Could it be that Salita's story drew me in because he is a smart, savvy, hungry, sympathetic amateur when we first meet him in the documentary and then get to watch him rise and conquer as a pro? Could it be that he is a charming, personable, humble individual who is dedicated to his craft?
Sure, it very well could be any one of those things.
Witnessing the evolution of any charismatic underdog – clawing his way, bobbing and weaving through the rigors of a brutal trade – will always retain a certain degree of intrigue. But, for my purposes, Salita is different. If he was merely Jewish, I'd feel a connection to him and root for his success. He happens to be Jewish, but I won't just be rooting for Salita from now on. I will check his website often. I will make sure to see my first match when he fights in New York in late February, 2008. Salita, based on skill, dedication, and commitment to both boxing and Judaism, makes him someone I feel compelled to support. He is our brother in the truest sense of the word. We share with him the most elemental, eternal bonds that any two people on this planet can share – history and belief. Plus, he is a menace as a prizefighter.
Jason Hutt's film chronicles Salita's days as an outcast, immigrant kid who followed his brother into a Starett City gym, to his struggles as a novice boxer searching for recognition in Vegas and New Jersey, and through his budding career and capture of the NABA light welterweight belt by TKOing Shawn Gallegos in 2005.
Not only do we witness Salita's maturity as a fearsome contender (who goes undefeated through the course of the film), but also as a businessman. He fully realizes that his talent, combined with his unique persona and flair, creates a marketable product. Salita not only must clash with foes on the mat, but he must fight the more dubious battle of negotiating with promoters and sustaining a financial edge. It is an interesting aspect of the sport; certainly not glamorous, but eye opening.
He needs to train and prepare like any other fighter looking to break an opponent's nose in the first round, but all the while he spars with an adversary familiar to us all. The daily struggle with keeping one's spiritual self on the derech.
Salita, by chance, connected up with a Chabad mentor (and boxing fan) named Israel Liberow and the two – at least according to the film – are inseparable. Liberow assures that Salita has kosher meals on the road, acts as a support system, and even administers the blessing of the Kohanim before each match.
Salita also had the good fortune of first being promoted by Bob Arum and his Top-Rank outfit in Las Vegas. Arum is a reverse ba'al teshuvah and well understood where Salita was coming from. In a sport where, as a newcomer, you take anything offered, Salita was permitted to schedule his fights around Shabbos and holidays.
Oscar Suarez, Salita's last trainer, worries in the film about the kid's toughness. And how could you not? The lily-white, frum fighter is nicknamed "The Star of David" and has a chavrusah. He fights street-hardened dudes with tattoos and no remorse. One could argue that he is coddled, and limited by his religious devotion.
One could argue that, and really, who knows how far Salita will go? But one thing we do know: Every time he steps into the ring, he kicks the shit out of someone. Someone baffled at being pummeled by a white, frum, Jew.
One could argue whether that is min hashamayim.
Q&A: Dmitriy Salita:
BIO: I know in the film people make assumptions about what an orthodox Jew must be like. At one point an assumption is made that you would not want to participate in a beer promotion. Another time you fight without card girls. But we never hear how you feel about those things. Where is your head today in terms of Judaism?
Salita: You're right. I'm just trying to do my thing. You have to understand, I became religious late in life. I come from a non observant background. My family is from Odessa, Russia and they are not religious. I was influenced through Chabad at age fourteen. We talk about how it happened in the movie.
Basically, I try to grow my observance. I'm being pulled in a lot of directions but not necessarily where I don't want to be. I mean, I eat kosher, keep Shabbos. Tefillin every day. My growth in Judaism is gradual. I do still think the light of the world is Chabad.
BIO: Chabad is kind of a mystery to those outside of it. Most people know 770 and that there is a belief that the Lubavitcher Rebbi is mashiach. What is your impression of it?
