"The greatest Jewish fighter since Samson," proclaims a handmade sign held aloft in the crowd as junior welterweight boxer Dmitriy Salita enters the ring for a climactic bout in Jason Hutt's new documentary film "Orthodox Stance." Before World War II, Jewish athletes dominated American boxing, accounting for 26 world championships in the first half of the last century. Mr. Salita, not only a Jew but a deeply religious member of a Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue in Brooklyn, may or may not be the greatest Hebrew competitor since the Hebrew Bible was drafted, but in today's boxing world — when champions have primarily been of Latino and African-American descent — he is certainly an anomaly.
Fan boasts aside, Mr. Hutt's film, which opens today at Cinema Village, so painstakingly captures the passion and sincerity with which Mr. Salita combines his religious and athletic lives that "Orthadox Stance" (a pun referencing boxing parlance for a right-handed fighter) quickly outgrows any sensationalist "one man-two worlds" narrative myopia. Instead, it diligently details Mr. Salita's three-year quest, encompassing 22 bouts, en route to his first professional title fight.
Mr. Salita was born in the Ukraine in 1982, and by age 12, he and his family had emigrated to Brooklyn. "My family struggled," he recalls of his first year in a strange new land. "We were on welfare and food stamps. Kids made fun of me. I wore bad clothes. I got into a lot of fights, a lot of arguments." After some prodding by his brother, the 13-year-old Mr. Salita walked into the Starrett City Boxing Gym in East New York, where he became a pupil of the gym's black owner-operator, Jimmy O'Pharrow.
Mr. O'Pharrow built on Mr. Salita's natural aptitude, helping to hone the raw but focused teen into a ruthless deliverer of powerful jabs and combinations. (On the fighter's Web site, Mr. O'Pharrow is quoted as saying, "I seen every kind of kid come through the doors, but I ain't never seen one like this Dmitriy. Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish, and fights black.") Along the way, the untimely cancer-related death of Mr. Salita's mother awakened a deeper commitment to his religious heritage and led him to the Flatbush Liberov Chabad Synagogue. "Divine providence," in the form of his rabbi's boxing-obsessed brother, Israel Liberow, brought Mr. Salita a manager and a spiritual adviser combined in one package. A contract with a Las Vegas-based promoter, Bob Arum, brought him opponents, wins, and attention.
"I know all the rules," Mr. Arum says at a pre-fight press conference, "not that I follow them." Mr. Arum is not referring to the Marquis of Queensbury. Mr. Salita, who observes the Sabbath and therefore won't enter the ring on Friday nights, not only knows the rules, he follows them to the ancient letter. An ingratiating onscreen mix of the rabbinical and the entrepreneurial, Mr. Liberow cheerfully demonstrates how one keeps kosher in a Vegas hotel room. Food brought from New York gets wrapped in a bedspread. Masking tape on the door jamb defeats an electronic door key until after sundown Saturday.
"I wish," says Mr. Salita's non-fight-fan Rabbi, "that you should walk into the ring and the guy should just fall down." On-screen, Mr. Salita appears more than happy to knock guys down himself. The film's fight scenes are doozies. Those used to the slower, more deliberate pace of big-name heavyweight-class bouts will find the 140-pound Mr. Salita's fast attacks and quick victories intoxicatingly intense. Those unaccustomed to fight footage of any kind will find them savage. Out of the ring, Mr. Salita, who rarely gets upset even as a contract dispute escalates or a trainer berates him with motivational abuse, appears mute compared with Mr. O'Pharrow, Mr. Liberow, and other voluble characters we meet in and out of the fight game and the fighter's religious community.
"Orthodox Stance" was more than five years in the making. The patience and care taken by Mr. Hutt, who also photographed and edited the film, are evident from start to finish, as are the unflagging trust and willingness of Mr. Salita's camp to allow the filmmaker access to every corner of the fighter's two worlds. The film's sound design is particularly well crafted, and a sparse score and absence of voice-overs lend a balanced narrative distance to an otherwise ceaselessly intimate digital video portrait. Very few documentaries these days are as willing as "Orthodox Stance" to go 12 full rounds with both God and professional sports and not take a single cheap shot.