Orthodox Stance (2008): Jason Watts’ Tale of Boxing World

Interview with Director Jason Watts

Ethnic Diversity Within the Boxing World

Jason Watts: 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. Its a total meritocracy and theres no real discrimination. Even if youre not a talented boxer, if youre dedicated, youll keep coming back to the gym and youll be respected for that. Boxing has its own codes and they are really based upon very simple things.

Camaraderie among Boxers

JW: People dont understand about boxing that 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, when youre 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 withas well as the self-discipline they have to go through for years and yearsdefinitely breeds camaraderie.

Boxing and Religion

JW: Some sociologists feel 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. Thats why youll 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.

Inter-ethnic Respect within Boxing World

Dmitriy speaks in Spanish to the Hispanic audience in Puerto Rico. That scene is really interesting and pivotal. At the beginning of Dmitriys 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 hes going to deliver his speech in Spanish which, to me, is really fascinating because its obviously a sign of growth and savviness. He is thinking, if Im going to fight in front of a Hispanic audience than Im 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 doesnt have to deliver his speech in Spanish but hes 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 isnt getting the opportunity to fight in front of his own audience. And thats the trajectory and path of Dmitriy in the film: In terms of his boxing life, hes a sort of exiled character who finally has his homecoming in the matches at Brighton Beach and then in Manhattan.

Access in Following Dmitriy

JW: 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 Dmitriys first few fights, I didnt 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 doesnt 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 didnt 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.

Enthusiastic Jewish Fans

This film is not a chronicle of Dmitriys 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 audienceswe 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.

Appeal of Dmitriy Salita

Theres always a need for cultural ethnic heroes, thats just a given. And when youre an immigrant, theres an even greater need. And so the reason there were thousands of Jewish boxers and dozens of Jewish world champions in the twenties and thirties was because there were so many Jewish immigrants. Since there werent 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 hes tough and hes one of us. The same thing went for the Irish and the Italians at the time. Its 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 then was 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 sportsfootball and basketball are much more popular, I think. So I feel that Dmitriys popularity remains to be seen. But clearly, hes very popular in the Orthodox Jewish community because, of course, hes an observant Jew. A lot of the boxers in the olden days came from religious families. Dmitriy, on the other hand, didnt grow up religious at all but decided that he was going to be observant while being a professional boxer. I think thats won him the respect of a tremendous amount of observant and Orthodox Jews because theyre looking at this guy and not only seeing a professional boxer but someone whos just like them in that hes a believer.

Also, 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 doesnt mean that this latest wave of Jewish migration from the former Soviet Union wasnt major. And so thats why you get someone like Dmitriy Salita. Hes a total throwback to that era: Its just that its 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 isnt nearly as popular today as it was then. Back then, if you had a Jewish boxer, everyone knew and everybody cared, but today, thats just not the case.