By Nat Gottlieb, HBO.com
As a member of the orthodox Chabad sect of Brooklyn, Salita (28-0-1, 16 KOs) is bound by rules that most people in the boxing world would consider “distractions.” Because of his religious beliefs Salita is required to take time out from his training to perform ritual prayers three times a day and must eat strictly kosher food, even when he’s on the road.
The toughest of these rules – at least for a boxer — is the Sabbath which is the Jewish day of rest running from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday. Salita cannot train or fight within that time frame, and must also refrain from boxing on as many as 70 Jewish holidays.
Salita doesn’t see any of this as conflicting. “I don’t really move from one world to another and back again, because every person has many facets, and the two cultures have meshed into one,” says the 26-year-old Salita, who fights under the ring alias “Star of David.”
The typical training schedule is anything but, for Salita, who juggles both training and prayer sessions daily. “When I’m at camp, I wake at 6:30 and say a prayer thanking God for all he has done for me. Then I go out for my morning run, have breakfast and after that say Tfillin. To say Tfillin, I have two boxes made of leather and wood. Each box has prayers inside. I put one box on my head and the other on my hand closest to my heart. There are many meanings to Tfillin, and one is that the mind controls the heart’s desires; so if I feel tired and don’t feel like doing my morning run, my head will control my heart and I’ll do the run. It takes 30 minutes to do Tfillin. I do two other prayers, one in the afternoon and one at night, but those are only five minutes long.”
Besides being a genuine contender, Salita has become a unique fight attraction. When he was being promoted by Lou DiBella Entertainment (he’s now with Square Ring), Salita fought many times on DiBella’s Broadway Boxing shows at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Whenever he did, Hassidic Jews would form a large contingent of the audience. In August of 2005, when Salita fought for a minor world title, the Hassidic singer Matisyahu — who blends traditional Jewish themes with Reggae, rock and hip hop — performed while accompanying the boxer from the locker room into the ring.
Needless to say, a fighter with such “baggage” would be a challenge for most trainers, who generally require boxers to adhere to a strict training regime without distractions. Jimmy O’Pharrow, a black former boxer who runs the Starrett City Boxing club in the East New York section of Brooklyn, not only took Salita on when he first began fighting at 13, but the 83-year-old now occasionally goes to the synagogue with him. “Jimmy is an honorary orthodox Jew,” Salita says.
Salita is as devoted to O’Pharrow as he is to his mentor and Rabbi, Zalman Liberow of Flatbush. In fact, the trainer’s words appear at the top of Salita’s website, a quote from O’Pharrow that sums up much about the boxer: “My gym’s like a league of nations. I seen every kind of kid come through the doors, but I ain’t never seen one like this Dimitriy. Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black.”
Salita’s style of fighting was forged in the inner-city environment at Starrett City. “Jimmy runs an old school gym, a ghetto gym,” Salita says. “My style isn’t European, isn’t even American. It’s a city style. It’s black. I don’t know how else to say it. But some of us white boys got it like that. The radio at Starrett was always tuned to HOT 97, blasting a lot of Biggie and Tupac. I think that changed my style. That’s what gave me some rhythm.”
Salita explains that O’Pharrow doesn’t mind work under the restrictions imposed by his religion because he’s such a disciplined fighter. “I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or stay up late at night,” Salita says. “I do everything Jimmy asks me to do, so he doesn’t complain about my time spent with Judaism.”
The first time Salita’s religion had a direct impact on his career was when O’Pharrow took him to the U.S. Nationals in 1997. “There was a conflict with the Sabbath,” Salita says. “I made it to the finals, but I told them I couldn’t fight because it was on a Saturday. They didn’t like my decision at first but then changed the time of my fight until after the heavyweights, which came after sundown. I won the Nationals, but I was not taken to the World Amateur Boxing Championships in Budapest because I couldn’t fight on the Sabbath.”
Like all young boxers, Salita wants to win a professional world title, but he has another mission, too. “A lot of Jews who have been oppressed for years will not speak up in public or on TV, except rabbis, because they’re afraid. Even me, when I first started boxing, some of my friends and family told me to keep it (Judaism) quiet and not cause trouble. But I feel it’s important to talk out about Jewish pride and issues for Jews so other people see that some of the stereotypes – like Jews can’t fight – are wrong,” Salita says.
Once upon a time in America if you said out loud that Jews can’t fight you were at risk of getting a bloody nose. During the so-called “Golden Era” of Jewish boxing in the 1920s and 1930s, sons of immigrants who lived in ghettos were among the best fighters in the world. In fact, Allen Bodner, author of “When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport,” says in his book that, “Jews entered the ranks of American boxing in large numbers and by 1928 were the dominant nationality in professional prizefighting, followed by the Italians and the Irish.”
Among the best of the Jewish boxers was Max Baer, who in 1933 defeated Max Schmeling, the German world champion; Benny Leonard, considered one of the greatest lightweights in history; Barney Ross, winner of titles in three different weight divisions; and “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom, who won the light heavyweight championship in 1932 and fought an incredible 298 times, winning 222. None of them, however, were orthodox Jews.
There is a Yiddish term called “mensch,” which perfectly fits Dimitriy Salita. The dictionary describes a mensch as, “a person of integrity and honor; a person having admirable characteristics such as fortitude and firmness of purpose.” To get to the championship he longs for, Salita will do it his way or no way at all. “I will never compromise my beliefs. Never,” Salita says. “It’s not a question. I have a personal relationship with God. My boxing is such a big part of my life, but it won’t get in the way of my religion. It can’t and it won’t. Anybody who wants a good whuppin’ from me is just going to have to wait until sundown.