Over his 37 years as a boxing promoter, Bob Arum has heard an
endless barrage of I've got this great prospect ... and You're
looking at the next champion. "Everyone thinks they know talent,"
says Arum, president of Top Rank Inc., which promoted 55 fight
cards in 2002, "even if they have no clue."
Arum could only laugh two years ago when Rabbi Shea Harlig, the
director of Chabad-Lubavitch of southern Nevada, stopped by his
Las Vegas office with exciting news. "Do I have a fighter for
you!" said Harlig, who had heard about this undiscovered boxer
from a friend in Brooklyn. "And he's Jewish!" Arum, a synagogue
regular who was named Chabad's Man of the Year in November 2002,
had his doubts. After all, while there have been numerous notable
Jewish fighters in boxing history (see sidebar), finding a
quality Jewish pugilist these days is about as likely as locating
a piece of bacon in a jar of gefilte fish. As a favor to Harlig,
however, Arum went to see the boxer, Dmitriy Salita, work out.
Arum couldn't believe his eyes.
"The kid had speed, instincts and skill," he says. "Clearly he
had something going for him."
Arum immediately signed Salita, who will look to run his record
to 11--0 (he has seven knockouts) when he faces Richie Ueding in
a pay-per-view bout this Saturday at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
Salita is yet to be ranked, but it seems likely he'll soon be a
contender. "He's young and raw, but he'll be a champion one day,"
says Salita's trainer, Jimmy O'Pharrow. "Dmitriy can be the
future of the welterweight division."
Salita, a.k.a. the Star of David, is unique among boxers.
Although he bristles at the term orthodox (he prefers observant),
Salita is as kosher as a can of Dr. Brown's. He attends shul
seven days a week and wears a wool cap to cover his skull when he
prays. He lives in an apartment in the Flatbush section of
Brooklyn, and before he heads to the Starrett City Boxing Club to
train each afternoon he stops at a small brick building near his
home. Above a window a sign reads PREPARING FOR MOSHIACH
(preparing for the Messiah). Salita enters the Chabad House
through the back door, places a yarmulke on his head, turns his
book to a prayer called the Shma and wraps the phylacteries--thin
leather straps inscribed with Hebrew quotations--around his left
arm. For the next half hour he silently prays.
It has been a long journey for Salita, whose parents, Alexander
and Lyudmila, emigrated from the Ukrainian city of Odessa to
Brooklyn 12 years ago with their two children. Although the
family was not religious, the Salitas suffered from the
anti-Semitism that festered in that part of the former Soviet
Union. "My mother and father wanted us to have a happy life,"
says Dmitriy. "They didn't want us to feel ashamed of who we
Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Dmitriy, who had taken karate
classes in Odessa, searched for nearby boxing gyms. It was a
journey he had wanted to make ever since, five years earlier, he
had enjoyed his first screening of Rocky IV. Though in that film
Rocky Balboa pummels Ivan Drago, Salita's (fictitious) fellow
Soviet, the boy was dazzled. By the film's end he was chanting
ROCK-EE! ROCK-EE! and dreaming of a Balboa-like future. "As soon
as the movie was done, I went outside and started doing exercise
in the snow, just like Rocky," he says. "But I got cold after
five minutes and came back inside."
When he entered the Starrett City Boxing Club for the first time
he was greeted by about 50 blacks and Latinos, all anxious to
give the new white boy a whuppin'. "We'd all bully Dmitriy," says
Luis Collazo, a pro welterweight and a regular at the gym. "But
he picked up boxing pretty quick. He's got soul in him."
What's more, Salita's got speed in him. Lots and lots of speed.
Though the oft-made comparisons to Oscar De La Hoya are a huge
stretch (Salita is, after all, only 20), there are definite
stylistic similarities. Salita is extraordinarily quick on his
feet, his right jab comes--whoosh!--and goes like a Concorde, and
he's relatively workmanlike. (Salita is not a fan of trash talk.)
Also like De La Hoya, body blows are Salita's Kryptonite. He
takes them, but not especially well.
As Salita marched through the amateur ranks, putting together a
54--5 record and winning the 139-pound title at the 2001 New York
Golden Gloves tournament, he was coming of age as a Jew. Six
years ago Lyudmila had a recurrence of the breast cancer she had
been diagnosed with in 1990, and Dmitriy sought comfort in his
religion. In 1998, while visiting his mother in New York City's
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Dmitriy started talking
to the husband of the woman in the bed next to his mother's. The
man told Salita about the local Chabad center, and Dmitriy and
his brother, Mikhail, began visiting there, praying for their
By the time Lyudmila died in January 1999, Salita was so deeply
committed to his religion that he refused to fight on the
Sabbath--from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown. "Principle,"
Salita says, "is more important than sport. I am Jewish first,
then a boxer."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: CHUCK SOLOMON TWO WORLDS Salita hits the prayer books wearing the phylacteries on his arm, then hits the speed bag in his sport's traditional wrappings.
Here are some Jewish champions and their claims to fame.
Claim to Fame
Abe Attell The Little Hebrew
Featherweight champ, 1903--04, '06--12; fought 171 times
Jackie Berg The Whitechapel
Junior welterweight champ, 1930--31; knocked out Mushy Callahan, Whirlwind another Jewish fighter, to win title
Harry Harris The Human Hairpin
British World Bantamweight champ, 1901; debuted at 96 pounds, often
fighting men 20 pounds heavier
Louis Kaplan Kid
Featherweight champ, 1925--26; after vacating crown he became
known as the Uncrowned Lightweight Champion because top boxers
in that weight class refused to face him
Benny Leonard The Ghetto Wizard
Lightweight champ, 1917--25; longest title reign in lightweight
history (seven-plus years); won 88 straight fights
Ted Lewis The Aldgate Sphinx
Welterweight champ, 1915--16, 1917--19; fought in six divisions
over 20-year career
Daniel Mendoza The Light of Israel
English bare-knuckle heavyweight champ, 1791--95; father of
scientific boxing--he introduced defense and the straight left
Maxie Rosenbloom Slapsie Maxie
Light heavyweight champ, 1930--34; had 299 career fights
Barney Ross The Pride of the Ghetto
Lightweight and junior welterweight champ, 1933--35;
welterweight champ, 1934, 1935--38; first to hold lightweight
and welterweight crowns simultaneously