Sport on TV: From kosher Russia with love for the American Dreamer

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The Independent Online

Heard the one about the Russian boxer, the rabbi's brother and the American dream? It's in the best possible taste. "Orthodox Stance" (BBC4, Tuesday) by the cut-above "Storyville" strand, told the tale of Dmitriy Salita, the son of Ukrainian émigrés, who is working his way towards a world-title shot in the US while strictly observing his orthodox Jewish faith.

After escaping religious persecution in the Soviet Union only to endure a tough Brooklyn upbringing, there is room in the story for humour. A synagogue leader introduces the light-welterweight to his flock and says: "I can teach you how to be a heavyweight, but I can't teach you how to box." His audience's main concern is how he is ever going to find himself a nice girl and settle down.

Bullied because of his family's poverty, distraught after his mother's early death from cancer, the 13-year-old Salita found a mentor – if not a saviour – in his first trainer Jimmy O'Pharrow, a black man in his seventies who says:"My gym's like a League of Nations. I seen every kind of kid come through the doors but I ain't ever seen one like this Dmitriy. Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black." His right-hand man is Israel Liberow, brother of Rabbi Zalman.

As Salita himself says, "Anyone who wants a good whuppin' from me is just going to have to wait until sundown". Not only did the States allow him to become a contender but it also respected his observance of the Sabbath, arranging his bouts accordingly. When he turned pro at 20, his first fight, in Las Vegas and on pay-per-view TV, was held after the "main event" so that the sun had gone down on Saturday night. Within 10 years of leaving Russia, he was shaking hands with George Bush in the White House.

Salita sees himself following in the footsteps of the Jewish fighters who dominated the ring in the 1920s and '30s, such as Barney Ross and Benny Leonard, "immigrants fighting their way to the top". He has other forebears, such as baseball's Sandy Koufax who could not pitch in the first game of the 1965 World Series because it coincided with Yom Kippur. At a press conference in New York, Ricky Hatton's destroyer Floyd Mayweather draped his arms and copious bling around Salita's shoulders. It was a stark contrast.

But in terms of contrasts, there could be none greater than the utterly tasteless "Lawless Britain: Savage Sports" (Bravo, Tuesday), which was on half an hour later. It show-cased bare-knuckle fighting in modern Britain, from gypsy fathers settling their feuds to the appalling "field rage", "shown for the first time of British television".

How honoured we are to be able to watch a couple of thugs beating each other to a pulp for £500 (they threw in some dog-fighting too). What they need is"the greatest Jewish fighter since Samson", as a banner proclaimed Salita, to put the fear of God into them.