Salita: People take it out of context. People need to understand that the Rebbi was a tzaddik and Chabad is a tremendous organization. When the Rebbi was alive, many people thought the Rebbi was the moshiach.
Every generation has potential for someone to be moshiach. It is a very small denomination of Chabad that believes that the Rebbi is coming back as moshiach. Lubavitch is the city in Europe. Chabad stands for chachma, bina, and da'at. It is about understanding. No other organization is like Chabad. The Rebbi sends emissaries everywhere. You go to Thailand, Panama, anywhere, they are there. Even if there is only one Jew.
I personally have had not the greatest experience with other organizations as far as finding Judaism. Chabad is tremendous and the Rebbi is tremendous. People should not take things out of context, and people should not have disrespect. Chabad cares about every single Jew.
I hear people say [Chabad] are great people, but [and then say something negative]. Chabad is great because of the teachings. That is what makes them great. Bottom line, Chabad is the bomb.
BIO: When I was watching the movie, I started thinking about the similarities between you and Matisyahu, and then all of a sudden he is in the movie, at one point singing you into the ring. How do you feel about the role you and he play in American culture?
Salita: Matisyahu plays a greater role than I play. I had the fortune of traveling the country. There are kids who know nothing and all they know is they are Jewish. But they see Matisyahu and he breaks stereotypes. He's a ba'al teshuvah and serves G-d which is what it is all about.
I play [Matisyahu] when I'm training. Everyone in the gym became a fan of his.
BIO: Do you think opponents' trainers fill their fighters' heads with "don't let the Jew beat you" type messages to get them heated up?
Salita: Absolutely. They'll use "Jew", "white boy." Human beings are human beings. More "white boy" they use. It hasn't happened as much since I was an amateur.
Mostly I get it because I was white. Jimmy (Salita's first trainer) said they use it, black fighters and Hispanics, saying "kill that white boy." The truth is, even I use it when I fight someone white (laughs).
Somebody saying Jew or kike, that's primitive. But anti-Semitism, I have seen. I'm more aware of it now that I'm older. I've seen it in many forms.
BIO: How does it make you feel when you encounter it?
Salita: As I became older, I'm more sensitive to it. Last night I was watching the documentary about Jews in America. And you see it. Jews work hard. Anti-Semitism is part of the world. America is the greatest country in the world. We have laws against anti-Semitism. Hate crimes. Where I come from it was bad but I haven't been back there. I heard it is getting much better. I've heard the Jewish community is thriving in Odessa.
They say it is a sign of moshiach when the world is more accepting of Judaism.
BIO: Did anyone ever try and tell you your sport violated the commandment of v'shomer es nafshoseichem?
Salita: Not with that particular law. People sometimes find it hard to put together Judaism and boxing. You have to understand, I come from a non-religious background. Boxing is my passion and talent. And you need to do the best with your talent.
BIO: Did you ever have crazy thoughts before a bout like, "I can't lose because Hashem wants me to win"?
Salita: You need to be careful. A rabbi actually told me about religious arrogance. G-d wants nothing more than work. Put in everything you can to accomplish your goal. Boxing helps me establish a personal relationship with G-d.
Before a fight is a true time. Boxing is not a team sport. The other guy is trying to hurt you. Losing is not an option. It's like going to war. Before the fight you really find your essence and I reconnect with G-d.
BIO: Did you ever find yourself communicating with Hashem during a match?
Salita: I pray in the corner. Say how much tzeddakah I'm going to give. We are only human.
BIO: Last question. Forgetting the fact that – like you say in the movie – your orthodox story brings something unique to the table – do you like being a symbol of Judaism or would you rather just be a religious Jew who boxed. Do you wish you could avoid that baggage?
Salita: Boxing is an ethnic sport, not a team sport. I knew this would happen from a very early age. Jews had a rich history in boxing. There hasn't been one in many years. So now the pressure and "baggage" comes with territory. I understand more now as I get older that people take pride in it. The greatest pride for me is when I can make someone happy.