“Looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black.” that’s what legendary boxing coach Jimmy O’Pharrow says about his longtime subject Dmitriy Salita, the Ukranian-born Brooklyn-bred Orthodox Jewish boxer. After immigrating to the United States at the age of nine, Salita found boxing and later found faith. Known as the “Star of David” with a 30-1-1 record, a Golden Gloves of New York title, and a currently a contender for the world junior welterweight championship, Salita isn’t just fighting to satisfy his ego, establish a legacy, or add to his trophy case, instead he boxes for a Jewish cultural awakening.
Salita’s story is much more than the American dream- it’s the immigrant’s tale, the saint’s tale, the underdog’s tale, and the neighborhood boy-done-good’s tale all wrapped up in one 24- year-old welterweight who happens to be coming to speak at 6th & I Synagogue on Monday May 10th. Keep Dmitriy Salita’s name on your radar because the guy who wrote “Remember The Titans” is shopping around a screenplay based on Dmitry’s life destined to make chests swell and tears well like you just caught a right in the solar plexus.
How did you get in the ring for the first time?
My first boxing match was when I was 13 years old. At the age of 13 I had joined Starrett City Boxing Club which is in the ghetto section of Brooklyn, I was the only white kid there. From the first day I felt like a kid in a candy store. The sixth sense took over me and I felt that this was my calling. At the time Starrett City had one of the best boxing teams in the country and now the kids I grew up with are world champions and star contenders so it was a very intense boxing education. New York City and Brooklyn in particular is a hot bed for boxing and I got to see some of the world champions and top contenders so I got to observe, from a very young age at my gym and neighborhood, how they trained and the ups and downs of their boxing careers.
Does anyone box in your family, how did you come to boxing?
No, I come from a traditional Jewish family, very educated people and there was no boxing.
What did your family think about your boxing?
Initially they thought it was an after school activity. They didn’t think much of it, but as I got more serious they had a few conversations with me and asked if this was what I really wanted to do. They didn’t understand how I could want to take a hit but they realized that this was my self-fulfillment and they understood that I worked very hard and was competitive with myself. That was my American dream and they didn’t want to stand in the way of me fulfilling that dream.
What was it like growing up in the Ukraine and not being able to live as openly Jewish as you can in Crown Heights?
You can be as openly Jewish anywhere in America unlike in the Ukraine. I found out that I was Jewish when I was a young boy.
What do you mean “found out you were Jewish”? Weren’t you raised Jewish?
What do you mean “raised Jewish”?
Well in America most people are born into a religion and then decide whether or not they want to follow that religion when they come-of-age.
We weren’t religious because there was no religion in Russia. You aren’t really born a Jew in Russia, there was no religion to be born into because religion was banned. The only taste of Judaism I had in Odessa was that my Dad used to buy matzah for Passover and used to tell me that the Jews came out of Egypt and I was one of those people. But I remember as a kid, not nice things were being said to me by my peers and my parents had similar experiences. Although now, life in the former Soviet Union and in the Ukraine is much better for Jews than it was.
When I cam to the United States I was very young and my mother was ill. In the hospitable I met a religious woman and she introduced me to her husband who was an Orthodox Jew. I had many questions about Judaism and he took the time to have conversations with me about Judaism, and I discovered a faith that I hadn’t really known living in Russia. He put me in touch with the local Chabad rabbi. I was fourteen at the time and the Rabbi supported me in this trying time, took me to the Synagogue and I started coming.
America is the best country in the world and America praises the individual and raises you to be who you are. You’re free to be you. I had always been religious- I always believed in God but I didn’t know how to observe a religion until I came to America.
I slowly started to learn and observe. I think it should be slow, it’s an important process, you’re learning a whole new life. It was when I was an amateur, 18 years-old, that I fought in the U.S. Championships which were held in Mississippi that I decided not to fight on the Sabbath or Shabbos, Saturday afternoons. As it happened the finals were on that afternoon. It was the finals of the tournament but I refused to fight. At first they told me I would have to be disqualified but eventually they reschedule. I fought, won and became the champion of the United States. It was at that time I felt that this country is really full of unlimited opportunities for everyone.
Does boxing make you feel spiritual and closer to God?
Everybody is supposed to be doing different things. In Judaism it’s great and encouraged for people to find high spirituality through various talents and mechanisms. I was boxing before I started going to Synagogue, before I found really my faith, and I felt spiritual then boxing. It’s a very intense sport. It’s just you in the ring standing across from someone else- and that someone else is trying to kick your butt. You always feel spiritual and dependent on God in those situations. Boxing has definitely personalize my connection to the All Mighty.
