The harder they shawl: The documentary "Orthodox Stance" explores the worlds of Dimitriy Salita, an undefeated boxer and observant Chasidic Jew.
I’m working on a theory that, given a minimal level of access and technical skill, it’s damn near impossible to make a bad documentary about boxing. There are just too many interesting characters floating around, and the sport itself is so photogenic, its settings, tools and sounds so iconic.
Filmmaker Jason Hutt followed a Brooklyn junior welterweight named Dmitriy Salita around for three years, from the fall of 2002 to the summer of 2005, from age 20 to 23, from his ninth pro fight to his 23rd, from four-round undercard bouts in Las Vegas casinos to 10-round main events in front of roaring crowds of Chasidics in New York ballrooms. And he made a damn good boxing documentary.
It’s called “Orthodox Stance.” The hook is that Salita, 25, who immigrated with his family from Ukraine when he was 9, is not just an up-and-coming undefeated 140-pounder, he’s also an observant Orthodox Jew, a member of the Chabad Lubavitch sect. He won’t fight on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays. A promoter in the film quotes Salita saying about Saturday fights: “Anyone who wants a good whuppin’ from me is just going to have to wait until sundown.”
He keeps kosher, even eating meals prepared in hotel rooms by his advisor and manager, Israel Liberow, when traveling.
“Orthodox Stance,” like Salita himself, moves easily between his two worlds, Chasidic Judaism and secular pugilism. We see Salita wrapping his fists with tape and laying tefillin.
His trainers and most of his fellow pugs at the Starrett City Boxing Gym are black or Hispanic. The people closest to him and many of his fans are Chasidic Jews. He’s as much a confluence of cultures as his friend Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae singer and beat-box artist, who sings him into the ring for the climactic fight in the movie.
Even the movie’s title bridges worlds. It’s a reference to his religion, obviously. But it’s also just a mundane boxing term, another way of saying “right-handed.”
Most of what’s interesting about boxing, especially in its current depressed state between the ropes, is outside of the ring, and “Orthodox Stance” is an unusually candid look at that. We see Salita, who has been something of a phenomenon for years — the Washington Post profiled him at length in 2002, when he was 20, had a 7-0 record and was just about to start getting followed around by a filmmaker — in tough contract negotiations with former HBO fight executive Lou DiBella’s promotion company.
There was a time when Jewish fighters dominated boxing. But that was a long time ago, between the world wars. A fan’s sign in “Orthodox Stance” refers to fellow Brooklynite Zab Judah as the greatest Jewish fighter of all time, which says less about Judah — or his occasional reference to his lord and savior, Jesus Christ — than it does about how much a typical fight fan might know about guys like Bennie Leonard and Barney Ross, to name just two.
Salita knows that his unusual story and — though this goes unsaid in the film — his white skin make him a marketable commodity. Big-time promoter Bob Arum saw the same thing and signed Salita to his first contract. That contract expires during the filming and Salita pursues the deal with DiBella because he wants to stop fighting on Arum’s undercards in Vegas and start building on his following in New York.
The film culminates in Salita winning the North American Boxing Association 140-pound championship, a sort of undertitle that can serve as a steppingstone to the big fights. That’s not a spoiler, since the movie’s publicity is not shy about Salita’s still undefeated record, which is now 27-0-1.
But he’s been inactive now for 10 months, partly but not entirely because of a hand injury, and while he still hasn’t lost, he was knocked down twice by a fighter named Ramon Montano in an eventual eight-round draw. And as he’s stepped up in class of competition, he’s begun winning more by decision and less by knockout, an indication that he may have reached his level. He has a fight scheduled for next month, opponent unknown.
I asked Salita, who has helped promote “Orthodox Stance” by appearing at film festivals and doing interviews, if the movie leaves viewers with a good impression of who he is.
“There’s more to everybody than you can see in a movie about them for an hour and a half,” he said by phone from his Brooklyn home, “but I think it covers some of the more important aspects of my life. It touches on how frustrating and difficult the business of boxing can be. There can be a movie just about that, unrelated to my career.”
There have been a few, now that he mentions it.
Salita didn’t grow up as an observant Jew. He became interested in the religion as a teenager, when his mother was dying of cancer. That’s also when he got serious about boxing. I asked him how he reconciles the peaceful spirituality of his religion with the violent and, in his word, dirty world of boxing.
“The business world is a dirty world altogether,” he said. “It might not be as dirty as boxing, but it’s a tough world out there when people deal with each other and there’s money involved. That’s the case with anything. When there’s an opportunity to hustle somebody for a dollar, people do that.”
Salita talked about how the media “can overstate, overindulge my religious observance.” But while he hesitates to even call himself Orthodox — “That’s a strong label, you know what I mean? I’m an observant Jew that’s connected to an Orthodox organization called Chabad” — he says that everything he does is “in the Orthodox tradition.”
“Some people’s mission is to be in the world and to insert as much godliness and spirituality as they could into their everyday mundane things,” he said. “And some people’s job is to study and to completely dedicate themselves to Torah. I believe that God gave me talent to box, and my job is to do the best that I can do with that ability. It’s certainly not a contradiction in my mind at all. I don’t come from a family of rabbis.”
Salita, now fighting as a free agent, hopes to land a bout with one of his heroes, Oscar de la Hoya, who has mentioned him as a possible opponent. He also wants to win a world title. He just can’t do it on a Friday night.
“I have a balance in my life that I’m completely 100 percent comfortable with,” he said, “completely at peace and comfortable with all the facets of my life. And I actually think the film reflects that well.”
Previous column: The coach and the archbishop
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