Not unlike the hundreds of thousands of other American-born Jews with minimal athletic talent, I am a huge fan of those who wear the Star of David while also performing impressive athletic feats.
Hell, name a sporting Jew—Shawn Green, Mark Spitz, Sandy Koufax, Lennie Friedman, Danny Schayes—and I assure you I love the guy. Crap, as a kid one of my absolute favorites was Rod Carew, and all he did was dangle a Chai around his neck. I wasn’t one to nitpick.
That said, of all the Jewish jocks who have come and gone, my absolute favorite is, hands down, a Brooklyn-based boxer named Dmitriy Salita—AKA “The Star of David.”
Dmitriy and I first met more than a decade ago, when he was a young up-and-comer in the fight game and I was a slightly-less-young up-and-comer at Sports Illustrated. I’d pitched the story of this Orthodox Jewish welterweight to my editors—and they loved it. Over the next few weeks I came to know a man who wasn’t just quick with his fists, but wickedly smart and genuinely pious.
Like most of us, Dmitriy has endured his professional ups and downs. His 34-1-1 professional record includes some big wins, as well as one particularly humbling and deflating low. Here, Dmitriy talks with raw honesty about the fight business—his motivations; what it feels like to be knocked down; how do boxers know when it’s time to move forward and why one endures such a dangerous and unregulated sport. He also assures us he’d take a couple of million to fight an angry bear. Hey, who wouldn’t?
Dmitriy Salita, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Dmitriy, I’m gonna start with an odd one. You are a devout Jew. You don’t fight on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays, you’re kosher, etc … etc. What I want to know is this: You’re sitting on your bed, middle of the day. Jesus Christ, literally, floats down from the sky. Bright light, harps. Beard, robe, sandals-every identifiable marking. Clearly not a joke. He says, “Dmitry, I’m Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. Accept me, and you will enjoy an eternity in heaven. Reject me, hell.” What do you do?
DMITRIY SALITA: Jeff, you come out swinging from the first round. As a Jew I believe that a person gets judged through his whole life on the choices he makes as an individual. His choices regarding his relationship with fellow man and with G-D.
Based on his deeds and choices he makes he gets judged for his after life. Just simply believing in G-D or in his teachings or knowing all the religious books with out action will not do—especially if you do not actively participate in life and make the world a better place. The Bible, Torah, Old Testament … they’re a blueprint for life that helps an individual achieve that goal.
I have to say that throughout my career, I have often been asked questions about religion, politics, history etc. Things that have nothing to do with sports and boxing.
J.P.: Much of your fame comes from your faith. To be blunt, there just aren’t many of our people succeeding in professional sports. Why do you think that is? Why are Jews so gosh-darned unathletic?
D.S.: Well, I think Jews can be athletic. During the 1920s Jews were the most dominant ethnic group in boxing. A Jew was responsible for creation of modern boxing—Daniel Mendoza. I have heard that Jews had a lot to do with the start of basketball so
we can think along the lines of sport. Our Jewish heritage—religious and secular—puts a lot of emphasis on education. I think culturally though things are changing and there is more emphasis on health, sports and physical fitness.
J.P.: We’ve talked many times, and I’ve often sensed your disgust with the fight game. Why? What is it about boxing that’s so disturbing? And why hasn’t it ever been reformed? Is it money? Ego? Etc?
D.S.: Boxing is the most unorganized big sport. It’s unstructured and many times your success is in the hands of other people … and there is nothing you can do. Boxing needs centralized control like other sports. There needs to be something like a players’ union and promoters need to have regulations as well. The Muhammad Ali Act is a start but there is much more that has to be done to help out the sport.
J.P.: Roy Jones, Jr. is probably my all-time favorite fighter. In his prime, he was just a beautiful athlete in all possible ways. Then, with age, he started slipping. I assumed he would retire, but he hasn’t he’s still fighting, and it’s getting, well, embarrassing. You’re 30, probably coming to the age when a decision has to be made. Why do you think so many boxers hang on, even when it’s so physically damaging? And will you?
D.S.: Well, personally at 30 I feel stronger, and mentally at a better place, than ever before. I feel that I am still learning and improving as a boxer. The decision to stick around, in my mind at least, is not based on my physical ability at this point. It’s really about the opportunities that I will be able to get in the ring to progress my career. I definitely hope that I do not stick around for too long. I worked really hard for this since being a young boy and I am busting my butt to make it. At the same time I have been working on my post-boxing life while still in the sport. I also think that athletes in all sports, not just boxing, have longer careers. That is due to smarter, better training and nutrition, in my opinion. Roy Jones was the most talented boxer of all time—a real virtuoso inside that ring. It is very sad to see legends and great fighters hang around for too long. Boxers hang on 99 percent of the time because of money. From their youths boxers live a certain pace of life and many do not have an education and unfortunately have not developed other skills to count on. On top of that boxing is the most unorganized big sport. Boxers are not taught to manage money, responsibility of paying taxes, saving for retirement etc. Many boxers don’t have college educations. Other sports have collegiate programs and scholarships that are connected to pro sports, but boxing does not. We learn these things as we go along—sometimes too late. As a boxer you’re also dealing with experienced and smart business people from a very young age. Many times these people may not have the interest of the boxers long-term financial health in mind. I think that for the safety and growth of the sport there needs to be some kind of a general body for promoters and for athletes. Similar to what is done to basketball, football, etc. Obviously every industry has its nuances so it has to be done properly with people who have real knowledge of the sport.