How do you get ready for a fight?
The most important is of course hard work and hard training. I’m in intensive training 8-10 weeks before a big fight, with multiple training sessions per day.
How do you get pumped up before a boxing match?
I pray and I listen to music. I listen to hip-hop.
Oh cool! Anyone I know?
I mean I’ll listen to the top 20 of the day you know, and a little old school.
If you had to fight a fight right now, today, what would you pump yourself up with?
Tupac, Biggie, 50 Cent, Bob Marley…
I’d listen to Wu-Tang if I was about to jump in the ring.
You know Remedy? (ed note: Remedy is the first white rapper to be affiliated with Wu-Tang- and he’s Jewish) Remedy walked me out to one of my fights. Remedy has an incredible song about the Holocaust. I try to absorb Jewish values, culture and pop-culture as much as I can so after hearing that song I called Remedy and asked if he would walk me out to one of my fights. It was on TV in New York and everyone loved it. He did a great job.
Do you have a lot of celebrity friends? Do you consider yourself a celebrity?
I have some celebrity friends. Do I consider myself a celebrity? Well, I mean there are some communities who know who I am, I have some fans. I’m known.
Do you see yourself as a role model?
I see myself in certain instances as a role model, yes. You have to understand, Jewish values and culture and not preached enough in pop culture. That is why I wear a yarmulke when I’m in the community and why I wear one in press conferences. It’s extremely important to represent Judaism, for kids in certain towns that don’t get to see things that are Jewish- to feel good and proud when they see something Jewish or a symbol of Judaism on TV. Jewish people are a minority and at times they get taken advantage of- there are stereotypes and anti-Semitism. It’s important to stand up and tell people that you won’t be bullied into these stereotypes.
I want to tell you something. Jewish people have battled anti-Semitism for thousands of years. America is the best country in the world and that’s why we came here but that taste is still left in peoples’ mouths. But I think the world is changing- becoming smaller, freer, and definitely much more tolerant. I grew up around black people- ever since I moved to Brooklyn as a boy. My coach, Jimmy O’Pharrow, a black man, was one of my role models as a kid. He is a hero and a great social figure in his community. Ever since I was a little kid I saw him speak up about issues that were important to black people, I saw that he could do that and it’s very important for me to do the same for Jewish people.
If you weren’t boxing, what would you want to do?
Well I come from an educated family so I would go to law school.
Spoken like the son of a Jewish mother. What do you see as your future in the Jewish community?
It is my duty to promote Jewish education. I personally benefited from two organizations in my life. The first is Chabad-Lubavitch (a Hasidic movement of Orthodox Judaism focusing on an intellectual approach to religion) which has gotten me to do outreach work for the Jewish community. The second is the Starrett City Boxing Club where 1 in 1000 became champion boxers but countless more benefited from having an after school activity and getting off the streets. My success in the ring was granted to me from these two organizations. So on May 30th, I am opening a religious leadership youth center, the Ezra USA Dmitriy Salita Youth Center for Russian-Jewish kids.
In the future it’s very important for me to be connected to Jewish education and promoting Judaism. My success in the ring has enabled me to have an effect on people and be taken seriously.
So you attribute your success to your community?
What’s the strongest part of your personality?
Very much perseverance. I’ve had to overcome a lot of struggles.
What are those struggles?
Well you know the boxing world and the boxing business for example. I had decided at the U.S. Championships that I wasn’t going to fight on Shabbos, after winning that fight on a rescheduled date my next big match was at the Amateur Boxing World Cup in Budapest and they wouldn’t take me because one of the fights was on a Saturday, they said “we’re not going to change it for you.” As an amateur boxer your goal is to turn pro, but all the boxing people told me I could never turn pro because no one would want to work with me because I was following all of these Jewish practices which interfered with traditionally big fight nights, with TV and promoters, and all these logistics.
But I thought it was my mission and blessing to do that. Luckily I was successful but at the beginning there were so many fights I couldn’t fight and just logistically, the process of bringing kosher foods to training camp and to fights around the world, it was very difficult especially getting kosher food to an Indian reservation in Washington State.
Did you ever come close to compromising your beliefs?
No. I believed that this was my mission and that this was the way I was supposed to do it. I felt very challenged but I never came close to doubting myself.
You talked about perseverance as being the strongest part of your personality. What’s the weakest personality trait?
Weakest? What if my future opponent reads this?
Meet Dmitriy @ Sixth and I Synagogue this upcoming Monday. All details: here