows. Many times promoters liked the sensationalism that the publicity of my story brings, but in the end have had a hard time dealing with logistical issues of Shabbos etc., especially when you are not the main event. That sometimes created some tension with people in the industry."

Do you think about the Amir Khan fight a lot? How do you motivate yourself to continue to get better every day?

"Not anymore. I think you have to extract the good you learned from experience and move on.  A few days after that fight I went to Israel for the first time. The land and people inspired me tremendously. I felt that it was my responsibility to do my best and come back strong."  

Tell us about the music you use to enter the arena for a fight.

"I feel that through my boxing experience I have to do my best to promote Jewish identity, especially in pop culture and through it. I grew up listening to Hip Hop music in Starret City boxing club and have come to enjoy it. Early in my career I combined hip hop like Eminem with Jewish theme songs and music. In 2005 or 2004 I went to hear a performance by this underground reggae star Matisyahu. His voice, look and presence were just incredible. We spoke after the show and I brought up the idea of him walking me out to a live song to one of my fights. A few months later I fought at Hammerstein Ballroom in a televised title fight. I asked him to walk me out into the ring to 'Lord Raise me up.' It was a sensational performance by him and thank G-d a good one by me in the ring as well."


Do you stay in touch with other Jewish professional athletes?

"My sports hero is Tamir Goodman. I looked up to him when I studied in James Madison High School and saw him dunking basketballs with a yarmulke in sports illustrated and the NY Daily News. It made me feel very proud as a Jewish kid in public school and encouraged me to promote Jewish presence through my sport. I met him several years ago and we are good friends. He is truly a role model and a hero of the Jewish people in every way."

When do you anticipate you will fight your next big fight and what is next in your career?

"I'm not sure. I had some real challenges landing a significant fight. I was supposed to have a good breakout fight against Hector Camacho Jr on February 9, then the whole show got postponed to April 27 and for some reason my match got canceled, just like that. I found out about the cancelation by reading an article about it on ESPN.com. I put in four months of hard work and the fight got canceled. The whole show went on but my fight was scratched. It was promoted by one of biggest in boxing.

 "We recently celebrated the holiday of Passover. Jewish people as slaves in Egypt built cities that sunk into the sand. It was an attempt by Pharoah to break a person physically, spiritually and mentally. That's how I felt about this recent happening. This situation is one of many disappointments in the past several years. This one has just been more public.    

"I also feel that I am blackballed, the seldom good opportunities that come my way as this one somehow evaporate.  Physically I feel great but the business and inconsistency of the sport has me seriously thinking about doing something else. I have dedicated my life to the sport of boxing, and have dedicated all my energy to be the best athlete I can be and to stay true to my beliefs as a religious Jew while pursuing my goals in boxing. I have a family to support and can't afford such things to happen."

Daniel Bar-On