J.P.: On August 25, 2009, you had your big shot—and it didn’t go well. You lost to Amir Khan, the WBA light welterweight champion, in 76 seconds. Hey, shit happens. My question is, what does it feel like to be knocked down? I’m serious, because 99% of us will never be there. When one is immediately decked, and falls to the canvis, is it … pain? Shock? Embarrassment? Resiliency? What?
D.S.: Definitely shock … kind of all the things you mentioned. I felt bad about what happened but I did not feel depressed about it. I prepared myself really well with whatever resources I had. I did not expect the particular situation. On a physical level it was my easiest fight. I didn’t get hurt, just shocked. As time went on, sports and boxing can be unforgiving. Sometimes I had a difficult time getting a fight to get myself back on track. That’s when I started my own promotional company, “Salita Promotions.” As a result of what happened I also relocated my training camp to Detroit with the help of Emanuel Steward.
J.P.: Your mother Lyudmilla died in 1999 from breast cancer. That was 13 years ago. I’m wondering how that, specifically, has impacted your life? What I mean is, how often do you think about your mother? What did she give to you? What was her influence? And how did it impact you, not having her to turn to?
D.S.: My mom taught me what it means to be a great mother and a great wife. For some years in my life as a young boy I experienced a safe, warm place at home. That was a great blessing. I believe that it was very important in my development into the man that I am today. My mother and father had a great relationship. Having that motivated and inspired me to have my own family and to look for those same qualities in my wife and develop that warmth in my home. Some basic things that people can take for granted I really missed growing up—like having dinner at home with the family.
I think about my mother with more intensity during life turning points such as marriage, having a baby girl and building a home and family. I know my mom would love my wife and just adore my baby girl. I think about that pretty often, actually.
J.P.: My wife has very close Orthodox friends and, to be honest, I don’t get it. The world is overheating. Greed corrupts politics. Famine, homelessness, etc. Do you really, really think God gives a darn whether you eat a ham sandwich?
D.S.: Absolutely! G-D cares about every detail that happens in the world and certainly about choices that human beings make. Judaism is about discipline and improving oneself. That is most important. As a Jew you’re not supposed to be eating a ham sandwich. Ham is not a proper energy source for your body and soul. You elevate it by not eating it. Life … the world is a domino affect. Every person is responsible for the choices that he makes by improving himself/herself. He helps the world and greed, corruption, famine, etc—all that gets affected as well.
So put that ham sandwich down.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your boxing career? Lowest?
D.S.: Greatest—a couple: Winning the U.S. Nationals, the Golden Gloves. Getting rated No. 1 in the world as a pro. Fighting for a world title. Meeting and being mentored by Jimmy O. [Jeff’s note: This is Jimmy O’Pharrow, his late trainer/mentor] Lowest—the aftermath of loosing the world title, dealing with the politics of boxing.
J.P.: For most of us, everything we know about training for a fight comes from the musical montages in Rocky. What’s it really like? Is it hard to stay motivated, day after day after day? Is it fun? Awful? Both?
D.S.: Yes, it’s all that. It’s hard at times, painful, repetitive day after day. Hard to stay motivated when you feel like you’re in a rat race and don’t see progress. Its’ also empowering to be able to get in shape and execute certain techniques in the ring. So it’s truly both.
J.P.: You starred in the 2007 documentary, Orthodox Stance. What did that film do for you? What do you recall from the experience that stands out?
D.S.: I think Jason Hutt did a great job with the movie and I feel blessed that such an important part of my life is so well documented. Jason spent three years with me pretty much every day. He shot my daily life, training camps, locker rooms, fights. He got more than 180 hours of footage. The weirdest thing was when he was done with the film. It was like a member of the team was gone. Before fights it felt real awkward not seeing him in the locker room. He also didn’t really talk much during the three years. I got to know the real Jason after the film was done.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DMITRY SALITA:
• Will the Nets be good or bad for Brooklyn?: Good.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Rocky I, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V, Rocky Balboa (the film), Raging Bull, Fight Club, Celine Dion, orange slices, the smell of bacon, matzo farfel, Jay-Z: Rocky III, Jay Z, Matzo Farfell, Rocky IV, Celine Dion, Orange Slices, Rocky I, Rocky II, Rocky V, Fight Club (didn’t see), Soy Bacon (You got this fascination with pork, man. What’s up with that, Jew boy?).
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: Hasn’t everyone?
• Who would win, in their primes, in a fight between a one-eyed George Foreman and Hulk Hogan?: How long does it last? Foreman, until he can land the first punch, first round.
• How big of an issue are steroids and performance enhances in boxing?: It’s an issue for sure. The tests need to get better.
• Is Don King really a soft, cuddly, nice man who we all should love?: Don King is a smart man who turned his life around to being one of the greatest promoters of all time. I never did business with him so I can’t comment but I heard the stories like everyone else. I do want to say that many other promoters tried and many times pulled the same schtick that King has.
• Rumor has it your friend Matisyahu is no longer Orthodox. True?: Ask Matys.
• Five greatest boxers of all time?: Barney Ross, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Oscar De La Hoya.
• You’re offered $17 million guaranteed to box a black bear. You in?: Yes!
• Fill in the blank: “This year for Chanukah I want …”: $17 million.