Does a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn have a chance of making it in the boxing ring?
By URIEL HEILMAN
It's fight night, and the smell of sweat, smoke, and beer hovers in the air. The crowd in the windowless arena is loud and restive. Audience members sitting near the boxing ring constantly pop out of their chairs, shout at the fighters, then sit down again. In the rear, the aisles are jammed with people milling about, trying to balance their drinks and hold onto their girlfriends at the same time.
It's a diverse crowd at the Manhattan Center on 34th Street, but one divided up into little islands of ethnicity. On one side, up on a podium in the back, Irishmen fill the $50 seats, many of them sporting green-and-white striped shirts and sounding like they just got off the boat from Dublin. On the floor, closer to the ring and near the entrance, young African-American men wearing plenty of bling-bling sit together, their oversized sports jerseys and tattoos signs of their provenance and allegiances.
And up in the bleachers, and scattered around the floor, are enough Lubavitch Hasidim for at least a half dozen minyanim.
What are a bunch of black-hatted, tzitzit-wearing Jews doing at a boxing match? They're here to watch their boy fight, of course.
Dmitry "Star of David" Salita is not just the only fighter in New York who goes to pray at Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn as part of his fight-day preparations. He's also the only one who can draw an audience that looks more appropriate seated around a synagogue bimah than a boxing ring.
But Salita-known to fans by his Russian nickname Dima-is no cub who somehow slipped his way into an early match on fight night. At his last fight, on Nov. 18, the unbeaten junior welterweight was the Broadway Boxing headliner at the famed Hammerstein Ballroom. And as the evening's main event, he helped sell out the crowd of 1,350.
They came to see him from Brooklyn and New Jersey and Philadelphia and Manhattan's Upper East Side, and not all his fans were Jewish.
"I got a 'undred bucks ridin' on your boy," said one man with a thick Irish accent before the main event got under way. "'E better win." Having come out to see an earlier match that ended after a fighter nicknamed Irish Ropes knocked out his opponent in 39 seconds, the Irish fan was sticking around to watch Salita. "I seen your boy fight before," he said. "He starts off all relaxed and then-bang, bang, bang!"
At 140 lbs and 22 years of age, Salita might seem an unlikely focus of attention among boxers except for two things: he wears his religiosity on his sleeve (or his shorts, as the case may be) and, with a 20-0 professional record, he's good.
"The boxing crowd respects tough people, and they respect tough Jews in the sports world," said Aaron Braunstein, a longtime boxing promoter and Orthodox Jew who hosts a weekly cable TV show called "Wise Guys, Black Guys and Rabbis." "They have respect. He's a young little orphan from Brooklyn," Braunstein said.
Salita hails from Brooklyn, but he was born in Odessa, Ukraine. From the start, he says, he was a fighter-though he didn't put on his first boxing glove until he was 13.
"I got into a lot of fights in kindergarten," Salita says. "I was actually given my first bloody nose when I was 5."
Salita emigrated to the United States with his parents when he was 9, and it took him a few years to evolve from karate-which he had taken up when he was 7 because he was too small for soccer-to the boxing ring. Though a winner of several amateur karate tournaments, Salita was mesmerized by the boxing matches he saw on TV, and he quickly became intoxicated with the sport.
Knowing nearly nothing about boxing, Salita dialed information to find out the location of the nearest gym and showed up one day when he was 13 ready to put on gloves.
"From the first day that I walked into the gym I loved the atmosphere," Salita says, with an accent that is equal parts Russian and tough-guy, Italian-style Brooklynese. Salita says he took plenty of "whoopings" in the beginning, but he stuck with it, sometimes practicing four to five hours a day.
By his late teens, it seemed his hard work was paying off. Salita had turned professional, assembled a competent training team and began winning fights.
But tragedy soon struck: Salita's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Salita split his time between school, the gym and the hospital, where he sat sentinel at his mother's bedside. His mother's roommate was a religious Jewish woman, and she began to talk to Salita about religion. Salita was interested.
Having grown up in Communist Russia, most of what Salita knew about Judaism was Israel and his father's unwavering Jewish pride, he says.
"The Jews in Russia-their love for Judaism is reflected by finding out what's going on in Israel," he said. "They don't know about Shabbos and kosher and this and that. But I always wanted to know more about Judaism and what it's about."
After Salita's mother died, his interest in Judaism intensified, and he grew more and more involved with the local Chabad. He began keeping Shabbat, and with his professional boxing career starting to take off, Salita decided he would stick with both of his new loves. He quickly found that one reinforced the other, he says.
