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Monday, July 17, 2006

G-D in His Corner

Dmitriy Salita is an Orthodox Jew and a professional fighter. Which raises a question of Talmudic complexity: Can a man who pummels people for a living be holy?

* By Steve Friedman


The contender is in trouble.

“No!” his trainer shouts. “No! Don’t punch like that. What’re you backing up for?”

Isn’t it obvious? Charging him is a skinny, bug-eyed young sparring partner, panting and swinging at the contender’s face with all the violent energy of a man out to prove something.

Dmitriy Salita sidesteps, ducks.

“No!” Salita’s trainer shouts again. “Don’t back up. Stand your ground!”

Salita wants to please his trainer, a hulking man named Harry Keitt who once sparred with Muhammad Ali. But he also wants to protect his face.

Those are just two of the conflicting demands any successful fighter must balance. Relax, but be vigilant. Attack, but stay guarded. Listen to your advisers, but watch out for yourself.

“Don’t back up!” Keitt shouts again. “What’re you backing up for? What’re you backing up for?”

Salita is five-nine, a muscled 155. He has a bristle of reddish hair, brown eyes, and a nose that looks as if it has been broken, though it has not. It is said that in their primes, even in repose, Muhammad Ali radiated joy, Mike Tyson menace. Dmitriy Salita exudes the sad dignity of a melancholy accountant or a very good, very anonymous, slightly troubled hit man.

“Don’t cross your legs,” Keitt yells. “Don’t bend in front of him . . . No! Don’t punch like that. What’re you backing up for? What’re you backing up for?”

Even among fighters, an ambitious and conflicted bunch, Salita’s ambitions and conflicts are more outsize than most. In a sport whose participants often thank Jesus or praise Allah before bowing to Mammon and doing their best to separate opponents from earthly consciousness, Salita is not just a Jew but a deeply observant Jew, involved with one of the world’s most ultra-Orthodox branches of the religion, the Brooklyn-based Chabad Lubavitch. He wants to be a champion, but he yearns to be pious. He lectures schoolchildren about the rewards of prayer, but he wants to hit someone so hard that those who say he isn’t mean enough will shut up once and for all. He wants to inspire others to be better Jews, but he earns his living by pummeling opponents into submission.

It’s a lot to ask of any man. But Salita is only 24, a motherless immigrant fending off failure and expulsion from the only activity at which he has ever distinguished himself. He is undefeated, the seventh-ranked super lightweight in the world, according to the World Boxing Association, but after a near-disastrous performance in Atlantic City in March, he’s facing a professional and existential crisis of sorts. On July 20, he will step into a ring in midtown’s Hammerstein Ballroom for what is shaping up to be a make-or-break fight. Win, and his career and dreams of financial independence will be back on track. Lose, and not only will his professional future be threatened but so will the hopes of all those who see in Salita a gritty and stirring example of Jewish strength.

His fans say he has God on his side. His critics say he’s better as a symbol than as a puncher.

What can he do?

He does what he can. He slides. He ducks. He jabs.

“No,” Keitt shouts. “Stand your ground! Slip and stand your ground!”

Tribal identity and ethnic politics have always played a major role in boxing. African-Americans had Joe Louis and Ali, Irish-Americans Jack Dempsey and Jim Braddock, Italian-Americans the two Rockys (Marciano and Graziano). Today, the connection still holds. Mexican-Americans have lifted Oscar De La Hoya to iconic status. The biggest local draw in New York is “Ireland’s John Duddy,” whose fans plaster news of upcoming bouts on the walls of Celtic pubs all over the city.

Dmitriy Salita is different. He’s Jewish, for one thing, in an era when “professional Jewish athlete” is most likely to serve as a punch line or trivia answer. And unlike great Jewish boxers of the past, who heard the bell as a clarion call to assimilation, not spirituality, Salita is openly devout. Orthodox tenement tough Benjamin Leiner changed his name to Benny Leonard so his mother wouldn’t discover he had taken up prizefighting. When she did learn his secret, she is said to have declared, “A prizefighter you want to be? Is that a life for a respectable man? For a Jew?”

