"There were a lot of things going on the week of the fight," Dmitriy Salita told me while explaining where he has come from since the worst professional night of his life, back on Dec. 5, 2009, when he entered the ring in Newcastle, England, against then-WBA 140-pound champion Amir Khan.
"Fans, people surrounding the fight, the atmosphere was very difficult. They were screaming, 'Death to Israel, death to America,' because we were holding both flags coming to the ring," said the man whose family fled the Ukraine and settled in Brooklyn because of anti-Semitism when he was nine. "As I got into the ring I saw friends and family ringside in a less than comfortable situation [and] by the time I did get in to fight he did what he had to do."
Some will recall that there were charges that Khan supporters showed ethnic bias during a scuffle at the weigh-in before the Khan-Paulie Malignaggi fight, which unfolded in NYC on May 15, 2010. (Note: Please let's not make any leaps or assumptions about Khan. The dealings I've had with him, he's been nothing but respectful and decent, and I have not heard any gossip that he has a dark heart.)
The fight was seen as an unmitigated disaster at the time; it was over in 76 seconds, with Salita going down three times as the ref stopped the bout. "After the fight, there was a mob of about 150 people coming out of locker room, thank god for security," he said.
Skeptical types are quick to dismiss such talk as excuse-making; but in boxing, more than any other sport, your head must be screwed on straight. There are no teammates to lift you up on a mentally-off day.
Salita points out that he's been in the mix for many other high-profile fights, against Oscar De La Hoya, Arturo Gatti, Gavin Rees, Andriy Kotelnik, Vyacheslav Senchenko, and a fight against Mike Anchondo scheduled for late December got scotched at the 11th hour. "For some reason a lot of guys are given a lot of chances," he said, "I'm trying to get that shot. All I can do is what I can do."
Salita has been training in Detroit, at Kronk, since after the Khan debacle. He told me he knows it'd be smart to book a bout quickly, get a W, generate some buzz, to minimize some of that naysaying. To a point, he understands the skepticism among fans but also, there is a part of him that is mildly hurt. "People are very judgmental by nature," he said. "My story and background, my family was on welfare and food stamps after coming from the Ukraine in 1991, then my mother passed away in 1999. As a young boy, it was very difficult for me. But my first day in the gym I liked it, and I won the Gloves, and as a pro I did the best I could under difficult circumstances.
"I don't sell drugs, play with guns, do no criminal things. But because I am soft-spoken, people take my kindness as weakness. My American dream is boxing. I gave my life to boxing, other powers that be that do things I have no control over. The fight makes sense, two Brooklyn guys in a Brooklyn arena."
Not that he has communicated this to me, but I get the sense, maybe I'm wrong, that Malignaggi sees Salita as something of a "soft defense," a high-reward, lower-risk situation. Could that be the case, I asked Salita? "I agree with you," he said. "But Paulie is a man of his word. I admire Paulie, and I'd appreciate him giving me the opportunity." That admiration, he said, would not keep him from trying to knock his head off at Barclays, he pointed out.
If I get a vote, I say give the kid a chance. Redemption, second chances, that's what boxing, in a very big way, is all about.