"Chasidus teaches there's God in us everywhere. I got closer to God through boxing," Salita explains. "Boxing is something you have to work very hard on yourself to be great and to go where you want to go. And that's life. A person is born with a lot of different inclinations. If you want to be a mensch, you gotta work at it. It's not gonna come easy."
At first, Salita says, the boxing world didn't quite know how what to make of a fighter who insisted on waiting until nightfall on Saturday to get into the ring. But his trainers quickly grew accustomed to seeing Salita lay teffilin before strapping on his gloves, and kosher food became de rigueur on Salita's road trips.
Salita looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black, his trainers said.
And as far as boxing promoters were concerned, religion was one more angle they could play to bring crowds to Salita's fights-a fact that was in clear evidence when Salita stepped into the ring in Manhattan on Nov. 18.
Before Salita appeared on the floor, a hasidic band called Shir Hashirim burst into a rock n' roll rendition of "David Melech Yisrael," Salita's theme song. Salita's Hebrew name is David.
When Salita stepped through a doorway and bounced his way into the ring, the crowd exploded. As the band quickened the song's pace, black women and Irish men could be seen laughing and pumping their fists to the Hebrew tunes.
"Isn't this great?" beamed Naftali Rotenstrich, a hasid standing at ringside. "Watching Jews get beat up all the time, it's nice seeing a Jew get a knockout once in a while."
Rotenstrich was one of several Jews at the bout who had never before been to a fight, with its raucous crowds, its bikini-clad girls parading around the ring before each round, and young men quickly working their way to a state of happy inebriation.
"I think it's an interesting attraction that people like to see people getting beaten up," Rotenstrich observed.
It was also the first time at a boxing match for Shalom Maya, who had come as part of a trip organized by the men's club of his Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "I came to see what it's like," Maya said. As Salita's fight headed into the fifth round and welts began to appear on the fighters' bodies, Maya had decided this probably would be his last. "I take no pleasure in this," he said. "I don't believe in this sport."
It would turn out to be one of the toughest bouts ever for the undefeated Salita, whose opponent was a feisty, determined Atlanta native named Paul Delgado. Salita was bleeding before the fight was over, and the crowd held their breath when the final bell rang; it was one of the few bouts of the night not to end in a TKO. When the three-judge panel called the fight unanimously in favor of Salita, 78-74, 78-74, 77-75, the cheers were deafening.
Ultimately, Salita hopes to be among the tiny percentage of fighters who actually make a living from their profession. For the time being, he splits his time between fighting and attending classes part time at Touro College, where he plans to major in business management and Jewish studies.
Though ranked No. 13 in the super lightweight division by the World Boxing Association, Salita has long way to go before becoming a household name in boxing circles. In Jewish circles, however, it seems the job already is done.
Levi Huebner, a law clerk from Brooklyn, said Salita is a source of pride and hope for the Jewish community. "Every Lubavitcher knows about Dmitry," he said. "For a lot of young kids, he gives them something to be proud of. And then they can be proud of their heritage instead of being nebuchs"-Yiddish for "nothings."
It's not only Lubavitchers that know about Salita. This Chanukah, the young Jewish fighter was invited to the White House holiday party. "It's real the American dream," Salita said after receiving the invitation.
Myron Sugarman, 67, has been going to fights ever since he was a little boy in Newark, New Jersey, and he looks the part. Wearing a black cap and dark glasses, Sugarman said at Salita's last fight that he had never before seen so many Jews at a boxing match. "They're bringing all the ethnics. That's what makes it a good fight," Sugarman said.
Salita's coach agrees. "You got the League of Nations here. He's gathering people together," Jimmy O'Pharrow said of Salita. "He's gonna do what some of the rabbis can't do right now: bring people together. That's what I'm talkin' about!"
Salita's head trainer, Oscar Suarez, is Puerto Rican, "Jimmy O" is black and Salita's physical conditioner, Seth Simon, is Jewish.
At a news conference in October called to announce Salita's last fight, Salita was asked whether he saw himself as a Jewish fighter or simply a fighter.
Salita paused for a moment.
"You know, in a strong body is a strong spirit," he said softly, quoting Maimonides to explain how boxing's athleticism squared with Judaism's emphasis on keeping one's body healthy.
"A Jew is who I am and fighting is what I do," Salita said. "I don't see it as a contradiction."