WHEN Dmitriy Salita remained an active fighter and was training out of the Kronk, none other than Emanuel Steward sagely told those around him, “Stay close to Dmitriy, he’s going to be a big player in boxing someday.”
Salita had first impressed him by phoning him directly to ask to train under him, in the time after the first of his two defeats, and by the end of the briefest of periods working together Steward had seen enough to convince him he had a future on the safer side of the ropes.
“My first fight, out of the Kronk gym, I was already promoting my own events, so I was still very, very young in the promotional game,” Salita told Boxing News. “He wanted Andy Lee to fight at Madison Square Garden, and was talking to me about using my licence. He trained me for a couple of weeks and then said, ‘Dmitriy, I’m going to camp with Miguel Cotto – train with Sugar[Hill]’. At some point, many years ago, Sugar told me that. Around the same time I saw Emanuel Steward’s interview about Tyson Fury, saying, ‘He’s going to be one of the greatest heavyweights ever’. I personally didn’t see it at the time.
“Emanuel told me, ‘I’ve never had a fighter call me directly. It’s usually a manager or promoter. You called me to make a deal. You’ve got some balls’.
“He had this incredible gift of being able to see the potential of people. That’s probably why he was such a great cornerman with such a great eye for boxing, and was such a great commentator. When Sugar told me that it was an amazing compliment. I’m not sure how he saw it in me because I was so young, and it was still so very early in my career. It’s quite incredible.”
Salita had perhaps had that resolve from the very start. When aged 13 he first entered Brooklyn’s Starrett City Boxing Club he was confronted by numerous black and hispanic fighters, and was aware, as a white Jewish boy with an eastern European accent, of the extent to which he stood out.
He was eight the first time another child called him a “zhid” – a derogatory term for Jew – and he responded by kicking him, and in 1991 he was nine when his parents chose to move with he and his brother from Odessa as Ukraine declared its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union, at a time when his parents were determined to leave the anti-semitism they so regularly encountered behind.
“There was a tremendous amount of communist propaganda and indoctrination in that period,” he recalls. “You find out about anti-semitism fairly early in life. There were rumours of mass pogroms [anti-Jewish riots that could lead to casualties], especially in 1991, when there was a significant amount of uncertainty. Jews did not fare well. My father’s the opposite [to violent] but he bought himself a gun.
“There were times when I felt threatened, and unsafe for my parents. My [older] brother came home with black eyes. You constantly heard someone got bullied; someone got beat up; someone didn’t get the job.
“We came to Brooklyn, New York – my father, my mother, my brother, and my grandmother – five of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush. We were on welfare and food stamps – everybody would see. It was quite embarrassing. I remember those moments, and I remember, for 69 cents, these fruit and vegetables together – they were a little rotten, but you would cut here; cut there – my mum buying that. That early uncertainty and poverty is what gave me the motivation to work hard and make something of myself.
“I went to Starrett City Boxing Club at 13 years old. It was like an hour away by the bus. Most of the kids there, they were from different communities, but socioeconomically from the same grind. Quite early on I recognised, ‘I want to make it out of my ghetto, and boxing’s going to be my tool to do it’.”
In Odessa, the city of his birth, Salita – who was given his mother’s surname instead of his father’s of Lekhtman, owing to it sounding less Jewish – had learned karate. In Brooklyn, before he boxed he went to kickboxing, but his older brother Misha, who by then was going by the name Michael, encouraged him to box at a time that would ultimately change his identity and the course of his life.
“I only knew of two gyms,” he says. “One was Gleeson’s Gym, and the other was Starrett City Boxing Club. Gleeson’s was further away, but the more important factor was that Starrett City was subsidised by the city, so you wouldn’t have to pay.
“It was a very rough place, and also a place of tremendous talent. [Run by] Jimmy O’Pharrow, my trainer; mentor; [non-blood] grandfather in my life. Danny Jacobs; Shannon Briggs; Monte Barrett; Zab Judah; Luis Collazo; Sadam Ali; Curtis Stevens; dozens of guys that were national champions; Olympians; Golden Gloves champions. Zab Judah used to be the king. It was a melting pot. It was an incredibly packed place; there were five or six trainers and they didn’t like each other, so every time you boxed it was survival of the fittest; a competition.
“[In Odessa] we were middle-class. Here, even though we had a bigger variety of food in the refrigerator, we were poor, and I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know there was such a thing as pizza; as potato chips; as hip hop music; as Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles. It’s like arriving on Mars and trying to fit in.
“As a kid, I wanted to be a great fighter. The reason why I stopped, before my last fight [a defeat by Gabriel Bracero in November 2013], when I was walking to the ring, I didn’t wanna die in the ring anymore. You have to be able to die in the ring. Mentally, to give it all to win.”
In Orthodox Stance, the documentary on the young Salita, footage of the mild-mannered, tidy super lightweight he once was is interwoven with that of him being treated as a novelty by his then-promoters Top Rank – whose own Bob Arum is also Jewish – and the devout dedication from Salita to observing laws around sabbath, even at the expense of opportunities to fight.
“Star of David”, as he was then known, turned professional with a reported amateur record of 54-5, having become a Golden Gloves champion and won the Sugar Ray Robinson Award given to the amateur competition’s outstanding boxer. Arum – a conservative Jew; Salita is orthodox – relished speaking about Salita not representing the US at the world championships in Budapest because it would have meant him fighting during the sabbath (from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday), and Salita can also be seen eating meals prepared from a portable electric grill in his hotel rooms, to ensure that they are kosher.
