By Dmitriy Salita
Since I am ranked as the No. 1 junior welterweight contender in the world, my next boxing match will be for a championship title against the winner of the July 18 world title fight of Andrea Kotelnik vs. Amir Khan.
People think boxing matches are about physical strength. But my journey has taught me that my main strength comes from spirituality.
Becoming a world champion boxer was my dream ever since I was a young boy. After moving to Brooklyn from the Ukraine in 1991, the isolation of the immigrant experience led me to seek out a boxing club while I was only 13 years old. While most American Jewish boys were studying for their bar mitzvah, I was dreaming of becoming a boxer.
When I was 14 years old, my mother became ill with cancer. During a visit to my mother’s hospital room, I met a chassidic man who was visiting his own wife. A friendship formed and he put me in contact with Rabbi Zalman Liberow of Chabad of Flatbush. Rabbi Liberow encouraged me to gradually accept more rituals of Judaism and I grew to love the traditions of my ancestors. I began to pray every day and eat kosher food.
Meanwhile, my boxing career was progressing. When I turned 17 it was time to compete in the NYC Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament. I made it to the finals which were on a Friday night. By this time I had learned that Friday night was the Jewish Sabbath, and I felt guilty about fighting, but I decided to fight anyway. I was excited about the opportunity to win the tournament and get a lucrative offer to turn pro. Alas, it was not meant to be and I lost.
I thought about quitting, getting a regular job and forgetting about my dream of becoming a world champion. A few months after the Golden Gloves, I was picked to compete in the U.S. Amateur Championships held in Gulfport, Mississippi. One more try I thought. I trained diligently, and came to my Rabbi for a blessing to win. Rabbi Lieberow told me that I could have an impact as a positive role model, but he reminded me that I should observe the Sabbath.
I decided to make this commitment and to take the next step in my religious observance of not fighting on Sabbath. This was a crossroads point in my life. I worked hard and put my faith in the hands of G-D I decided that G-D rules the world and my testament to that as a Jew was by observing the Sabbath.
In Mississippi, I was told that the finals were on the Sabbath and I would be disqualified if I did not fight. Since I was not favored to make it to the finals, I didn’t worry about it. But after scoring two upset victories, I made it to the finals. I was fully ready to be disqualified, but thankfully the tournament organizers decided to move the match so that I could participate.
This time I won the tournament and became the U.S. National Champion. I also entered the Golden Gloves again the following year. I made it to the finals at Madison Square Garden. This time the finals were held on a Thursday and I won the tournament. Shortly thereafter I turned pro and have now compiled a record of 30-0.
Looking back on these past 10 years, I recognize that the direction I got from my rabbi gave me a core strength that I carry both inside and outside the ring. I now dedicate my life not only to winning boxing matches but to teaching children how to engage in non-competitive boxing so that they can be physically fit and gain confidence in themselves.
Boxing is a mental game as much as it is a physical one. My immigrant story, my mother’s illness, and my dedication to Shabbat, are all a part of my strength and a fundamental reason for my success as a boxer. I look forward to my title fight, which I now know–no matter what–will not be on Friday night. That fight I have already won.
Dmitriy Salita, an Orthodox Jew and the No. 1 junior welterweight contender, delivered this sermon July 14 at Ohev Sholom–The National Synagogue.