Jewish fighters Foreman and Salita revive old tradition
Jewish boxers are nothing new. They succeeded in the sport as much as any ethnic group before World War II, Benny Leonard and Barney Ross being only two of many truly great champions who had strong Jewish identities.
Since the war, though, when Jews began to drift away from boxing and into safer professions, you could count significant Jewish fighters on one hand.
That’s why two upcoming fights only three weeks apart are so remarkable: Two orthodox Jews will be fighting for major world titles, Yuri Foreman against junior middleweight titleholder Daniel Santos on Nov. 14 and Dmitriy Salita against junior welterweight beltholder Amir Khan on Dec. 5.
And they share more than that. They’re both natives of Eastern Europe, both now live in Brooklyn, N.Y., both became orthodox during their boxing careers, they once won U.S. national amateur titles on consecutive nights, they turned pro the same year (2002) and they’re both unbeaten.
“It’s been a long road to make it to this level and we end up fighting for titles at the same time. It’s pretty amazing,” Salita said over the phone from his training camp in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.
The best boxers have always emerged from low-income backgrounds, from places like London’s rough East End (which produced pioneer Daniel Mendoza in the 18th century) to the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side (which produced Leonard and many others) in the 20th century. And, very often, they were the children of poor immigrants from Europe.
However, after the war, many returning soldiers used help from the government to go to college and better their lives. Thus, a long Jewish boxing tradition came to an end.
Allen Bodner, author of “When Boxing Was A Jewish Sport,” is pleased to see that Foreman and Salita will be fighting for major titles — for nostalgia’s sake, perhaps — but he believes it’s an aberration.
“Jews generally aren’t going into boxing anymore,” he said. “It ended with the (GI) Bill of Rights. Many, many people took advantage of it, a very high percentage of Jews. They found another way to get out (of poverty).”
Indeed, Foreman and Salita don’t exactly fit the mold of their Jewish predecessors in boxing. However, there are similarities.
Foreman was born in Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, and immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 10. The Foremans weren’t poor but they had to watch their Shekels. They immigrated, Foreman said, “for a better life.” Meanwhile, Salita was born into an educated, middle class family in Ukraine that sought greater opportunity in the U.S.
They are immigrants, though. Foreman went from Belarus to Israel and finally to Brooklyn, N.Y., for his boxing career in 1999. Salita immigrated with his family to New York when he was 9.
That might explain, at least somewhat, why Foreman and Salita have emerged as championship contenders while it would never occur to most American Jews to pursue boxing as a profession.
Salita said boxing is their “American dream.”
“Boxing is a very tough business,” Salita said. “Usually, it’s the sport of the struggling, a way for people to make it, the sport of the hungry. Many Jews were in that position at the beginning of the century. It was the most-dominant ethnic group. ÔÇª It’s a very hard way to making a living, though, a hard life. Jewish people have always been into education. That’s the way to go.
“But for me, this is my way to make it here. I’m like any immigrant in that way.”
Or as Foreman put it: “As soon as you stop being immigrants, a little bit of the toughness fades. We’re immigrants.”
Foreman and Salita, both of whom are familiar with great Jewish fighters of the past, appreciate the unusual nature of their sudden and simultaneous emergence as contenders.
First, there’s their strict observance of Jewish law. They cannot engage in any boxing activity on the Jewish Sabbath — sundown Friday to sundown Saturday — and they observe kosher dietary laws.
And when they’re not fighting, they wear Jewish skull caps, another tradition rarely seen in boxing circles. An Associated Press photo of Salita wearing a yarmulke during his stare down with Khan last week was striking because it was so unusual.
Salita doesn’t believe we should make too big a deal out of it. After all, he pointed out, Muhammad Ali is a devout Muslim and George Foreman is a minister and no one seems to blink an eye at that. “I’m just a religious Jew doing my job,” Salita said.
At the same time, he sees his success in boxing as an opportunity to help change the perception of religious Jews and Jews in general.
“I think the Jewish culture, Jewish values are underrepresented in pop culture,” Salita said. “I think people just know stereotypes, like Rabbis on the holidays or when something bad happens. I feel there’s a lot of good in playing a role in pop culture; it helps break down barriers. That’s why I think Matisyahu [the orthodox Jewish reggae singer] is the greatest outreach figure today. He’s on MTV. He does concerts throughout the country. He wears a yarmulke, has a beard.
“I think he provides a certain sense of pride. It’s very important for Jewish people to have a presence. And maybe it’ll have a ripple effect. Socially, we still have work to do.”
Foreman and Salita, who are friends, last saw each other recently while training at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn but don’t socialize much. They’re both very busy with their careers, particularly now, and young marriages.
However, they do keep in touch by phone. They spoke to wish each other happy holidays this past Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“I think I called Yuri,” Salita said. “We talked for a while, wished each other happy holidays. And then in passing I said, ‘We won Golden Gloves together. Now we could win world titles together.'
“That would be pretty incredible.”
Just like old times.
Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]