Dimitriy Salita: 'My god loves nothing more than hard work'

Dubbed the 'Kosher Kid', the fighter is restoring a tradition of Jewish boxing that thrived in 1920s New York. Ahead of his fight with Amir Khan, he talks faith and fists with Steve Bunce
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The Independent Online

When Dmitriy Salita leaves his rabbi and religious robes in the dressing room on Saturday night and walks towards the ring to face Britain's Amir Khan, he will be following in the glorious footsteps of a bygone generation of fighters who mixed their Jewish faith with an accompanying devotion to boxing. As black-and-white photographs from the sport's golden age show, in the New York of the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of pug-like immigrant fighters would fight in shorts adorned with a roughly stitched Star of David. Even 80 years on, the accounts of orthodoxy, sweat and fervour still entrance.

Salita is part of a small renaissance of Jewish fighters, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet republics, who have settled around the fringes of New York City. A few weeks ago Yuri Foreman, who is training to be a Rabbi having left Belarus for Israel before making a home in Brighton Beach, New York, won a version of the world light-middleweight title and now Salita, who left Odessa in Ukraine with his family when he was nine, has a chance to become a second Jewish world title holder. He fights Khan for the World Boxing Association's light-welterweight title

"I grew to love the traditions of my ancestors through Judaism," says Salita of his belated adoption of the orthodox faith. He could have been talking about the boxing tradition of the men who dominated the sport between the wars, many of whom had escaped from Europe in fear of another wave of bloody pogroms. The Salita family were victims of modern anti-Semitism before they left in pursuit of their American dream.

"Some of those old fighters are a great inspiration to me," continues Salita. "They were great men and they mixed their faith with their boxing. I hear stories about Benny Leonard, a fantastic fighter."

Leonard was born Benjamin Leiner but changed his name to make sure that his mother never discovered that he was a boxer. Predictably, his ruse failed and his mother eventually confronted the darling of the New York fight crowd about his boxing career. "Benjamin," she said, "is that a life for a respectable man? For a Jew?" Leonard would often enter the ring at the old Madison Square Garden with a rabbi or two or even three in tow. Leonard, with his trademark slicked-back hair, robes and full religious wraps, would pray, a rabbi would chant and another would take Leonard's clothes off. The crowd would go crazy.

When Salita fights in America he attracts orthodox Jewish fans, with a rabbi here and there and a smattering of religious scholars mixing with the usual fight fraternity whenever he unfurls the tefillin wraps and applies his bandages. Salita travels with a "religious" trainer who prepares his food in the hotel room on a George Foreman grill and helps him pray and get his mind ready. It is a mesmerising transformation, the shift from scholar to fighter in the moments before the walk to the ring. After the fight, the robes go back on, the books are treated with reverence once more.

"When we arrived in America it was tough," says Salita. "We were poor, poorer than most everybody in our neighbourhood. I had the cheapest sneakers, sneakers from Ukraine that cost a few dollars, probably even less. We had welfare, we had food stamps and 300 dollars. That is all that my family had. I've heard a lot of talk about me making trillions of dollars, but back then we had nothing. I'm still fighting for something."

When Salita arrived from Ukraine he was not yet an orthodox Jew and he is quick to remind people that he was a boxer long before he was a scholar. He embraced his ancient faith after a chance meeting with a rabbi in a hospital corridor, not far from the room where his mother was dying from cancer. He now keeps kosher, attends shul, refuses to fight on the Sabbath and covers his head.

And then he fights the good fight. "It's not a Jewish thing, it's a boxing thing," insists Salita, who is unbeaten in 31 fights. "Boxing has nothing to do with religion or colour or belief."

It is not, as Salita points out, only a Jewish thing, but that backstory of grinding poverty that has helped his profile exceed his boxing ability, which is something his previous promoters have shamelessly acknowledged. However, Salita can fight, he is brave, possesses plenty of skill and he could catch Khan on the chin in Newcastle on Saturday night. This fight also has the rare mix of a Muslim fighter, defending a world title, against a Jewish fighter, which is an obvious selling point that, thankfully, few have been keen to exploit openly, but at the same time it is hard to ignore.

The pair are talking boldly of "kicking ass" and knockouts, good old-fashioned boxing verbal. Khan, whose deserved status as a role model is growing with each fight, could easily add that the fight is not a Muslim thing. Khan does attract a large and often devoted Muslim crowd whenever he fights. But both boxers are right: it is a boxing thing and, hopefully, that is what it will remain.

Salita found his way to the gym when he was 13, a lost white boy in a gym of black and Hispanic fighters at an outpost in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The Kosher Kid (just one of his many nicknames) from Ukraine with the weird accent had to prove himself all over again, but this time no one was laughing at his cheap sneakers. He eventually won the American amateur championship, a real victory that proves he can fight.

"Dmitriy looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black," says Jimmy O'Pharrow, Salita's cornerman. O'Pharrow was with Salita in 2006 when they met President George Bush at the White House. It was, it has to be said, another instance of Salita's religion opening a door.

It was Don King who once famously said that "in boxing you don't get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate", and Salita's people have clearly done plenty of negotiating.

The men who managed Salita's boxing affairs in the past – Bob Arum, once a Talmudic scholar, and Lou DiBella – have both played a crucial part in the fighter's rise. They are both gone now and it has to be said that in the modern business of boxing Salita is a perfectly respectable challenger and a long way from the "white" bum that some of the sport's hardened cynics insist that he is. However, his No 1 ranking with the World Boxing Association is ridiculous, though that does not mean that Saturday's fight will be a disappointment.

"I train hard and I was told once by a rabbi that God loves nothing more than hard work," says Salita. "I have my faith and beliefs, but I'm also a boxer and that is what I do to make my money. I'm still a long way from the trillions of dollars that people kept telling me about. It's not just the money, it's a lot more than that. I fight for respect."

Salita will start as an understandable underdog against Khan and if he can survive what will surely be a fast and brutal opening he has a chance later in the fight. The first six rounds will be crucial for Salita, who has been over a few times after getting caught and exposed by a simple right, a punch that Khan likes to throw.

It will be difficult for Salita to add his name to a tiny modern scroll of Jewish world champions, but the fight will prove that he is more than just a white boy from New York whose religion has elevated him from average fighter to genuine challenger. He is both a fighter and a scholar.

Bygone era: Famous Jewish boxers

Benny Leonard (1896-1947)

Despite holding only one title, Leonard is considered one of the best lightweights, never losing in 19 years. He won 157 bouts, 69 by knockout. In 1947 he died in the ring of a heart attack while working as a referee.

Abe Attell (1884-1970)

Featherweight champion for eight years from 1903. Had 22 title defences and Ring magazine rated him the third-best featherweight of all time.

Max Baer (1909-1959)

Heavyweight champion who won 70 fights, 52 by knockout. The American proudly wore the Star of David. The death of Frankie Campbell came at the hands of Baer in an August 1930 fight, after which Baer said that his own "enthusiasm for the game was gone".

Barney Ross (1909-1967)

One of boxing's rare triple-division champions, he held titles at lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight. He was never knocked out in his 81 fights.

Ted "Kid" Lewis (1893-1970)

British and European featherweight champion, most renowned for his epic battles with the New Yorker Jack Britton. Their 20-bout rivalry saw the world welterweight belt exchanged between them four times, eventually ending in the hands of Britton.