When he speaks about the future of his boxing career, Dmitriy Salita gets 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 own arms. But in Salita, it is also the look of a man convincing himself that there is a future for him in the sport. Seven months have passed since his humiliating loss in England to Amir Khan — the first defeat of his professional career — when he was knocked down three times in the first 76 seconds of the match. He has not faced another opponent in the ring since.
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. He also looked 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. On the day he met me, he was wearing a large blue yarmulke and tzitzit that hung over his jeans. A reddish beard covered the baby face that made him so endearing in the film.
A lot has happened to him in the past year, besides the fight. He got married in September to a woman who grew up in the Lubavitch community. And he has started to involve himself more directly with what he feels is his mission, to help move Russian-Jewish young people 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. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, was slated to attend. He didn’t, but Daniel Ayalon, his deputy, was there, as were a slew of other dignitaries. A Dmitriy Salita Foundation has also been established by his Chabad friends to support, as one rabbi put it, “those who want to follow the path of Dmitriy.” And Salita himself has developed a boxing program for young people at a number of city Jewish community centers, part of a crusade to engage restless Jewish teenagers through sport.
The film, 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, now, at 28, he 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 new, more complicated phase of his life. The formerly unbeatable fighter now knows defeat.
“I wasn’t at his fight,” said 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.’”
In Enemy Territory
Salita spoke with confidence when he described some of the community programs he’s now involved with, especially his work with Ezra USA, a Russian-Jewish youth group working to, as Salita put it, “battle against assimilation.” He lit up when he told me about the bright trajectory of his boxing career and how his commitment to keeping the Sabbath had been a challenge that he never abandoned. But it was when talk turned to “the fight” that he became distracted, bothered.
“It’s been hard,” he said when I first asked 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 okay. 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 and was (and still is) the holder of the World Boxing Association light-welterweight championship belt, quickly jabbed and then surprised Salita with a bullet of a right punch. Interviewed afterward, Salita said he “never saw it coming.” He also never recovered from that first attack, one that brought him to his knees. After Salita fell twice more under a rain of punches, the referee ended the fight before the end of the first round. In the footage, the last we see of Salita, he is seated in a corner, his head hanging between his knees.
Salita was vague about what happened that day, but he strongly suggested that his loss was the result of boxing in what was effectively enemy territory.
David Roitman, a friend who, like Salita, grew up in Odessa 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 was at the fight, sitting next to Salita’s wife, and he said the hate emanating from the jeering crowd was overwhelming.
“It wasn’t a fight,” Roitman said. “It was a show. 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 said that 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 said. “I feel strongly about that.”
Looking for a Fight
The loss has affected his career. Salita said he hadn’t made many friends in the boxing world before the England fight. He has 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 observance of the Sabbath, which demanded that promoters always make special arrangements, Salita said he had gained a reputation as a nuisance.
None of this mattered as he racked up his 30 professional wins. But his loss, he said, has made him vulnerable. Now he feels that he has been “blacklisted.” He even tried to get on the card for the recent evening of boxing matches at Yankee Stadium that featured another observant Russian-Jewish fighter, Yuri Foreman.
“I was told that I was not popular enough, that I wouldn’t sell enough tickets,” Salita said.
He continues to train, spending every weekday evening at a gym in Queens. And he said he is on the verge of signing with a new promoter, who might get him a professional bout as soon as August. He still has not completed all his goals. He wants to win a world title, now in his new weight class, welterweight.
“I’ve been out of the ring for seven months now, which is crazy,” Salita said. “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.
A New Mission
On a recent summer morning in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Salita was trying to live up to this mandate. He had just launched the pilot of a new boxing training program for children. The first classes were 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 was in a tracksuit and leaning against a mirror in a workout studio, watching a small group of 12-year-olds practice their punches. Occasionally he would shyly move among the skinny-legged girls in shorts and the chubby boys in extra-large T-shirts, correcting their posture or giving them a thumbs-up. When he talked about his program, he was particularly proud that it imparted an educational “tidbit,” as he put it, at the beginning and end of every class. “Discipline is freedom,” was the message that day, which they all chanted.
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 get him interested in his Jewishness.
“A few times I wasn’t made to feel welcome,” Salita said. “Because I didn’t know what I was doing. 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 he also thinks there is 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 said. “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 is what seems to be firing up Salita most these days. Maybe once he’s back in the ring and tastes victory again, this might change, and his concentration will shift to his boxing career. But the tone of resignation is unmistakable. His wife, for one, will not be attending any of his matches again, he said. “It will be like I’m going to work, that’s it,” he said. And though he won’t go into detail, it seems she has gotten him to agree to retire in the near future.
“Getting hit for a living is not fun,” Salita said. “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.”
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman