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From top to bottom: Boxer Dmitriy Salita in the gym; Middle: Dmitriy Salita with manager and advisor, Israel Liberow (left) and trainer Jimmy O' Pharrow (right); Jason Hutt with Matisyahu at the NYJFF closing night screening of Orthodox Stance; Musician Regina Spektor with Dmitriy Salita at the NYJFF closing night screening of Orthodox Stance.
Your film provides a very interesting portrait of the ethnic diversity within the boxing world. What is it about the sport that creates this kind of environment? Boxing is the sport of the immigrant class. Whether it was a hundred years ago with Irish, Jews and Italians or today with Hispanics, Africans, and people from the Caribbean, boxing has always been a sport of the underclass and it continues to be. So the people that you find in the boxing gym are always going to be ethnically diverse (at least in New York City). The trainers are also going to be diverse in terms of their ethnicity and background. The boxing gym is kind of a great leveler in that talent and dedication are all that counts. It’s a total meritocracy and there’s no real discrimination. Even if you’re not a talented boxer, if you’re dedicated, you’ll keep coming back to the gym and you’ll be respected for that. Boxing has its own codes and they are really based upon very simple things.
In the film, we see a lot of camaraderie among boxers? While making this film, did you see more camaraderie than competitiveness? Well there’s both. Here’s the thing that people don’t understand about boxing: ninety to ninety-five percent of boxing is solo work. Only rarely is the boxer in the ring with another person. The rounds of sparring and the rounds in the ring are really a fraction compared to the time they put in to physical training, physical conditioning, running, hitting the various bags in the gym and doing padwork with a trainer. So much of boxing is self-discipline and working on yourself. Second of all, when you’re in a gym environment, everyone is working hard and watching the other boxers work hard. Seeing the other boxers as they work motivates one to work harder. I think that the camaraderie grows out of that because every boxer knows how hard it is to be successful. The physical, mental and emotional demands that a boxer has to put up with—as well as the self-discipline they have to go through for years and years—definitely breeds camaraderie. A great sociologist, Loic Wacquant, compares boxing to religion. He feels that the discipline and codes that are involved in religion are perfectly comparable to the codes in boxing. So I think the camaraderie comes out of that shared lifestyle and shared dedication and discipline. In the film, we see Dmitriy beat a guy in Puerto Rico who comes into the locker room after the fight to congratulate him and they just talk. People have this real misconception that the boxers hate each other. Boxers have more respect for one another than any fan has for any of the boxers in the ring. They know what the other one went through. That’s why you’ll see that, after they fight each other, a lot of boxers become very good friends because there is complete respect for one another. I feel that the competition is different within boxing than in any other sport.
It also seems like there’s inter-ethnic respect within the boxing world. I’m thinking of the moment when Dmitriy speaks in Spanish to the Hispanic audience in Puerto Rico. I think that scene is really interesting and pivotal. At the beginning of Dmitriy’s career, all his fights were in Las Vegas or California or, as in this scene, Puerto Rico. He says in the speech, “This is my fifth Latin Fury card” which means this is the fifth time that Dmitriy is fighting in this boxing event of mostly Hispanic fighters, an event that is being marketed to a Hispanic audience. So, for the first time now, Dmitriy decides that he’s going to deliver his speech in Spanish which, to me, is really fascinating because it’s obviously a sign of growth and savviness. He is thinking, if I’m going to fight in front of a Hispanic audience than I’m going to try and reach out to them. And when he delivers his speech, the audience, which is all press, goes crazy and really applauds him. He doesn’t have to deliver his speech in Spanish but he’s winning them over through his charm. At that moment, Dmitriy is adjusting and adapting to his place in the boxing world. In boxing, you fight in front of your home audience. But Dmitriy, during that scene, is an up and coming fighter so he isn’t getting the opportunity to fight in front of his own audience. And that’s the trajectory and path of Dmitriy in the film: In terms of his boxing life, he’s a sort of exiled character who finally has his homecoming in the matches at Brighton Beach and then in Manhattan.
