The contender is in trouble.
“No!” his trainer shouts. “No! Don’t punch like that. What’re you backing up for?”
Isn’t it obvious? Charging him is a skinny, bug-eyed young sparring partner, panting and swinging at the contender’s face with all the violent energy of a man out to prove something.
Dmitriy Salita sidesteps, ducks.
“No!” Salita’s trainer shouts again. “Don’t back up. Stand your ground!”
Salita wants to please his trainer, a hulking man named Harry Keitt who once sparred with Muhammad Ali. But he also wants to protect his face.
Those are just two of the conflicting demands any successful fighter must balance. Relax, but be vigilant. Attack, but stay guarded. Listen to your advisers, but watch out for yourself.
“Don’t back up!” Keitt shouts again. “What’re you backing up for? What’re you backing up for?”
Salita is five-nine, a muscled 155. He has a bristle of reddish hair, brown eyes, and a nose that looks as if it has been broken, though it has not. It is said that in their primes, even in repose, Muhammad Ali radiated joy, Mike Tyson menace. Dmitriy Salita exudes the sad dignity of a melancholy accountant or a very good, very anonymous, slightly troubled hit man.
“Don’t cross your legs,” Keitt yells. “Don’t bend in front of him . . . No! Don’t punch like that. What’re you backing up for? What’re you backing up for?”
Even among fighters, an ambitious and conflicted bunch, Salita’s ambitions and conflicts are more outsize than most. In a sport whose participants often thank Jesus or praise Allah before bowing to Mammon and doing their best to separate opponents from earthly consciousness, Salita is not just a Jew but a deeply observant Jew, involved with one of the world’s most ultra-Orthodox branches of the religion, the Brooklyn-based Chabad Lubavitch. He wants to be a champion, but he yearns to be pious. He lectures schoolchildren about the rewards of prayer, but he wants to hit someone so hard that those who say he isn’t mean enough will shut up once and for all. He wants to inspire others to be better Jews, but he earns his living by pummeling opponents into submission.
It’s a lot to ask of any man. But Salita is only 24, a motherless immigrant fending off failure and expulsion from the only activity at which he has ever distinguished himself. He is undefeated, the seventh-ranked super lightweight in the world, according to the World Boxing Association, but after a near-disastrous performance in Atlantic City in March, he’s facing a professional and existential crisis of sorts. On July 20, he will step into a ring in midtown’s Hammerstein Ballroom for what is shaping up to be a make-or-break fight. Win, and his career and dreams of financial independence will be back on track. Lose, and not only will his professional future be threatened but so will the hopes of all those who see in Salita a gritty and stirring example of Jewish strength.
His fans say he has God on his side. His critics say he’s better as a symbol than as a puncher.
What can he do?
He does what he can. He slides. He ducks. He jabs.
“No,” Keitt shouts. “Stand your ground! Slip and stand your ground!”
Tribal identity and ethnic politics have always played a major role in boxing. African-Americans had Joe Louis and Ali, Irish-Americans Jack Dempsey and Jim Braddock, Italian-Americans the two Rockys (Marciano and Graziano). Today, the connection still holds. Mexican-Americans have lifted Oscar De La Hoya to iconic status. The biggest local draw in New York is “Ireland’s John Duddy,” whose fans plaster news of upcoming bouts on the walls of Celtic pubs all over the city.
Dmitriy Salita is different. He’s Jewish, for one thing, in an era when “professional Jewish athlete” is most likely to serve as a punch line or trivia answer. And unlike great Jewish boxers of the past, who heard the bell as a clarion call to assimilation, not spirituality, Salita is openly devout. Orthodox tenement tough Benjamin Leiner changed his name to Benny Leonard so his mother wouldn’t discover he had taken up prizefighting. When she did learn his secret, she is said to have declared, “A prizefighter you want to be? Is that a life for a respectable man? For a Jew?”
More recent Jewish boxers have strayed even further from religious practice. Or they had far shorter to stray in the first place. Max Baer, the sneering villain of Cinderella Man, fought with a Star of David on his shorts but in fact was raised Catholic (Baer’s Jewish manager apparently encouraged the display for marketing reasons). Mike “the Jewish Bomber” Rossman, the 1978 light heavyweight champion, was born Albert Michael DiPiano and tattooed the Star of David onto the calf of his right leg, in direct violation of the Jewish prohibition against self-mutilation. And for sheer sacrilegious chutzpa, few will ever outdo Vincent Morris Scheer, a New York City Jew who apparently decided he’d be a bigger draw as “Mushy Callahan—the Fighting Newsboy.” Role models? True believers? Feh!