Thursday, January 03, 2008

Coming Soon: Orthodox Stance

Despite million dollar purses and enormous pay-per-view revenue, boxing does not have the prestige it once carried. NY1’s sports call-in host Tom McDonald is one of boxing’s greatest boosters in the city, frequently inviting local contenders on his show, which is where I first heard of Dmitriy Salita. Now patrons of the upcoming New York Jewish Film Festival, and Cinema Village on the 25th, will have the chance to meet Salita through Jason Hutt’s documentary Orthodox Stance.

Sometimes billing himself as “The Star of David,” Salita has maintained his orthodox faith in the very worldly sport of boxing. Salita’s family immigrated to America from Odessa, Ukraine to avoid anti-Semitism while Salita was still in grade school. In fact, Salita attributes much of his drive to succeed in boxing to the poverty and social awkwardness of his first years in America.

Stance follows Salita through the early years of his career, culminating with an important bout for a stepping stone title belt. Boxing has a checkered reputation, but Salita’s first promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank, actually comes off well in the film for his accommodations of Salita’s orthodox observances. The jury seems to still be out on his current promoter, Lou DiBella.

Salita certainly has an interesting story. Though his family is Jewish, they were not particularly observant. Salita came to Orthodox Judaism on his own accord, during a period of family crisis. To Stance’s credit, it respects Salita’s religious convictions and does not treat his Orthodox advisors as caricatures. As we see in the film, keeping kosher is no small feat in hotel rooms in Vegas or Puerto Rico.

In many ways Salita is a very refreshing sports personality. In addition to being a man of religious conviction, Salita conveys a sense of patriotism as well. While still relatively fresh on the scene, he has built a solid following and has even secured endorsement opportunities. As a result, Salita often echoes Don King’s “only in America” sentiments, expressing gratitude for the opportunities he found here.

At one point we see a genuinely respectful Salita and his manager Israel Liberow attending a Hanukkah reception hosted by President and Mrs. Bush. His advisor (and sort of trainer-emeritus) Jimmy O’Pharrow expresses sentiments to the effect that regardless of what you think whoever happens to be President, being invited to the White House is a meaningful event. It is that general lack of cynicism that marks both Salita and Stance, making the documentary of interest to viewers who ordinarily have little enthusiasm for boxing.

It is far from a foregone conclusion that Salita is destined to be a major champion. However, he has built a substantial fan-base—much of which Stance shows comes from the Jewish community and his Brooklyn neighborhood. We even see Matisyahu, the soon to be Grammy nominated Hasidic reggae and rap star, performing for Salita before his important title fight.

Salita might be what boxing needs: a likeable potential champion, with deeply held values. He is definitely well represented in Stance. It will screen as part of the upcoming New York Jewish Film Festival, before starting a New York run at Cinema Village on January 25th.