November 12, 2009

It’s not always easy to be impartial and objective, so I’m not even going to try. It’s been more than seventy years since two weight divisions were ruled simultaneously by Jewish fighters and now, in the span of three weeks there is the possibility of just such an occurrence.

I danced at two weddings in the past three-plus years—Yuri Foreman’s on Sept 27, 2006 and Dmitriy Salita’s on September 1, 2009. I consider them both as dear friends and will be rooting openly as they join forces to update the record books, Yuri this Saturday night in Las Vegas against WBA light middleweight champion Daniel Santos and Dmitriy, on December 5th in Newcastle, England against WBA light welterweight Champion Amir Khan.

I have no problem shedding the cloak of neutrality because that is just what the ranks of detractors, ill-informed and those steeped in false stereotypes have been doing.

Let’s call it the Ethnic Divide. Latin fans generally root for Latin fighters, Irish fans for Irish fighters, Italian fans for Italian fighters, African-Americans for African-American fighters and Jewish fans for Jewish fighters. It’s the way things are and there is nothing wrong with it as long as it remains in the arena of fair competition. It is not prejudice, at least not in the accepted sense of the word. In fact, it is one of the backbone elements in matchmaking—the crowd coming out and rooting for the local kid. “Local” is defined by more than just the neighborhood. But it can tailspin into the ultimate in ultra-poor sportsmanship when a fighter’s winning efforts and recognition of accomplishments are not merely consistently minimized, but are mocked because of it. Anytime a fighter goes to the well thirty times and comes back without a defeat he deserves praise, cheers and admiration—unless he comes from a place other than the Planet Earth. Dmitriy Salita is not an extra-terrestrial.

There are fighters who have fought the equivalents of their grandmothers in compiling a “looking good on paper” record. Despite the hoots and put-downs of his growing legion of detractors—the silent hecklers are now emboldened and stepping forward as the ranks of vocal detractors grow—the quality of Dmitriy’s opposition is better than most of his contemporaries and even most of the list of sacred “golden age” greats. His opponents have won 369 of 590 fights for a 625 percentage. In comparison, Ricky Hatton, in his first 30 bouts, fought opponents with a 570 percentage, Andreas Kotelnik’s opposition 554, and Junior Witter’s, a still respectable 510. We then come to former WBA titleholder, Gavin Rees, who in his 26 bouts prior to fighting for – and winning—the WBA light-welterweight crown, came in on the back of opponents that won only 305 bouts out of 1,040—a 290 percentage. And rather than denigrate or belittle his accomplishments, they sang his cheers and accorded him a champion’s veneration. Cinderella never had it so good!

Yet, Dmitriy Salita, undefeated in 31 fights, who has fought a more imposing list of opponents than any of those mentioned – and we can comb a list of fighters past and present and come to what may be a startling and even disturbing fact to the naysayers—Salita did not build his record on humpty-dumpties or tomato cans.

Okay, let’s look at some of our “legends.” No one can deny Willie Pep his well-earned legacy as one of the greatest featherweights ever to lace on the gloves. But the “Will o’ the Wisp” started his career with each fight being an education until his baby steps were able to evolve into big time giant steps. Pep’s first 30 opponents had a combined total of 396 fights of which they won only 163, a percentage of only .411! Of his first 10 opponents, 9 had never won a single fight! This is not to demean the career of a truly great fighter. It is simply a measuring rod to put things in an historical perspective. Rocky Graziano, another guy who earned the right to have his fists cast in bronze, went out to win at any cost, with the crowd cheering him on with his late-round desperation rallies. He fought most of the great ones but his early career was not exactly star-studded. His first 30 opponents had a combined total of 630 fights, losing 386 against only 244 wins for a won-loss percentage of .387.

Comparing Dmitriy’s .625 percentage to all of the above-mentioned does not take into account all possible variables but no matter how you choose to slice it, it certainly opens up the door to a respectable argument. The cry that Dmitriy is being protected, that his opposition is hand-picked is the same quality criticism, but from the other end of the field, to the clamoring of a kid being “thrown to the wolves” when an up-and-coming fighter suffers a loss. Sit back and join the Monday morning quarterbacks, the easiest job around.

Yuri, unbeaten in 27 professional bouts, is called Yuri Boreman by one boxing scribe. Unfortunately, today’s boxing audience is not the same makeup as boxing fans of the sport’s heyday. Today’s casino crowd takes a break from the crap tables to grab a “comped” seat opposite the TV camera, often nudging their neighbor to inquire who is fighting. The idea that Boxing was originally considered a science—The Manly Art of Self-Defense—is almost totally lost upon today’s “lust for blood” crowd. The spectacle and sheer beauty of a Willie Pep winning the third round of his 1946 fight against Jackie Graves without throwing a single punch would be wasted and lost upon the majority of today’s audience. How would the Peps, the Tommy Loughrans, Billy Graham’s, Billy Conns, Benny Leonards be accepted by today’s boxing fans—and some scribes? Fortunately, Yuri Foreman is an intelligent, resolute young man who knows the path that he has chosen is the right path. He’s not in the ring to cause bodily harm. He’s in there to show the skill of a polished boxer and avoid getting hit. He wants to avoid the punishing head blows that lead to diminished mental abilities in later life.

The crowds for both fights will have to wait until it is dark before both Yuri and Dmitriy enter the rings of combat as the two observant Jewish prizefighters—Yuri is a Rabbi-in-training—always place the tenets of their faith before all else and the Sabbath must end before the fight begins. Whatever the outcomes of their respective fights, the aura of “champion” will follow them always.

This article contains excerpts from prior articles written by Ron Ross.

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