Friday March 20th, 2009

Much like cigarettes, Mad Dog 20/20 (cherry flavored), Lillith from Serpent's Lair and large quantities of crystal meth, the sport of boxing lures its victims with promises of euphoria, then spits them out with an unflinching brutality. I have seen this myself, in Dmitriy Salita, a 26-year-old Brooklyn junior welterweight and a man who, by the sound of dismay in his voice, badly wants to crack the bottle, but also craves that next sip of cherry goodness.

For those unfamiliar with Salita's backstory, well, it's a goodie. Born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, Salita's parents, Alexander and Lyudmila, emigrated from the Ukrainian city of Odessa to Brooklyn 17 years ago with their two children. Upon arriving in the Flatbush section of the borough, Salita gradually discovered his two loves: boxing and Judaism.

As an amateur fighter, he pieced together a 54-5 record, winning the 2001 New York Golden Gloves tournament. As a Jew, he went from being relatively unreligious in Russia, to what most people would consider Orthodox (Salita prefers the term "observant"). He attends shul, or synagogue, seven days a week and wears a wool cap to cover his skull when he prays. Before he heads to the Starrett City Boxing Club to train each afternoon, he stops at the nearby Chabad House, places a yarmulke on his head, turns his book to a prayer, called the "Shma," and wraps the phylacteries -- thin leather straps inscribed with Hebrew quotations -- around his left arm. For the next half-hour, he silently prays.

When I first wrote about Salita nearly six years ago, he was 11-0 and a sure-shot up-and-coming star. Bob Arum signed him to his stable of Top Rank pugilists, and every magazine and newspaper -- from Sports Illustrated and the Washington Post, to the New York Times and Newsday -- ran profiles. Why, two years ago a magnificent movie about Salita's life, Orthodox Stance, received the Documentary Film Award at the 2008 London Jewish Cultural Awards.

In a sport that has long thrived on characters, from Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson, to "Prince" Naseem Hamed and Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, Salita was the easiest of easy sells. He even had a nickname, "The Star of David," that would lure in Jewish fans by the boat loads (As a Jew, I can attest to the fact that we crave sports stars of our own).

And yet ...

Here Salita sits in 2009, a 27-0 fighter -- mad, angry, upset, confused, puzzled, bewildered. He is the WBA's No. 1 junior welterweight contender, yet he has never been granted a title shot.

He has entered the ring led by the Matisyahu, the world's greatest bearded orthodox Jewish rapper, yet he's never -- not once -- appeared on any of HBO's network fight cards.

He has been dogged on air by Max Kellerman for ducking big fights, yet he says he desperately, desperately desires to take on anyone, and that all he wants is a shot at a title.

Salita was scheduled to face Andreas Kotelnik, the WBA titleholder, last November, but the event was ditched after Kotelnik scratched with an injury. "I wanted to fight him so bad," said Salita. "I've offered to fight all the best guys in the world, and I'm always ignored." Kotelnik, alas, recovered from his injury, only to face Marcos Maidana in February.

Salita's next fight, scheduled for April 2 at the Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn, is against Raul Munoz. You have almost certainly never heard of him. Nor, for that matter, has Salita.

"Very frustrating," said Salita. "A long time ago, I was told I'd face discrimination in this sport, being white and Jewish. As a Jew, they told me people would assume I already have money, and that I wouldn't be hungry enough. And as a white guy, I was told I'd have to work twice as hard to gain respect. I've never made excuses, but I've always remembered that."

On the one hand, it is hard to feel too bad for Salita. Some in the sport consider him to be only a slightly above-average talent, whose sterling record has been paved on the backs of subpar opponents like Munoz. Yet, as MMA steals boxing's thunder, and HBO hands us one forgettable (and often recycled) schlub after another, the question I have is this: Why not give the guy a chance?

If Salita is turned into matzo farfel by a Kotelnik or Ricky Hatton or Willy Blain, well, he slinks off into the sunset and pursues his next goal of earning a law degree. "They give me a title shot and I get killed," said Salita, "and I promise HBO, I will never bother them again."

But what if Salita, the "Chosen One," wins? What if the kid with the funny name, the quick fists and the phylacteries steps up and gives boxing its first Jewish junior welterweight champion since Barney Ross more than 70 years ago?

For boxing, once the sport where million-dollar dreams came true, what's to lose?

PEARLMAN: Up-and-coming welterweight pulls no punches (2.3.03)

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