Saturday night is all right for fighting - only after sunset

JEWISH fighters used to dominate boxing with 26 Jewish world champions from 1910-40.

And Dmitriy 'The Star of David' Salita, the World Boxing Association number one contender and religiously observant Jew, wants to start a new era for Jewish boxing.

He is hoping to face Olympic silver medallist Amir Khan for the world title in his next fight.

The 27-year-old light welterweight said: "I am going to fight the winner of Khan's fight with Andriy Kotelnik and I know this is my big opportunity.

"It would be great for me to fight Khan and I think it would capture people's imagination far beyond just the average boxing fan.

"I've just seen an interview with him on YouTube where he said he'd like to fight me and I think he looks like a decent, respectable guy.

"I think it could be a good thing for boxing to help promote peace and understanding."

He added: "I would love to fight all the biggest names in the sport - Ricky Hatton, Manny Pacquiao, etc - because I feel I deserve the same kind of reputation that they have.

"I box to beat the best - that is why I can never miss a day in the gym and I need to do it for all the blood, sweat and tears I shed as a boy."

But taking on world-famous fighters is a far cry from Dmitriy's humble beginnings in Odessa, Ukraine, where he gained "very little experience in Jewish life".

He said: "Because life wasn't good for Jews there at that time, I moved with my family to Brooklyn, New York, in 1991 when I was nine.

"It was a huge culture shock, having to take on a new language and meet new people.

"When I first started going to school, I didn't fit in 100 per cent and, culturally, was very different from the other kids.

"I had to learn how to defend myself and so my brother took me to Starrett City Boxing Club when I was 13."

It was at the gym that Dmitriy met boxing trainer Jimmy O'Pharrow, who he describes as "like a grandfather to me".

He added: "He's done so much good for me in terms of boxing, but also in my life away from the ring.

"Our relationship grew gradually and my mother was always more comfortable if Jimmy was with me.

"They had some of the best boxing kids in the country in that gym and I saw kids from the ghetto who were socially the same as me.

"I stood out because of my ethnicity, but I felt comfortable there and not below them, although there were a few pride issues because they didn't want to let a little white kid beat them.

"From the first day I stepped into the gym, my training was super-intense because I was always dreaming of one day becoming a world champion.

"At first, my family saw it as an after-school activity, but when they saw how serious I was about boxing, they expressed some concern because they didn't know of any professional boxers.

"While I was still 13, I won the New York State Amateur Championships and remember being very nervous beforehand, which is difficult to handle, but you just do what you can do."

It was the following year that Dmitriy began to take more of an interest in his religious life after his mother, Lyudmila, fell ill with breast cancer.

He said: "My mother shared a room in the hospital with a religious woman and I would get into conversation with her visitors from Chabad Lubavitch.

"I have always been a very spiritual person and they helped me during a very difficult time in my life. They helped me to understand what was happening and how to channel my energy and they had such a great love and respect for me, even before I began making a name for myself in the boxing world.

"For the first time, I felt connected to Judaism and my observance gradually grew step by step."

At 16, Dmitriy met Israel Liberow, a Lubavitcher who had been a boxing fanatic since he was a kid.

"I was a very good amateur at the time, getting ready to turn professional, and when we met his interest was sparked," he said.

"He does a bit of everything with me - he helps with any boxing issues, but also helps me to keep Shabbat while on the road, which can be very difficult.

"I won't ever compromise my beliefs and if anyone wants a good whupping from me on a Saturday, they're just going to have to wait until sundown (sunset)."

However, Dmitriy says the response he receives as a Jew in the boxing world isn't always positive.

He said: "I wear a yarmulke and have a star of David on my shorts and that sometimes makes people feel uncomfortable - even for secular Jews who aren't connected to Judaism.

"Every once in a while I do feel a bit of a backlash from the powers that be in boxing, but the best way to combat that is to stay proud of who I am."

When he was 16, he won bronze at the Junior Olympics and capitalised on this success three years later by winning the prestigious New York Golden Gloves, a title often seen as a rite of passage for future world champions.

Dmitriy turned professional at the age of 19 and signed a contract with promoter Bob Arum, whose stable of fighters has included George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Oscar De La Hoya.

In 2005, he won his first professional belt, the North American Boxing Association light welterweight championship, by stopping Shawn Gallegos in the ninth round.

And Chassidic reggae star Matisyahu led the 'Star of David' out to the ring with his inimitable brand of Jewish reggae.

Dmitriy said: "Winning my first belt was one of my favourite moments so far in boxing.

"It was a great night, especially because Matisyahu led me out to the ring. He was also a part of the Lubavitch movement and we had met many times before.

"Every time he sees me now, he tells me what a great time he had, so hopefully he'll do it again for me sometime."

He added: "Every fight has a life of its own but it's the best feeling to win. Jimmy O always said that brains beat brawn and I think of myself as a scientific boxer - I gradually break an opponent down.

"I don't get scared, more nervous and anxious, but it definitely gives me a lift when I see my supporters."

So would he recommend the sport to other young Jewish kids?

"I think it's a great sport for overall conditioning and confidence, but professionally it is a bad business and I wouldn't recommend it."

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph