During boxing’s golden years, almost a century ago, about one-third of professional fighters were Jewish. But when Dmitriy “Star of David” Salita steps into the ring in Newcastle on December 5 to face Britain’s Amir Khan he will be an anomaly — an Orthodox Jew who has used brawn, as well as no small amount of brains, to get to the top of his field. Salita, 27, lacks the hard-scrabble upbringing of some of his Jewish predecessors, such as Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, and Ted “Kid” Lewis, who were raised in the ghettoes of respectively New York, Chicago and London. But the similarities, particularly with boxing legend Ross, are hard to ignore.
Both fighters are the children of immigrants and both experienced antisemitism — Ross in America, Salita in Ukraine. Both lost a parent at a young age — Ross’s father was killed during a robbery, Salita’s mother died of cancer. And, most importantly for Salita, Ross held the same welterweight title that he will fight for on December 5. Douglas Century, author of a recent biography of Ross, says Salita is replicating the same story arc — of discrimination, immigration, and struggle — that drove the children of Jewish immigrants during the early 20th century to use boxing as a stepping stone to a better life.
“From Dmitriy to Barney there is a clear lineage,” says Century. “The one major distinction is that there were so many Jewish fighters in those days that it wasn’t that uncommon to see Jews fighting Jews. Today, there simply aren’t hundreds of Jewish boxers and that is a lot on Dmitriy’s shoulders.”
Indeed, the only other Jewish boxer of Salita’s stature today is his friend and fellow Brooklynite, Yuri Foreman, who captured the WBA super welterweight crown earlier this month, becoming the first Israeli citizen ever to win a world title.
Salita was born in Odessa, in 1982, to middle-class parents. His father was head engineer of the city’s parks department and his mother an economist. The family immigrated to America in 1991, with Salita’s older brother Misha, settling in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a mixed working- and middle-class neighbourhood.
There were fights, of course. Though Salita is quick to point out that he was not picked on so much for being Jewish as he was for being an Eastern European immigrant dressed in cheap, ill-fitting clothes, and struggling, as the rest of his family did, to make sense of a new American language and culture.
“You have seen the movie Borat?” asks Salita, from his training camp in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania. “I looked like a little Borat. I had the cheapest clothes, bad sneakers. And when you don’t fit in, that’s just the way it goes.”
In Odessa, Salita practised karate. In New York, he took up kickboxing. But it was his brother who introduced him to boxing, when he took Dmitriy to Starrett City Boxing Club, in Brooklyn, at the age of 13.
“From the first day there I was like a kid in a candy store,” says Salita. “I fell in love with the sport and I was surrounded by the best boxers.
“The boxing gym was one of the places that helped me become more Americanised. It was part of my American education. I would finish school at three, I would come home, do my homework, then go to the gym.”
Salita’s commitment to boxing required a degree of dedication seldom found in teenage boys. He trained five nights a week, usually returning home at 9pm.
“I feel like I’ve been working since I was 13 years old,” says Salita. “My childhood was 100 per cent in the gym. I didn’t hang out with friends, I was very focused on boxing. Immigration and other difficulties can lead you to do many bad things,” he adds. “Thank god I had boxing to keep me away from bad influences.”
The difficulties Salita refers to are his mother Lyudmila’s cancer, which was diagnosed shortly before the family moved to New York. She fought the illness throughout the family’s first years in Brooklyn. When she was healthy, she drove Salita to Starrett City gym to train. When she was ill, Salita would shuttle between school, the gym and his mother’s hospital bedside, sometimes spending the night there.
Salita’s father and brother were supportive. But it was Starrett City Boxing Club’s African-American founder, Jimmy O’Pharrow, who nurtured and cajoled the young boxer through his difficulties.
Lyudmila once made O’Pharrow promise to look after Dmitriy if she died. And, after the inevitable occurred in 1999, O’Pharrow made sure Salita continued with his studies and his training.
Although it has been many years since O’Pharrow trained Salita, he still occupies a coveted place in the boxer’s corner during a fight.
“I’ll be in the locker room and I’ll be in the corner,” the 84-year-old O’Pharrow, says. “I’ll be hollering and shouting at him. He’s a pain in the ass sometimes because he’s got his own way of doing certain things, but it’s the end result that counts. I love him to death.”
O’Pharrow is proud of the boxing skills he instilled in Salita during his early years. To date Salita has a record of 30 wins and one draw. In 2002, O’Pharrow boasted to the Washington Post that Salita “looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black”.
“He is a damn good boxer,” says O’Pharrow. “Dmitriy’s got blocks, slips, bobs and weaves, slip punches, and he boxes up on his toes.”
Says Salita: “Jimmy is like my grandfather. He is an angel sent to me by God. He’s one of the best people I ever met in my life. Jimmy always said I had the potential to be a great boxer. He spoke about that when I was 14 years old. I didn’t know what he was talking about then, but I do now.”
Salita’s introduction to Orthodox Judaism came while visiting his mother in hospital. He fell into conversation with a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch who gave Dmitriy the phone number of Rabbi Zalman Liberow. Before long Salita began attending synagogue, studying Torah, and keeping kosher.
Salita last fought on Shabbat in 2000, in the prestigious Golden Gloves amateur tournament. He lost the bout and vowed never to fight on the Sabbath again. “Anyone who wants a good whuppin’ from me,” he once told a reporter, “is going to have to wait until sundown.” He won the Golden Gloves the following year.
“Judaism requires you to be the best you can be and to work hard,” the boxer says. “The discipline and demand definitely helped in moving me in the right direction.”
Now, Salita would like to be a Jewish sporting role model just as the retired Orthodox basketball player, Tamir Goodman, was a role model for him. But combining fighting with being an observant Jew has not been easy.
Rabbi Liberow’s brother, Israel, had to accompany him on the road to prepare kosher meals. Some people were critical of a religious Jew who made a living as a fighter. And promoters were wary because Salita refused to fight on Friday nights or Saturdays.
“When I turned pro I was told I would never amount to anything because I would not fight on Shabbos,” Salita says. “They said: ‘It’s too Jewish, you are going to screw yourself up’. But it’s incredibly rewarding that I have reached this point doing it my way. It’s exactly the reason my parents came to the United States.”