JLife recently caught up with professional boxer Dmitriy Salita to talk about his spiritual journey both in and outside of the ring. As an observant Orthodox Jew, Salita has made great sacrifices to uphold his religious observance in the world of professional boxing that just doesn’t “rest.” Here are a few words of wisdom from this incredible athlete and man of faith.
JLife: You were born in Odessa, Ukraine and moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. when you were nine. What do you remember about your childhood in Odessa? Salita: I do remember parts of my childhood in Odessa. I remember my school, neighborhood, my house, our neighbors and the beat of life back in those days.
What prompted your family’s decision to move to the States? We moved to Brooklyn in 1991. My parents smelled change and instability. Like the wave of Russian Jewish immigration in Soviet times, Jewish people did not have the same possibilities for progress. My parents wanted to give their kids—my brother and I—the possibility of a better, freer life.
What did you think of New York when you first moved there? I only saw New York in movies so I thought that the whole city was full of skyscrapers. I was surprised to learn that there were residential neighborhoods. We lived on Kings Highway in Brooklyn. New York has a culture of its own which was very interesting to learn and experience. I grew up in Brooklyn and absolutely love NYC.
How did you discover boxing and who were your role models? When I was a kid growing up in Odessa I really wanted to play soccer, but the club that I wanted to join told me I was too young (at 7 years old). I was not the strongest kid in the world so my father suggested I try karate in an after-school program. Then we came to Brooklyn and I joined Paul Mormandos Karate Academy and continued to enjoy the sport. Paul and my brother saw some talent in me and suggested I try boxing. I had only heard of two boxing gyms which were located in Brooklyn: Gleason’s Gym and Starret City Boxing Club. Starret City was closer to my house, about an hour bus ride. It was a subsidized gym so that worked for me. The first day I walked into the boxing gym the intensity… the competitive spirit… I just loved it. Starret City Boxing Club was located in the inner city and had one of the best boxing teams in NYC and the country. From the beginning I was surrounded by very good fighters and it was a great learning experience for me.
You have a brother who is nine years older than you… did the two of you spar as kids or get into brother-on-brother boxing matches? If so, how old were you when your brother figured out you could kick his butt? Yes we boxed when I was younger, my brother was a big part of my career when I was younger and helped me a lot. When I first started he would drive me to the gym and he made sure I had everything I needed to be able to train properly. He was a big help to me! As I got a little older and better in boxing our sparring sessions became much less frequent.
Can you tell me how training at Starret City Boxing Club shaped your boxing style? Starret City had a tremendous influence on me both in and out of the ring. It was part of my Americanization process. I was exposed to the Hip Hop culture of NYC. Hot 97, the number one Hip Hop station of that time, was a rhythm setter and inspirational tool in the gym. The talented boxers I grew up with who went on to become world champions as adults were extremely talented and competitive when we were younger. I was the only “white boy” in the gym and had many life and death sparring sessions that helped shape my style. One of the best things that happened in my life is that I met Jimmy O, head of the gym. We became very close and Jimmy treated me like his grandson. The experiences and real-life education I got was priceless. The lessons I learned will forever stay with me and I believe Jimmy O was sent from above to be in my life and teach me the things that he did both in and out of the ring… in life all around.
Do you have a favorite Biggie or Tupac song? What type of music do you train to? My favorite Biggie song is “It Was All a Dream.” And my favorite Tupac song is “All Eyes on Me,” but I enjoy many of their songs. I love all kinds of music and Hip Hop was definitely inspirational for me. In the mid 2000s, I spent many training camps listening to Matisyahu. I recently heard a song from a California-based Rabbi with ALS named Yitzi Horowitz. It is called “Shine a Little Light” and it’s on my daily playlist. He is an incredible person and listening to that song today inspires me a lot.
How long do you train during a typical day? When I’m training for a fight I train twice a day. I do road work or physical training such as circuit weights in the morning and boxing training later in the evening.
Can you tell me a little about your Mom and what she meant to you? My mom was everything to me! We were very close and she meant the world to me. When we lost her, it was a very difficult time in my life and very early in my life. Nevertheless, I learned lots of valuable and important life lessons while I had her with me and I am grateful for that! She died a young woman at 49 and I miss her very much especially now that she would have been a grandmother.
When did you become an observant Orthodox Jew? I always believed in G-d and when we were in Odessa my father would buy Matza on Passover. That was the extent of our observance. When we came to Brooklyn I saw religious Jews for the first time in my life. Men wearing yarmulkes, dressed in traditional Jewish garb. It was a culture shock for me. I knew that we came to the U.S. for religious freedom so I wanted to explore my heritage. My early experiences with Judaism did not ignite a spark in me, but fast forward a few years to when I was 14. One day my mother was very ill and she was rushed to Sloan Katteing Hospital. She stayed in the hospital for a few days and was rooming with an Orthodox woman. I came to visit my mom and this woman’s husband came to visit his wife. I had never shared such an intimate space with an Orthodox person before. We spent several hours together, and naturally began a conversation. He was a very warm man, we talked about life, boxing… at the end of our days together he took my contact information and gave it to a local Chabad Rabbbi named Zalman Liberow of Chabad of Flatbush. A few days went by and he called me many times. After multiple attempts on his part, I came to shul. I loved the fact that there were people there from all different walks of life. There were different levels of religious observance, but all had respect and understanding for one another. That made me feel good inside and something in me clicked.
What does boxing mean to you? Boxing is a very spiritual experience for me. My new found channeled spirituality helped me in the ring and in dealing with difficulties in my life (especially with everything that was going on with my mother). I slowly but progressively began to increase my level of observance. I started putting on tefillin daily and progressed in my Judaism. Then when my mom passed away I started going to shul every day to say Kaddish for her. In 2000, I got invited to compete in the U.S. Nationals. I came to my Rabbi for a blessing and Rabbi Zalman suggested I write a letter to the Rebbe. I did and the answer that I got was to “do my job, follow the requirements of Jewish law and I will be successful.” Reb Zalman told me that, that means not boxing on Shabbos. It was a very difficult decision for me to make. Such a request had never been made and one of the fights at the national tournament was scheduled for Saturday afternoon. I committed to take this upon myself and was facing disqualification, but I stood strong for what I felt was right. The time of my fight was then changed to after Shabbos. I won the U.S. Nationals and it was a huge step for me athletically, spiritually and personally.
Have you made adjustments to your boxing schedule in order to remain observant? Yes, there have been many adjustments made to training, and certainly to fights. When I turned pro in 2001 after winning the U.S. Nationals and Golden Gloves I had an amendment made to my professional contract with Bob Arum of Top Rank. It states that my fights will not be scheduled for Shabbos and any other Jewish holiday. This was a new type of request in the industry, maybe in all of professional sports. Α
Tracey Armstrong Gorsky is a contributing writer to JLife magazine.