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A Bethlehem Tale: Steel Wills and an Orthodox Stance
Dmitriy Salita & new friend
By Jason Pribila
The city of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, USA remains cast in the industrial shadow that forged its identity.
The Bethlehem Steel Corporation was once the second-largest steel producer in the United States. Only the iconic blast furnaces remain from the once proud company that supplied metal for every bridge and tunnel that one takes when entering and leaving Manhattan.
Not long ago a resident was considered to be set if he or she were able to gain employment at the “Steel.” Employment numbers peaked at 167,000 in 1957, and plummeted to 35,000 by the mid-eighties. In 2001, Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy.
The Bethlehem tale is an American story.
People remain in the towns that industries have forgotten. Their stories are sources for inspiration. Boxing fans have witnessed the effect that one man’s success has on the entire town he represents. Kelly Pavlik’s rise from regional attraction to middleweight boxing world champion got as much ink for his individual accomplishments as it did for Youngstown, Ohio.
Thanks to a non-profit community event and a visit from a few Brooklyn residents, I found myself at the doorstep of such a story in my own backyard.
The Bethlehem Boxing Club sits in the city’s Southside area, located at the foot of Lehigh University’s campus and across the bridge from the city’s Historical Section. It is the home of close to fifty fighters from the ages of 8 to 24. In less than three years it has spawned five Pennsylvania Golden Glove champions and the city’s first professional in over 20 years, welterweight Ronald Cruz 5-0 ( 3).
Behind the gym’s blue door, a stairway leads to the unmistakable sights and sounds of a boxing gym. A smaller room led to a larger room that featured a recently donated regulation boxing ring. While one could reach out and touch the vast array of speed bags, heavy bags, gloves, and headgear; this was a story about what one could feel: hunger, hope, determination, and a beginning.
Last week, the Southside Film Festival kicked off year six of its celebration of independent film. It is a community effort that has screened nearly 600 films from 33 states and 57 countries. I was able to introduce the film jury to Orthodox Stance, a documentary about boxer Dmitriy Salita and his balancing being a professional fighter and a devout Orthodox Jew. The committee was inspired by Salita’s story, and it was included in this year’s festival.
This would be the chance to see a fighter away from the ring, and hopefully to find something to share with his fans that did not sound like a press release.
On Thursday afternoon, Director Jason Hutt arrived in Bethlehem. Orthodox Stance was his second film, a project that lasted four-and-a-half years from the time he read an article on Salita until post-production was a wrap.
After Hutt checked in, we were able to grab a quick lunch. I was anxious to hear about his latest project, an untitled look at the art of acting in which he follows students, professors, and casting agents. I was also curious about whether he had any plans on working on a fictional piece. We instead talked about the Miguel Cotto vs. Joshua Clottey fight.
Before leaving to check into his room, Jason told me that he expected Dmitriy to arrive around 5 pm. He also joked: “Outside of the ring, Dmitriy isn’t very good with directions.”
The Orthodox Stance screening was slated to start at 9:00pm. Film committee reps had arranged for Dmitriy to stop at the Bethlehem Boxing Club when he arrived in town. It looked as if I would have plenty of time to find out the latest on Dmitriy’s status as the WBA mandatory contender for the winner of the July 18 Andreas Kotelnik vs. Amir Khan WBA world title fight.
5:00pm arrived, the clock seemed to jump 15 minutes per glance. I found myself walking outside more frequently, in the event I’d recognize a Ukrainian-born pugilist looking for an address.
At 6:15pm a refreshed Jason Hutt returned. He did not seem terribly surprised that Dmitriy missed his estimated time of arrival. He revealed that Dmitriy was late when he was invited to the White House. A detail that was left out of the final cut of the film.
That story was cut short by an incoming call on Jason’s cell phone.
“Where are you?” Hutt said. “Where? How long have you been driving?”
Dmitriy trains in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. He once mentioned that he noticed signs for Bethlehem on his way to camp. On this journey, Dmitriy decided that he would avoid the rush hour traffic on Rt. 78W and instead venture toward camp, expecting to soon see signs for Bethlehem. When the signs instead read, “Delaware Water Gap”, he used his lifeline.