More recent Jewish boxers have strayed even further from religious practice. Or they had far shorter to stray in the first place. Max Baer, the sneering villain of Cinderella Man, fought with a Star of David on his shorts but in fact was raised Catholic (Baer’s Jewish manager apparently encouraged the display for marketing reasons). Mike “the Jewish Bomber” Rossman, the 1978 light heavyweight champion, was born Albert Michael DiPiano and tattooed the Star of David onto the calf of his right leg, in direct violation of the Jewish prohibition against self-mutilation. And for sheer sacrilegious chutzpa, few will ever outdo Vincent Morris Scheer, a New York City Jew who apparently decided he’d be a bigger draw as “Mushy Callahan—the Fighting Newsboy.” Role models? True believers? Feh!

Salita is now the only ranked boxer in the world (and, quite possibly, in history) who keeps kosher, attends shul almost daily, refuses to fight on the Sabbath, wears a fringed garment, or tzitzit, and covers his head when he’s not beating people senseless. He has three nicknames—Dima, the Star of David, and Kid Kosher—and a hard-core fan base of Orthodox Jews who travel to his bouts from Brooklyn and Long Island. They have a nickname too: the Kosher Nostra, naturally. Among Salita’s corporate sponsors are Ecko Unlimited, the urban clothing and accessories company (it donates a percentage of its profits to orphans in Odessa), and Kosher Zone Chefs (which is what it sounds like). After a White House employee read about him, Salita was invited to join George and Laura Bush at the 2004 White House Hanukkah party. There is a photo of the trio on Salita’s Website, which, if you search for it on Google, comes up thusly: “Famous jew boxer . . . !” Salita’s life story is the subject of Golden Boy, a feature film being developed by Jerry Bruckheimer (MOUSE, BRUCK PLAN RING-DING, Variety reported in 2004). Eminem is said to be interested in the starring role.

At least he was said to be interested before the Atlantic City fight in March. That’s when the Star of David was knocked down twice in the first round. That’s when the Kosher Nostra’s idea of a holy warrior and Salita’s hopes for a title shot started to look like unanswered prayers.

That’s why Salita will be fighting for his professional life on Thursday night. His opponent will be a 27-year-old Minnesotan named “Gentleman” Jim Wayka. Unranked at fourteen wins and four losses, Wayka is what an earlier generation of sportswriters might have referred to derisively as a “tomato can” or a “ham-and-egger.” Unfortunately for Salita, so was his Atlantic City opponent. What’s at stake in the match Thursday night isn’t just Salita’s personal ambition or possible climb out of poverty. There’s also the issue of whether the next great Jewish hope is mostly hype. There’s a larger, spiritual question, too. What kind of an Orthodox Jew makes a living trying to rip people’s heads off?

He walks with his legs a little farther apart than most people. His cheekbones are high, almost Asiatic, and might have been inherited from a warrior who swept through his native Ukraine centuries ago. He speaks in a slow, almost funereal manner, except when the subject is boxing or Judaism, when his voice rises slightly and speeds up. He regularly interacts with a mix of uneducated athletes, corporate CEOs, religious leaders, and advertisers who want to use him to reach other people. Consequently, he has mastered at least three handshakes—the conventional grip and release; the more complicated grip, twist, snap, and release; and the grip, half-hug, and shoulder bump. Rocky is his favorite boxing movie. He quotes Jim Carrey. He loves to eat. Sushi. Pasta. “And ice cream. I really like ice cream.” Ungloved, his hands look surprisingly small and soft.

