Jews & Sports

from Big Mo's Sports Desk

A True Champion

Ron Ross


Dmitriy Salita, the "Star of David," was the guest of honor recently at the Standard Club's annual Boxing Gala in Chicago. It was nearing show time for the first of the two-evening sold-out event pitting the New York Police Department Boxing Team against a select team of Chicago's elite amateur stars and we were sitting in the lobby when Dmitriy's hand went to his forehead and he groaned, "Oy, Vey!"

Thinking of all the terrible mishaps that could have befallen Dmitriy, from America's first case of the bird flu to forgetting how to spell his own name just before his autograph signing session, I was saved the mental exercise when he turned to me and said in as crestfallen a voice as you could ever imagine, "I forgot to pack my tefilin."

Helplessness in a critical situation is a terrible feeling, but that is exactly where I was at that moment. Locating tefilin is just not one of my strong points. When Dmitriy got up and walked to the concierge's desk and asked for a phone book my first thought was that he was going to look up the airline's phone number to book a flight back to New York to get his tefilin. Instead, Dmitriy showed me what ring generalship was all about - outside the ropes.

He called the Lubavitch Center in Chicago and explained his plight. Eleven-thirty that night, Dmitriy felt his cell phone vibrate as we sat at our table in the ballroom-converted-to-boxing arena watching the action in the ring. Rabbi Sholom-Ber Raices had driven cross-town to deliver a set of tefilin to Dmitriy and was waiting for him in the lobby.

The next morning Dmitriy Salita donned his tefilin at the Lubavitch Center with a group of new-found friends and admirers from the Standard Club, including its president, Cary Schiff, his 15-year old son, Ari, now Dmitriy's number one fan, and Allan Rosenfeld, boxing journalist and author.

It was one of those special moments that transcends the ordinary and adds a new dimension to an already unique personality. To those who were there, it is an occasion that will be tucked away in their memory banks. Regardless of where Dmitriy Salita goes in life or whatever he may accomplish, to many this time-frame will be frozen forever.

There is another time-frame that will remain with me, also connected with Dmitriy. It was a day or so before the holiday season last year. As I was entering the local supermarket, I looked to the left and saw a guy selling Xmas trees. I looked to the right and saw a young man with a beard holding up a small menora.

The young man approached me and said, "You look lost." I wasn't sure whether he was speaking of a spiritual shortcoming or noticed that I didn't know how to find my way into a supermarket. (I had tried to enter through the door marked "exit.") He held out the menora to me and smiled, "Take this as a gift. I am a Chabad rabbinical student."

I started to explain, "Look, I am not the most observant guy in the world ...," but there was no quick escape.

"Do you know the story of Chanuka?" he asked me.

I was now beginning to feel pressured and having been taught that the best defense is a strong offense, I smiled and countered, "Do you know the story of Dmitriy Salita?"

In an instant the roles were reversed as I found myself educating a spellbound student. Of course he had heard of Salita and described him as a "great champion." In very careful detail, I explained to him that in addition to the fact that Salita is not yet a champion, there is really no basis of comparison between Dmitriy and the original bearer of the "Star of David" - King David. After all, Dmitriy was bound by very strict boxing rules and would never be permitted to bring a sling-shot into the ring.

"I don't wish to disagree with you," the Chabad student said, "but Dmitriy Salita is a champion - a true champion."

I started to tell him about the IBO, the IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO and how each organization has a champion and someday - but not yet - Dmitriy may be wearing one of their belts.

He continued, unfazed, "According to the dictionary, a champion is a person who fights for another or for a cause. It is not just every time Dmitriy enters a ring and defeats his opponent that we are proud of him. We are proud of each day that he puts on tefilin, every time that he sets foot into a synagogue to pray. We are proud that he keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath strictly, according to all the laws and tenets of Judaism. So I repeat, he is a champion, a true champion."

He handed me the menora. We shook hands and I left, never going into the supermarket. I still have the menora.

I thought of this conversation the following evening as Dmitriy Salita climbed into the ring of the Manhattan Center, putting his perfect record (21-0) on the line against Louis Brown (14-1). I couldn't help but root for Dmitriy, who ended up winning. But it's gratifying to realize that his biggest victory is scored outside of the ring.


Ron Ross is a native New Yorker and was himself a professional boxer, a fight promoter, and a manager. He is the author of Bummy Davis Vs. Murder, Inc.

[Reprinted with permission from L'Chaim #899]

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