Dimitriy Salita is a professional boxer and devoted Orthodox Jew. On December 16th, Dmitriy will be fighting for the IBA world title against Mike Anchondo (30-3, 19 KO) in the Roseland Ballroom in Times Square. As an exciting and unconventional twist to boxing, Grammy-nominated recording artist Matisyahu will sing his friend and fellow observant Jew into the ring. Journalist and Algemeiner contributor Yonit Tanenbaum sat down with Dmitriy to discuss his aspirations and inspirations.
You were quoted saying, “You can combine Judaism with anything.” How successful do you think you’ve been in combining Hasidic, Orthodox Judaism with boxing?
I serve G-d through boxing. Boxing is not a descent; rather, Judaism is an ascent for me. I come from a non-religious family. If I had come from an orthodox family or a family of rabbis, that would be different. It was always my goal, since I was very young, to serve Jewish people and Jewish causes through boxing. I knew boxing was my American dream… to make something of myself. I think Judaism is underrepresented in pop-culture and that whoever has opportunity to promote it in the proper context, should. That’s what I’m trying to do.
What was the transition like, going from defending yourself in the schoolyard in Ukraine to being a proud, Jewish boxing champion?
I took Karate as a child for self-defense and began boxing later on. I was always a shy, quiet kid, not really with the “in” crowd. But at the same time I didn’t like to be picked on, so I tried to stand up for myself. I started boxing at 13.
Boxing was my way out of the poverty I was in, my way out of the ghetto. After a few years, I had won pretty much every amateur tournament there was to win. Jewish kids hadn’t done that for a really long time. Back in the 1930s, Jews were the best in boxing.
At 19, I turned professional, after my Golden Glove victory. For the first few months, I used my paychecks to buy new sneakers. It was a personal victory because I hadn’t been able to afford popular shoes like Jordons when I was in high school.
You share a birthday with the Lubavitcher Rebbe; what does that mean to you?
I wear a yamulka and I am an observant Jew because of the Rebbe and because of the Rebbe’s blessings. I feel that most of the newly observant, religious world, as well as Jewish people all around the world, have been and continue to be influenced by the Rebbe. I come from Russia and still remember the mindset of people there. People lived in difficult conditions. With the Rebbe’s help, so many of those Jews who assimilated have come back to Judaism. It is my personal opinion that the Rebbe resurrected Judaism to what it should be. It’s a blessing, a great thing, to share a birthday with such a good man.
What was your most significant fight, and why?
I was 18-years-old and heading to the US championships. The finals of the US Nationals were taking place in Mississippi. I asked my rabbi, Rabbi Zalman Liberow, director of Chabad of Flatbush, for a blessing to win. At his suggestion, we turned to a book of letters written by the Rebbe. I opened to a letter in which the Rebbe was telling someone, “Do your job according to Jewish law.” Rabbi Liberow interpreted that message to be a sign that I shouldn’t box on Shabbos. I had no weight to change the fight, which was scheduled for the following Saturday, but I could refuse to fight on Shabbos. It was very difficult and I was almost disqualified, but I held my ground and, thank G-d, the time of the fight was changed to after Shabbos. It was a big step for me to take at that point in my life, especially because I wasn’t observing Shabbos yet. Personally, that was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. It was a huge turning point in my life. And, thank G-d, I won that fight.
How has your life changed since your commitment to Judaism?
I always felt connected to G-d, even before I started going to Chabad. I always felt that G-d controlled and played a big role in my life. Becoming an observant Jew is a tough process, a change of pace. I started when I was a young boy, so it was easier for me. Judaism adds structure to your life and a deeper understanding, especially as you get older and start having a family. So, aside from the spiritual rewards of Judaism, on a practical level, now that I’m married and my wife and I just had a little girl, it adds structure and depth to everyday life. I’m working on myself to grow and I still have a long way to go.
What message would you like for young men and women to take from your experience?
Even as a young adult, I felt it important to believe in G-d and to believe in and pursue your G-d-given abilities. Obviously, you have to work very hard at whatever your abilities may be. But I feel that hard work pays off. “G-d loves nothing more than hard work,” a rabbi once told me. That’s a good slogan to live by. I encourage people to go after their talents. And combine Judaism with your talent 100%. G-d gives everybody a certain individual expression that only that person has and it’s important to see it as a G-dly gift, so to say, and to use it to make the world a better place. Everyone has that potential and the responsibility to make the world around him a better place.