By Thomas Gerbasi
Former junior welterweight title challenger Dmitriy Salita sold me quick when it came to his fairly new foray into boxing promotion. Why? Because he gets what puts people into the seats.
“It’s important to promote fighters and tell their stories,” he said. “Every fighter has a story, has a life that led them to becoming this, and every one is compelling. Everyone comes from a different background and a different community, and they come from a struggle. Boxing is a way to make it, and I think the masses can relate to it, so those stories should be told. It’s very important for a promoter to promote the fighters and who they are.”
It seems like common sense, but few are doing it these days. Not all, but many boxing promoters have forgotten that what causes people to become fans and put down their hard-earned cash is an emotional attachment to a fighter. People didn’t watch Mike Tyson because of his defensive prowess or technique; they showed up because of the way he made them feel, the way he made them jump out of their seats every time he landed a knockout blow. It’s the same with Oscar De La Hoya. If he looked like he had his face caved in with a tire iron, your girlfriend would not tug your arm about buying a Pay-Per-View, and if you weren’t touched by the story of his mother’s passing before he won the Olympic Gold Medal, please check yourself for a pulse.
In the same vein, few, if any, boxing fans haven’t heard the story of Salita, a Ukraine native who came to the United States at the age of nine and soon crossed paths with local Brooklyn legend Jimmy O’Pharrow, who took the youngster under his wing when he was 13 and become a lifelong mentor to him in and out of the ring at the Starrett City Boxing Club.
The tale of the Orthodox Jewish kid and his wizened African-American trainer captivated the world in and out of boxing. It didn’t hurt that the kid won a Golden Gloves title and compiled a 30-0-1 record before being stopped in a single round by Amir Khan in a 2009 title bout.
It was after this first loss that Salita began preparing for his life post-Khan and post-boxing. First up was the realization of an idea he had for a while to begin promoting, and in September and December of last year, Salita Promotions put on well-received shows in the New York area featuring the man whose name is on the company letterhead.
“Boxing is not a forever life,” said Salita, who bounced back from the Khan loss with back-to-back wins over Franklin Gonzalez and James Wayka. “It’s been my job and it’s been my education, so that’s why at this stage of my career I decided to form my own company. Being signed with Top Rank and DiBella and Square Ring, some of the best promoters in boxing, I had the opportunity to learn from them and see how they operate and see what makes them successful and put my own salt and pepper on their two cents.”
Next up was the establishment of the non-profit “Dmitriy Salita Boxing and Fitness Program” in Brooklyn, which he points out is “not a program to produce boxers.” Instead, Salita hopes that the fitness and life lessons he learned in the ring can be passed off to a new generation.
“It’s all the good lessons of boxing without the side effects,” he said. “Boxing is a great way to raise confidence and wear off the extra energy that a lot of kids and adults have. We had a kid who was kinda shy and a little bit overweight and his parents wanted him to do it more than he did, but he did one session and he loved it and he’s been coming back every since. It’s a great sport and it has a lot of very valuable lessons that kids and adults can learn from.”
The program also includes a daily message of inspiration. Salita said that a recent one was that if you fall down seven times, get back up eight. This phrase took on added meaning for the 28-year old, and not because of the loss to Khan, but because of the fact that in February, he lost his mentor, Jimmy O, who passed away at the age of 85.
“Jimmy is one of the most influential people in my life,” said Salita. “Even with all the guys that became successful in the boxing game, there were probably over a thousand people that came to Starrett City Boxing Club and became better human beings and better people because of him.”
The wounds are still raw for Salita, but as he recalls, it was almost as if O’Pharrow knew that he had to prepare his young charge for this moment.
“Jimmy and I had a really tight and really special relationship,” he said. “He was in my corner from my first amateur fight, to when I won the gloves, for my first pro fight to when I fought for the world title. But he specifically didn’t work my corner my last two fights and it was awkward for me because it never happened before. Jimmy told me, ‘I’m home, go take care of business, I’m here for you, I’m older now, don’t worry about me.’ He was such a great man with such foresight that he was able to make me functional without him being there.”
After the Khan fight, O’Pharrow also made a phone call, to legendary trainer Emanuel Steward, and asked if he would work with Salita. Steward brought Salita to Detroit, and the two are continuing to work together, along with Steward’s nephew Javan “Sugar” Hill and Salita’s longtime friend Nirmal Lorick. But the angel on his shoulder is still O’Pharrow.
“Jimmy has helped me in life tremendously,” said Salita softly. “Forget about boxing. Jimmy made me the person that I am today. I went to the school of Jimmy O. He’s like my grandfather, I love the man.”
Salita’s turned out pretty well himself, and on April 13th, he will return to the ring at the Oceana Ballroom in Brooklyn as a fighter and a promoter for Salita Promotions’ next event. In the ring, Salita will look to make it three in a row when he faces Indiana’s Jermaine White, and outside the ring, the budding promoter is pleased to present one of his longtime buddies, former WBA welterweight champ Luis Collazo, in a junior middleweight bout, along with fights featuring unbeaten former Golden Gloves champs Juan Dominguez and Rafael Vasquez. And unlike most promoters, Salita has a direct connection to his fighters.
“I grew up with all those guys,” he said. “I’m fortunate that boxers appreciate some of the things that I did with my career and some of the stances that I took and choices that I made. I’ve had some challenges and some tough things that I had to do, but I established great relationships and I understand the hustle and bustle of being a fighter and the risk and reward ratio. Luis is a world-class fighter and he’s gonna end up in a big fight soon. He arguably beat Ricky Hatton and Andre Berto and he’s fighting at junior middleweight for this fight and we’ll see if he can comfortably work his way back down. Luis is gonna be a bad boy.”
During our chat, I reminded Salita that he used to do a mean Don King “Only in America” impersonation, and he laughed, but he’s aware that it’s not an easy road on the other side of the ropes. He’s fine with that though.
“As a fighter / promoter, you’re taken seriously once you start doing shows that don’t feature you,” he said. “That’s coming. I have a plan, I have good people I’m working with, and I think we’re really gonna make some noise and help the fighters that we work with.”
He’s not done with lacing up the gloves either.
“This is my third fight in eight months,” he said. “I haven’t fought so often since very early in my career, so it’s very important for me to stay busy for the sake of my athleticism and my swagger, so to say.”
Salita’s still got the swagger, still has the heart, and he’s got the lessons Jimmy O taught him to carry him forward. So he should be just fine. The only question left is one that may be a little premature this early on, but it bears asking anyway. What’s tougher, fighting or promoting?
“Fighting is much tougher than promoting,” he laughs. “Promoters don’t get hit.”