Forty-five minutes later, Dmitriy arrived. A two-hour drive resulted in a four-hour tour of Eastern Pennsylvania.
Within moments of meeting Dmitriy, I was convinced that my first impression of him was universal. He seemed to be warm, humble, and as eager to meet those that were eager to meet him. He failed to let his long journey serve as an excuse for rest, and instead asked about where the gym was located. He seemed genuinely excited that aspiring fighters wanted to meet him.
Salita autographs some gloves
At the boxing club, Dmitriy was introduced to head trainer Alec Morales. A former professional kick-boxer, Morales now dedicates his time and energy to ensure the young men in Bethlehem have an alternative to spending time in the streets. He only asks that egos are checked at the doors, and dues are paid by working hard.
Dmitriy later explained the similarities between this club and where he got his start, at Starrett City Boxing Club in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I saw the same faces when I first walked into my gym in Brooklyn,” he said. “The same hunger.”
An enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Victory Firehouse. Before the filmmaker and subject were introduced, Dmitriy reserved a ticket for an old friend. Rabbi Halpern of Allentown, PA was the first to approach Dmitriy when he came to the Poconos to train. He soon arrived and took his seat among small business owners, professors, a reverend, boxing fans, and assistant trainers. This was a story and event that extended beyond religion, race, and sex.
Following the film, Hutt and Dmitriy fielded questions from the audience. They interacted as old friends that were clearly fans of each other’s work. Each had gambled and won on the other’s commitment at a time when each was trying to find their place as professionals and as men. The result is a story that will continue to inspire and unite the audiences that are fortunate enough to discover it. And one gets the sense that neither man is a one trick pony.
Dmitriy confessed that his feelings about the sport of boxing have changed a lot during his time as a professional. He feels that there was a point where boxing stopped being a sport and became a business, and he even hinted that he may have handled the business part differently if he could do it over again. He left the impression that his dream is to fight for and win a world title, and he did not necessarily seem worried about a long reign or his legacy. At only 27, he is closer to the end than the beginning of his career, and is making strides for life outside of the ring. Dmitriy appears to be in a position to retire from the sport on his terms, and will not stick around to let the sport retire him.
The closing night party marked the end of a successful event, and I was proud to do my part to convert a few new boxing fans. People started to plan when and where we could all get together to watch Dmitriy’s next fight. At that moment I noticed Alec Morales was at the door with Bethlehem’s own Ronald Cruz.
I had covered two of Ronald’s fights for SecondsOut, but this was the first time that we were introduced. Here was a fighter whose journey was just beginning. Ronald will next fight on August 8 in Atlantic City on the undercard of Mike Jones vs. Larry Mosley. They are hoping to impress Hall of Fame promoter Russell Peltz and become a staple on his fight cards. Ronald hopes to prove himself against the toughest opposition possible.
Before Alec and Ronald were able to leave, they were asked to pose for several pictures. Suddenly people that were not aware that Bethlehem had a boxing club were now taking interest in one of their own.
The experience was perfectly summed up the week before by Norm Frauenheim, who was honored at the Boxing Writers of Association awards.
“During this era of cookie-cutter sports franchises, boxing stories remain real,” Frauenheim said. “At their best they are poignant, real portrayals about fighters and much more. And those fighters provide a glimpse, a rare personal glimpse of the neighborhoods they come from. They say a lot about the streets and communities that are supposed to be a hometown paper’s backyard.”
The local newspapers and television station failed to cover this event. Pages and airtime was instead reserved for the promotion of Transformers 2, which used the blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel in its opening scene. The site that once put Bethlehem on the map as one of our nation’s industrial leaders was now the home of a US$743 million dollar Sands Casino. Steel has been replaced by slots, and the gap between rich and poor has never been broader.
If there is going to be a Bethlehem tale worthy of becoming a national story, I would wager that it would emerge from the shadows of the Sands.
Editor’s Note: More information on Shield of David: Dmitriy Salita Foundation can be found at http://SalitaFoundation.org
Photos by Roger Smith