Each week, The Sportsman sits down with a stellar name from the boxing world to discuss the defining moments that helped shape a career and life to date.
Dmitriy Salita has endured difficulties throughout his life, in and out of the boxing ring. The fighter-turned-promoter is now facing his latest challenge - to establish Claressa Shields as not only the greatest female boxer of all time, but one of sport’s biggest crossover stars. To do that, Team Shields will have to overcome the impending challenge of the UK’s middleweight champion, Savannah Marshall.
But promoting big fights and guiding careers must feel fairly straightforward for somebody whose path has never been easy. Born in Odessa, Ukraine, the threat of anti-Semitism prompted Dmitriy and his family to uproot for a new life in New York City in 1991.
“The Soviet Union dissipated about four months after we came to the United States. We were in a wave of Russian/Jewish immigration and at that time the Jewish population in the former Soviet Union did not have all the rights or possibilities to progress in life. If we were good at something, we couldn’t reach the same goals or possibilities. There was discrimination,” he explains via Zoom from his Florida holiday home.
“My parents, as well as hundreds of thousands of other Jews in the Soviet Union felt that for themselves, and for what they wanted for their kids, they got opportunities in the United States.”
Dmitriy has never returned to Ukraine, although he plans to do so in the future. “I do want to say that currently, certainly in Odessa where I was from, which was known culturally as a Jewish city, there’s been a rebirth over the last decades and Jewish life has come back. I don’t think now it is as I left.
“I’ve been back to Moscow for boxing business, but I’ve never been back to Odessa. But I do want to go back and hopefully Corona subsides, travel will be more relaxed, and I’d love to go.”
Brooklyn was a culture shock. As a nine-year old who could not speak any English, suddenly he was thrust into the hubbub and diversity of alien-looking streets. It had been a comfortable middle-class existence in Odessa, whereas home in the States was a one-bedroom apartment shared with his older brother, mother, father and grandmother.
“It was a challenging experience. Extremely hot summers, no air conditioning, food stamps, welfare, public assistance, no English. I went to school in clothes that were not so cool! Back in school in Odessa we wore uniforms. Here, kids made fun of you. Cheap sneakers, cheap clothes, no English, so you’d get into fights. It’s certainly a culture shock in many ways.
“These days food stamps come as cards, like credit cards which is a great way to do it. Back in those days, food stamps were actually dollars, but they were different, and they said ‘food stamps’ on them. As a kid, standing in a store with a line of say, ten people, and then have your mother take out her wallet and pay with food stamps, it’s a bit of an embarrassing feeling. I remember those struggles.”
But it was not all strange, confusing and frightening. Brooklyn opened up a whole new world of sights, sounds and delicacies. It also awoke a cultural identity that had been suppressed in the former Soviet Union.
“I remember first hearing hip-hop music!” he says with a chuckle. “It was something I’d never been exposed to, something that was so different. Also, pizza, hamburgers, chips, Hershey bars and Snickers.
“It was the first time in my life that I’d seen Jewish people walking openly with expressive Jewish garments, where people can identify that they’re Jewish. Also, there was a very strong Russian community. The religious Jewish community and the Russian [Jewish] community – we didn’t really grow up that way. While they welcomed us, we were foreign to those customs and culture and the religious practices. We didn’t grow up with that. It was eye-opening for me as a young kid.
“You start feeling more comfortable and more at home – learning the language and the television shows. At school we used to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and they used to eat pizza. I hadn’t eaten pizza before so as a result of that cartoon, I tried pizza!
“I wanted to learn about my roots. It was a very gradual process. I got slotted to a nomination called Chabad-Lubavitch – a worldwide outreach organisation. It took several years for me to find what I was looking for, a place that spoke to me and understood where I came from. It took time to connect to an organisation, to a place where I felt I could continue my journey. “
From there on, Judaism played a significant role in Dmitriy’s life, but it did not prevent him from pursuing his other passion. Aged 13, encouraged by his brother, he walked into the Starrett City Boxing Club – ‘one of the best boxing gyms in New York City!’ He enjoyed the camaraderie and ethnic diversity, the respect for all regardless of race or creed. A true melting pot. He trained alongside fighters who would go on to achieve success in the sport – Shannon Briggs, Monte Barrett, Luis Collazo, Saddam Ali, Zab Judah and Danny Jacobs. It was here he met his boxing mentor, the legendary trainer Jimmy O’Pharrow.
“Jimmy was a true leader in his community and yet he was helping this white boy in so many ways. Even though I was a white boy, I grew up in Starrett City Boxing Club with Jimmy and I saw life. I was an immigrant and I had some of the same challenges that folks from different communities had. There were lots of similarities in so many ways. I started to become religious at 14 with Chabad-Lubavitch which encourages individualism and the fact that God gave us all certain talents and to be proud of one’s Judaism and to use your talents to better the world around you.
“It was unusual to be a Jewish boxer and someone who was so observant, and being influenced by Jimmy O, who was someone who was helping me and was such an active figure in his community. When I started winning tournaments, I understood that because of my background, it would create some attention so I wanted to use my platform in a responsible way, and I wanted people to know that you can achieve and still be aligned with your values.”
In line with his faith, Dmitriy stopped boxing on the Sabbath and adhered to a strict kosher diet – something that brought another logistical headache when his amateur boxing career progressed to attending training camps and winning national titles. From the amateur code to the pro ranks, he stuck to his Orthodox beliefs. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, no use of phones, television or internet, handling money and obviously no fighting. A new and invasive wave of attention was the next challenge.
“My first promoter was Top Rank. In my contract there was a clause that I don’t box on Sabbath or Jewish holidays. It was certainly different,” he says with a wry smile. “It was something the media had fun with. It was difficult. For example, in the summertime to get on television and then wintertime when the sun comes down sooner. I learned a lot on the job, learning about the practicality of Judaism as I was going through my boxing career.
