Pretender or Contender?

By Jon Kalish

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.
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Is a Sabbath-observant boxing phenom with the Star of David on his trunks ready to become a contender?

On August 25, Dmitriy Salita next enters the ring, where he may well extend his undefeated professional record of 22-0, but the question remains whether he has what it takes to make the transition from a promising club fighter to a world-class boxer.

Jimmy O’Pharrow, who for years ran Brooklyn’s Starrett City Boxing Club in the massive Starrett City housing complex — the club where Salita first trained — and served as Salita’s first trainer, has no doubt that the 23-year-old Brooklyn pugilist is destined for greatness.

“They don’t know what’s inside this kid. I do,” O’Pharrow insisted at a press conference at a (trayf) Manhattan steakhouse, held to announce Salita’s upcoming fight. “In another year he’s going to knock people out. That’s what’s coming.”

It seems as though O’Pharrow’s faith in Salita is contagious. Disney purchased the movie rights to his story last year, and screenwriter Gregory Howard, whose credits include “Remember the Titans” and “Ali,” is currently working on a screenplay about the relationship between O’Pharrow and Salita. Rapper Eminem has expressed interest in playing Salita.

And speaking of rappers, Salita now enters the ring to the reggae rapping of the Lubavitcher known as Matisyahu.

Salita’s manager, Rabbi Israel Liberow, carries a copy of the Tanya, the major Lubavitcher religious text, as he marches toward the ring behind Salita.

“When I met him, I knew it’s divine providence that I was going to be involved with him,” Liberow told the Forward. “I had no doubt that all the years that I ran out of yeshiva to watch boxing fights came to some sort of a purpose.”

Liberow’s brother, Zalman, also serves as a spiritual adviser to Salita — in addition to his role as Chabad emissary to the heavily Orthodox Midwood section of Brooklyn. Salita shares a Midwood home with his older brother, Mikhail, a librarian. The two men first came to the Chabad house on Ocean Avenue to pray for their terminally ill mother.

Though Zalman Liberov (who, unlike his brother, spells his surname with a “v”) does not attend Salita’s matches, which have featured women dressed in skimpy bikinis, he is nevertheless a Salita enthusiast.

“Each punch of his, ultimately, is spreading Judaism,” Liberov said of the boxer. “He understands that even in such a sport, you can serve God in the greatest way. What he’s doing, in a way, is bringing heaven down to earth. Dmitriy agrees that the ring is not heaven. It’s earth. But when he comes into the ring, it’s heaven.”

Or hell, if you happen to be on the receiving end of Salita’s left hook.

Outside the ring Salita is soft spoken and polite. It’s not uncommon for veterans of the boxing scene to refer to him as a “sweet young man.”

At press time it was not established who Salita’s opponent will be. However, a worthy opponent is Paul Malignaggi, another Brooklyn junior welterweight and the antithesis of Salita personalitywise. Malignaggi is a cocky, flamboyant fighter on the cusp of becoming a world-class boxer. He is widely viewed as a harder hitter than Salita with better defensive ability. A Malignaggi/Salita bout seems inevitable.

“Paulie and Dmitriy, in one sense, would be a natural fight, because they’re both from New York and they both have their own individual constituencies,” noted boxing writer Thomas Hauser, who has followed Salita’s career. “But at this stage I just don’t think Dmitriy is ready for Paulie. Dmitriy’s got to step up the level of opposition and see what he’s made of.”

“I think Dmitriy could be a champion,” said Lou DiBella, the former HBO Sports executive who promotes both Salita and Malignaggi. “I believe in Dmitriy as a person. That’s why I think he could be a champion. And this is a business where it’s not just about guts and skill. It’s very much about character. And this kid [Salita] has guts and skill and character.”

Though Salita says that Judaism comes before boxing, the 140-pound fighter insists he is striving for nothing less than the world championship. He would be the first Jewish world champion since Mike Rossman held the light heavyweight crown in the late 1970s.

“If I wouldn’t feel that I could accomplish the things that I want to accomplish, I wouldn’t box because I don’t want to be average and I don’t want to stop halfway,” he said. “God willing, I will accomplish the goals that I’ve set for myself.”

Jon Kalish is a New York-based newspaper/radio journalist.

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