Boxer Dmitriy Salita is humbled, but not down for the count

Dmitriy Salita works out as he eyes a return to the ring, but has involved himself more directly in helping move young Russian Jews closer to Judaism.

By Gal Beckerman, Forward.com

NEW YORK – Dmitriy Salita speaks about the future of his boxing career with a look of pure intensity in his otherwise mournful brown eyes.

All the greatest boxers have this stare, a perfect distillation of concentration and discipline and total faith in the strength of their arms. But in Salita, it is also the look of a man convincing himself that he has a future in the sport.

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Seven months have passed since his humiliating loss in England to Amir Khan – the first defeat of his professional career in 32 bouts – when he was stopped 76 seconds into their world title match after being knocked down three times. He has not faced another opponent in the ring.

In late June, I met Salita at the Sea Breeze Jewish Center, a dilapidated Brooklyn building with the elevated lines of the F train rattling loudly just behind it and the Brighton Beach boardwalk a block away. Salita has an unassuming presence – soft spoken, yet with a tinge of nervous energy, his BlackBerry never leaving his hands.

Salita, 28, also looks even more religious than he did in “Orthodox Stance,” the documentary that introduced the wider world to the Ukrainian-born Jewish immigrant, who had emerged from a Brooklyn gym to win the U.S. Amateur Under-19 Championships and then the coveted Golden Gloves in 2001. He is wearing a large blue yarmulke and tzitzit that hang over his jeans. A reddish beard covers the baby face that made him so endearing in the film.

Besides the fight, much has happened to Salita in the past year. He was married last September to a woman who grew up in the Chabad-Lubavitch community, and he has started to involve himself more directly with what he believes is his mission – to help move young Russian Jews closer to Judaism. It’s the reason we met in this part of Brooklyn.

In May, Salita inaugurated the Dmitriy Salita Youth Center in a large hall in the basement of the Sea Breeze Jewish Center. Among the slew of dignitaries on hand was Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Daniel Ayalon. His Chabad friends have established the Dmitriy Salita Foundation to support, as one rabbi put it, “those who want to follow the path of Dmitriy.”

Salita himself has developed a boxing program for young people at a number of New York City Jewish community centers to engage restless Jewish teenagers through sport.

“Orthodox Stance,” released in 2007, captured a victorious Salita as he made the transition from amateur to professional fighter. If he was then teetering between the world of boxing and a religious community that had embraced him, he now seems rather to be a full member of that Orthodox community who happens also to be a boxer.

At the same time, the loss in England inaugurated a more complicated phase of his life. The formerly unbeatable fighter now knows defeat.

“I wasn’t at his fight,” says Zalman Liberov, a rabbi at Brooklyn’s Chabad of Flatbush whom Salita credits with bringing him to Judaism after his mother died when he was a teenager. “But I called him 10 minutes afterwards and told him, ‘Dmitriy, now begins the real fight. The real fight is how to deal with what happens next.’ “

Salita speaks with confidence when he describes some of the community programs with which he is now involved, especially his work with Ezra USA, a Russian-Jewish youth group that Salita says is working to “battle against assimilation.” He lights up when talking about the bright trajectory of his boxing career and how his commitment to keeping the Sabbath has been a challenge that he has never abandoned.

But when the talk turns to “the fight,” he becomes distracted, bothered.

“It’s been hard,” he acknowledges when I first ask him about it. “England was a very tough experience. It’s something that I had never gone through – an environment and circumstances that I had not experienced before, and they very much had an effect on what happened in the fight.

“I wasn’t hurt. I didn’t get knocked out. I was still on my feet. I was OK. There were a lot of things going on leading up to the fight, during the fight – just a crazy atmosphere.”

Whatever happened behind the scenes in Newcastle, the footage of the fight itself doesn’t lie.

Khan, a Muslim of Pakistani background who grew up in the town of Bolton in northern England, was (and still) the World Boxing Association light-welterweight champion. He jabbed Salita, then surprised the challenger with a bullet of a right punch. Salita in a post-fight interview said he “never saw it coming.”

He also never recovered from that first attack, which brought him to his knees. Salita was knocked down twice more by a flurry of blows before the referee stopped the contest midway through the first round. In the footage, Salita is seated in a corner, his head hanging between his knees.

Salita is vague about what happened that day, but he strongly suggests that the loss was the result of boxing in what effectively was enemy territory.

David Roitman, who like Salita grew up in Odessa, Ukraine, and has grown closer to Judaism through Chabad, is the executive director of Ezra USA and a close friend and collaborator with Salita on his community projects. Roitman attended the fight, sitting next to Salita’s wife, and he says the hate emanating from the jeering crowd was overwhelming.