“I did feel the pressure, but I also felt responsible, and I felt motivated to do it. People read about you in the press and build up a picture that’s not reality. I felt responsible to try to do the right thing and use my platform to help influence folks in a positive way. As a kid you don’t really realise some of the narrative and some of the things that being openly Jewish involves. I remember, in 2001, there’d be an article about me and then hundreds of comments – political. I’d be like, ‘all I do is box, man, how did this happen?’”
The comments kept on coming, reaching fever pitch when Dmitriy, then an unbeaten professional with 30 wins to his name, signed to fight Britain’s Amir Khan. Comments were one thing, outright threats, a different story. Both fighters were on the receiving end. A practising Muslim taking on an Orthodox Jew.
“I grew up in Starrett City Boxing Club. That was my cultural education. This, along with being observant, gave me the tools to be proud of who I was. At times I got threats. You gotta keep on rolling, baby,” Dmitriy laughs.
The Khan fight had certainly captured the imagination. Throughout the build-up, both fighters were respectful and lauded as great ambassadors for their sport and respective religious traditions. Once inside the ring, amid a hostile atmosphere in Newcastle, it quickly turned into a nightmare. Dmitriy's dream of returning to Brooklyn with Khan’s WBA world light-welterweight title, was over in the first round. The vicious fast hands of the man from Bolton, just too much.
“Leading up to the Amir Khan fight, I hadn’t lost since the age of 17. Amir is obviously a great fighter. The way it ended and the way it went, even my critics didn’t think it’d be so quick! It was a very difficult experience for me and very difficult to overcome it and digest it and find ways to move on in a productive way and find meaning in that experience.
“When you start out as a kid your goal is to be a world champion, so I really believed in myself going into that fight and then that happens! But I gotta say, coming to England at that time, and it being as intense as it was, I didn’t realise that it could get that intense outside the ring. It was quite an experience. Inside the ring, yeah, it was quite an experience!
“It was the front article on CNN.com on the day of the fight. It was an unusual event let’s say. I didn’t really comprehend it. It’s of interest to me, but it wasn’t something I thought would spark up such interest. Such a podium for discussion. But Amir Khan is WBC ambassador to the Middle East, so we’ve been communicating now and working on ways to bring boxing to that part of the world. It’s gone full circle. It shows you the power of sport. It’s a great international language that can bring folks together.”
That devastating loss did lead to pastures new. The chance to use his boxing knowledge in another way came to light. It was an opportunity the then 27-year-old embraced.
“I wanted to get back in the ring the next month because I was physically fine. Because of my contractual issues, I didn’t have chance to do that. My contract ended six or seven months later, and I met with several promoters and I didn’t want to tie myself up for a period of time, so I decided to set up my own promotional company. From the time of making my decision to the time of my first event was about five and half weeks - September 2010. It was a sold-out event and I got television for it, and my phone started ringing with a lot of very talented local fighters.
“Jarrell Miller was on my show when he was 1-0. I was like, ‘this guy’s the best American heavyweight, how come he’s not signed?’ I actually introduced him to different promoters and managers to get him signed but somehow it didn’t take off. Then, Jarell asked me to sign him, so I signed him. Several years later he was set to fight Anthony Joshua in London.”
Salita Promotions has grown to boast a fine stable of fighters, headed up by the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Woman of All Time’, Claressa Shields. An article in the Wall Street Journal around the time of the 2016 Olympics prompted Dmitriy’s interest in a fighter he believed could make the most impactful change in the sport.
“Before she won that Olympics, before I even met her, I spoke with several television executives about women’s boxing and Claressa particularly. Some had heard about her and some hadn’t. Then she won her second Olympic gold medal and, yada yada yada, in her second professional fight, she fought on Showbox for me at MGM Detroit and was the first woman in the history of the sport to be the main event on premium cable network television.
“Other platforms started having women’s fights. Claressa started making money and the fighters that fought her started making money. We included other women fighters on the cards to progress women’s boxing. Claressa felt a responsibility to the sport through being a leader and bringing it to the next level.
“To me, Claressa is one of the greatest athletes of our generation. When history books are going to be written, and not taking away from any of the other boxers or champions, but Claressa is going to be mentioned and remembered along the lines of Muhammed Ali, Pele, Michael Jordan, because she’s a great athlete and she’s the first to do what she does.”
So speaks a promoter. And Shields herself is certainly not shy in speaking of her worth and status in the sport. Her ambitions are limitless – as her impending spell in MMA would attest. But boxing is where she has made her name – she is a three-weight world champion in the pro ranks. The only woman to have beaten her in either code is Great Britain’s Savannah Marshall. The pair met at the Amateur World Championships in 2012, with the latter taking the decision.
Marshall’s impressive demolition of Swede Maria Lindberg prompted her promoter Eddie Hearn to talk up the Shields fight, but levels of excitement in the UK do not appear to be matched across the pond. As Salita says, it is an obvious match, but he believes Marshall needs to fight again in the USA to build her presence there.
“It will happen. Very soon? I don’t know,” he says. “I think it’s a great fight and Claressa wants the fight, but in the United States, people don’t know who Savannah Marshall is. It’s a big, big fight but it takes a little bit of building and I’ve had some conversations with Eddie [Hearn] about it, and it’s a fight to be made. I think it’s not as big as it should be yet. Claressa is just rubbing on being a real crossover star with all the publicity she’s getting.”
Team Marshall is confident that the fight can be made before the end of 2021. Dmitriy Salita may take a bit of convincing, but it is all part of the bigger picture for an observant man still making his way in the toughest sport of all.