How much access did you have in following Dmitriy? In the beginning, I would come to the gym and just stay out of the way. I noticed that when a news crew comes to a gym, the first thing they do is ask to turn the radio off. But the radio is the heartbeat and pulse of the gym. Whether they are jumping rope or shadow boxing or whatever, every single boxer in that gym is working to the beat and the grooves from the music on the radio. You can see that rhythm when boxers box. But every news channel or documentary crew that comes in to the gym asks to turn the radio off. I never once asked anyone to turn the radio off or turn it down which was kind of the first thing I did in order to gain trust and access. I was coming in there as a guest (not even as a guest, just an observer) to watch Dmitriy, the other boxers and the culture that goes on in the gym. So I did my best to just stay out of their way, and over time, I was able to gain more and more access. Before Dmitriy’s first few fights, I didn’t go into the locker room. But over time, as he, his trainers, his manager and promoter grew to trust me, I was granted access to the locker room. (But to this day, Dmitriy still doesn’t want anyone such as press in his locker room before the fight because of the distraction.) Also, there were certain things in his personal life that he didn’t want to be in the film and I respected that. But in terms of what was important to the film, I felt that I had pretty good access to everything.
Could you talk about your experience shooting the fights? I only shot two of the fights that are in the film: The one at Brighton Beach and the one at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I only shot the actual fights when there wasn’t a television network filming them: When there’s a TV crew, they won’t let you. But my producer Michel Negroponte suggested that, when there’s a television crew shooting, I should film the trainers in the corners and the fans. In shooting the corners and the fans, you get a perspective that you don’t usually see when watching a fight on HBO or ESPN or Showtime where the cameras remain on the boxers in the ring, as the action is so fast. During TV broadcasts of football and baseball, on the other hand, there is time to cut to the fans because the play stops. So actually, watching the trainers during the rounds and the fans is really exciting and I think this creates a greater experience for an audience.
I particularly love seeing the enthusiastic Jewish fans in the ringside audience. This film is not a chronicle of Dmitriy’s fighting career but rather a chronicle of how Dmitriy Salita carved out a place for himself as an observant Jew in professional boxing. The film starts off in Las Vegas with Dmitriy fighting in front of mostly Hispanic audiences—we see a Mariachi band performing in the lobby of the Mandelay Bay hotel. And by the end of the film, you see Matisyahu singing Dmitriy to the ring as well as a ringside audience of Orthodox Jews with big beards and yarmulkes. Over the course of the film, the boxing audience surrounding Dmitriy Salita becomes his own. And the film ends when this has been achieved.
Do you think that for Jews, the appeal of someone like Dmitriy Salita today is similar to the appeal of boxers like Barney Ross and Benny Leonard in the 1920s and 1930s? There’s always a need for cultural ethnic heroes, that’s just a given. And when you’re an immigrant, there’s an even greater need. And so the reason there were tons of Jewish boxers and dozens of Jewish world champions in the twenties and thirties was because there were so many Jewish immigrants. Since there weren’t economic opportunities for them and since they were getting into turf wars on the streets of New York and Philadelphia and Chicago, these kids had to be tough. And when some rose in the boxing ranks and won world titles, then the other Jews could look at their champions and say, yeah he’s tough and he’s one of us. (The same thing went for the Irish and the Italians at the time.) It’s great for people to see one of their countrymen succeed at a high level in a sport that they love.
I think Dmitriy has a much different audience today than those boxers had sixty or seventy years ago. Boxing was then the biggest sport in the world: There was boxing, there was baseball and there was horseracing. But today, baseball, boxing and horseracing are not the three most popular sports—football and basketball are much more popular, I think. So I feel that Dmitriy’s popularity remains to be seen. But clearly, he’s very popular in the Orthodox Jewish community because, of course, he’s an observant Jew. A lot of the boxers in the olden days came from religious families. Dmitriy, on the other hand, didn’t grow up religious at all but decided that he was going to be observant while being a professional boxer. I think that’s won him the respect of a tremendous amount of observant and Orthodox Jews because they’re looking at this guy and not only seeing a professional boxer but someone who’s just like them in that he’s a believer. Also, of course, there are the Russian fans and these are new immigrants. And then, if you go a step further, you have the Russian Jewish fans. Just because Jews came over 130 or 140 years ago en mass doesn’t mean that this latest wave of Jewish migration from the former Soviet Union wasn’t major. And so that’s why you get someone like Dmitriy Salita. He’s a total throwback to that era: It’s just that it's different populations that are supporting him at this point. Whether he crosses over to mainstream Jewish audiences will be determined by the fact that boxing isn’t nearly as popular today as it was then. Back then, if you had a Jewish boxer, everyone knew and everybody cared, but today, that’s just not the case.