Before his family’s move from Ukraine a cancerous lump had been discovered in his mother Lyudmila’s breast. It had been treated by doctors in the US, but it not only returned years later, it had spread. During one of her stays at Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center the husband of another woman receiving treatment gave Salita the number for the local Chabad centre; Salita and Michael started attending regularly to pray for her recovery, and Salita, in the process becoming increasingly observant, continued attending after her death.
“I really believe she got sick because of Chernobyl,” he says. “Odessa’s not very far from Chernobyl. She was 42 years old when she first got breast cancer. She relapsed when I was 14 years old. She passed away when I was 16. That was a very difficult time, and I’m very grateful I had a boxing gym, and Jimmy O, to give me a safe haven and a constructive place to let out my frustration, and to still have a goal in life.
“I don’t feel like I get the credit I deserved as a fighter, overall. When I was fighting, sometimes I got the short end of the stick. People thought that I came from a wealthy background, and I’ve lived through many different stereotypes – which is part of life.
“[But] New York, being such a sports city, and loving boxing as much as they do, and having a big Russian-speaking immigrant community, and Jewish community – all those things contributed to my popularity. It being unusual gave me recognition.
“I’m blessed that Top Rank felt that I was good enough to sign with them as an amateur. That was tremendous for my career, and very influential in what I’m doing today. Had I not been exposed, from the beginning to the highest level, to the way things work – an organisation point of view; PR; matchmaking – it wouldn’t have given me what I need to be successful. It wouldn’t give me the vision of what it could be.”
That Top Rank largely favoured promoting in California and Las Vegas contributed to the New York-based Salita – after further periods promoted by Lou DiBella, and Square Ring, by the time of the defeat in 2009 by Amir Khan – becoming a free agent, and ultimately, via the formation of Salita Promotions, taking his career in an unexpectedly different direction.
“I was meeting with different promoters but I didn’t want to tie myself up for a long time or like what they were selling me,” says Salita, who sparred with Floyd Mayweather when Mayweather remained at 135lbs. “In 2006, 2007, I’d started to think about promoting my own events or being a partner in a real company. The money from Amir Khan started to run out – I had to figure out how to pay the bills. ‘Why don’t I promote myself?’ In a day or two I made a decision. My first show was September 1, 2010. Six weeks [passed] from the time I made the decision until the event. Luis Collazo fought on my undercard.
“I saw that there were so many talented fighters in New York that didn’t have a promoter. Younger guys that I could put my hands on. Jarrell Miller was the first guy that I signed, and Jarrell’s second professional fight was on my show. They made Deontay Wilder the face of Brooklyn boxing. ‘Deontay Wilder? Jarrell Miller lives five blocks down the street. Deontay Wilder’s from Alabama.’ Then I started to promote events that didn’t feature me.
“Heavyweight boxing has different rules in terms of business. Somehow they move the ball much more than everybody else. So I pay close attention to heavyweights. When you have significant heavyweights, it certainly helps you navigate the world of boxing in an easier way.
“One of the things that makes me unique in what I do is, because of my fighting career, I’m able to appreciate and recognise certain details that are very important. I was talking to Emanuel about Riddick Bowe versus Evander Holyfield, when he started training Evander Holyfield; second fight. Evander came to see him and was telling him about what fight he wants to fight. They went to a club that night, and he saw Evander Holyfield dancing. ‘Man this guy got some rhythm,’ Emanuel said, ‘and it came to me that that’s the way we’re gonna beat Riddick Bowe.’ He told me about different things that they did; the training, and listening to music. These details – these little nuances are the soul of the sport.
“I buy The Wall Street Journal on a Friday, and I read it on a weekend. In 2016 there was an article about Claressa Shields – she was getting ready to fight in her second Olympic Games. All these checks were going off in my head. It was when Hilary [Clinton] was running for president; women’s sport was emerging. I set up a meeting; Claressa’s second professional fight was our first fight together. She was the main event on ShoBox – the first time in the history of the sport that a woman headlined a card on premium cable television. I was able to recognise this because I saw, when I was with Top Rank, the great attention they paid to promotion and the exposure of every fighter.
“As a promoter, I had to start from a basic club-level show, putting up chairs, insurance, matchmaking – I had to be involved with everything in a very detailed way, and had to know all that was going on, and really have to build myself up from the ground level.
“I didn’t really have the infrastructure to deal with Jarrell at that time. [But] I wanted to associate Jarrell with Mike Tyson; with Riddick Bowe; with the rich history of boxers from New York City.
“Objectively, outside of the promoters that have exclusive broadcast deals I have the best talent roster, and was able to do amazing things with the limited tools I’m given. To get a broadcasting deal would allow me to grow in a significant way. Without television money it’s extremely difficult, because you’re servicing real talent, and real talent wants to get paid. I’m a big believer in staying active – it helps the fighters progress, and the fans build a relationship with the fighters.
“I signed Claressa before women’s boxing was a business, feeling, by my intuition, that Claressa had the story and the skills and the background to warrant a significant amount of attention and to be a player in the game. I signed her before I knew that I could deliver for her. When I signed Claressa, the financial obligations and the promises I made to her – there was nothing to support it. There was no market to support the vision then.
“Once we get a broadcast deal that’ll change the business model for me. That’ll be the game changer for my company.
“That summarises why my family came to this country – you work hard, you accomplish what you can, and who you are will not stand in the way of what you can become. That’s what America’s about to me.”