“It wasn’t a fight; it was a show,” Roitman says. “Ten thousand Muslims and maybe 100 Jews. On the way to the ring, people said terrible things to him. It wasn’t sport. It was 10,000 people against Dmitriy.”

Salita says he was thrown off by the loud jeering – the boos were deafening – and by the sight of his wife, Alona, sitting near the ring and being jostled by the crowd.

“I feel like if the fight would have been in America or at least on neutral soil, the result would have been much different,” Salita says. “I feel strongly about that.”

The loss has affected his career.

Salita says he hadn’t made many friends in the boxing world before the England fight. He always involved himself in the business side, making sure that he was getting a fair deal and not leaving the money up to handlers. Along with the issue of his Sabbath observance, which demanded that promoters always make special arrangements, Salita says he had gained a reputation as a nuisance.

None of this mattered as he racked up his 30 professional wins (with one draw). But the loss, Salita says, has made him vulnerable. Now he feels that he has been “blacklisted.” He tried to get on the card for the June promotion at Yankee Stadium that featured another observant Russian-Jewish fighter, Yuri Foreman, defending his title.

“I was told that I was not popular enough, that I wouldn’t sell enough tickets,” Salita recalls.

He continues to train, spending weekday evenings at a gym in Queens. And he says he is on the verge of signing with a new promoter who might get him a bout as soon as August.

Salita still wants to win a world title, now as a welterweight.

“I’ve been out of the ring for seven months now, which is crazy,” Salita says. “And it’s not because of lack of wanting to be in the ring. It’s because I have not had the right opportunities. I’m really trying to get back on the horse.”

In the meantime he is working on the mission he believes the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, gave him from beyond the grave.

In an earlier profile, Salita described how he followed the practice of slipping a piece of paper with a question for the rebbe at a random place between the pages of his volumes of writing. Salita’s rabbi, Liberov, interpreted the rebbe’s message by looking at what the rebbe had written on that page: Salita was to be a role model for Jewish youth.

On a recent summer morning in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Salita is trying to live up to this mandate. He has just launched the pilot of a new boxing training program for children. The first classes are taking place inside the elaborate 1920s limestone building that houses the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst. The words “To Ennoble Jewish Youth” are etched above the door, and it’s here that Sandy Koufax spent his days as a young athlete.

Salita, wearing a track suit, leans against a mirror in a workout studio watching a small group of 12-year-olds practicing their punches. Occasionally he moves shyly among the skinny-legged girls in shorts and the chubby boys in extra-large T-shirts, correcting their posture or offering a thumbs-up.

Talking about his program, he is particularly proud that it imparts an educational “tidbit,” as he puts it, at the beginning and end of every class.

The children chant the message of this day: “Discipline is freedom.”

The boxing program is for all Jewish children, but Salita has a special understanding of Russian Jews and what kind of outreach might attract them. He also has memories of what didn’t work when American Jewish organizations first tried to interest him in his Jewishness.

“A few times I wasn’t made to feel welcome because I didn’t know what I was doing,” Salita says. “I didn’t know what kiddush meant and what Kaddish meant. I understand the slow process and the fine process that it takes for people who have never been exposed to it. They need to be respected. It has to be step by step, not forceful.”

But Salita also sees great potential in the young generation of Russian Jews who have grown up here or were born in America to immigrant parents. They don’t have memories of Jewish identity being something shameful or even dangerous. Absent the inhibitions of their parents, Salita thinks Russian Jews will naturally embrace Judaism.

“Russian Jews are very religious. They are just not very observant because that’s not what they grew up with,” Salita says. “Different people express their religiousness through different things, so Russian Jews express their religiousness by being committed to Israel. You can see it here. They vote for a candidate who cares about Israel. Nothing else matters.”

Harnessing this religiosity seems to be what fires up Salita most these days. Perhaps this will change when he returns to the ring and again tastes victory;  his concentration may shift to his boxing career.

But the tone of resignation is unmistakable. Salita says his wife, for one, will no longer attend his matches.

“It will be like I’m going to work, that’s it,” he says.

Salita won’t go into detail, but it seems Alona has gotten him to agree to retire in the near future.

“Getting hit for a living is not fun,” Salita says. “As a grown person, I don’t know how much you can like getting hit.

“Maybe there is a right stage for it in your life. I love the sport of boxing. I love the art of boxing. And I still have not accomplished all my goals. But I’m 28 years old. I don’t want to do this for too much longer.”

(This article first appeared at Forward.com.)