When he’s not training, he’ll wake up at about 9 A.M., make himself a cup of coffee, and check his e-mail. Most mornings he’ll find 10 to 30 messages—notes from friends, questions about boxing, interview requests. Then he’ll put on his tzitzit underneath a T-shirt or sweatshirt, throw on some jeans and running shoes and a baseball cap in lieu of a yarmulke. Then he’ll drive his Lexus—leased with his boxing earnings—to a run-down brick building on Ocean Avenue. This is the Chabad House, where he’ll say morning prayers. He usually doesn’t stay longer than twenty minutes or so. Later, he might pay bills. “I make a good living today,” he says. “But I haven’t made close to what I want.”

He lives in Midwood, a predominantly Jewish section of Brooklyn, in a three-bedroom house with his older brother, Misha. At night, after dinner, he’ll see a movie with a friend, take a stroll on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach with Misha or a cousin. He likes music, everything from hip-hop to Russian music to pop. Eminem is one of his favorite artists. And Jay-Z. And Matisyahu, a.k.a. the Hasidic Rapper. So is Sade. “ ‘Smooth Operator,’ I really like that.” He likes the beach. He likes looking at pretty girls. He likes to go online to check his investments. “On Ameritrade. Lately, I haven’t been looking because the market’s down.” Once a month, he’ll visit a yeshiva and talk to students—little boys to young adults—about how he became religious.

As for a conflict between piety and professional boxing, Salita doesn’t see one. (Nor, when it comes to religions other than Judaism, do many others; Muhammad Ali was a devout Muslim, Evander Holyfield and George Foreman very public Christians. “They seemed to do okay.”) “Most people are not going to be Torah scholars,” Salita says. “It’s no different if I’m a boxer or a writer or a waiter. You do your job, you do as much as you can. Reaching your capabilities and becoming a productive member of society, that’s part of being religious.” He says being religious also means focusing on the task at hand. “And that’s made me a better boxer.”

He knows that some people will never understand what an observant Jew is doing in his line of work, and he’s a little weary of explaining. Besides, it’s not like he took up boxing because he was a Jew or started praying more because he was a boxer. “I love Judaism,” he says. “I love the culture of Judaism, the tzitzit, the tefillin, observing Shabbes, but you have to understand, we had nothing. My parents would buy the bags of fruit. You know the bags—the bananas and oranges and apples no one else wanted, in the 69-cent bag? That’s what we ate. You’ve got to understand where I came from to understand why I’m boxing. Some kids get an education, and that’s beautiful. But this is what happened to me.”

People like to take things out of context, he says. “ ‘You’re religious,’ they ask. ‘How can that be?’ What do they want me to do, quit boxing? If not for boxing, I wouldn’t be able to talk to schools, to talk to kids. I wouldn’t be talking to you.”

He says he knows he’s a role model. “Athletes, especially in boxing, great athletes take on social responsibility. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, as Jim Carrey said in Bruce Almighty.”

Salita couldn’t possibly have imagined this life fifteen years ago. That’s when Aleksander Lekhtman and his wife, Lyudmila Salita, left the port city of Odessa just as Ukraine declared its independence from a collapsing Soviet Union. They took their two boys, Dmitriy, then 9, and Misha, then 18, and Lyudmila’s mother and left behind a tidy house with a large cherry tree in the backyard, careers as an engineer (Aleksander) and accountant (Lyudmila), and a lifetime’s worth of casual but persistent anti-Semitism. Once, when a rumor of a pogrom filtered through the neighborhood, Aleksander bought a pistol. When a classmate called Dmitriy a zhid (the Russian equivalent of kike) and Dmitriy kicked the kid in the groin, Lekhtman told his youngest son he had done the right thing.

The five moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Midwood, a quintessentially American neighborhood, which is to say, a place where immigrants worked long hours at jobs far beneath their skills and children who had arrived a month ago tormented those who showed up last week. “Yeah, I got picked on,” Salita says. “But it was because I had $3 sneakers and $2 slacks. You know, I’d get the other kids yelling, ‘Payless shoes, Payless shoes,’ and throwing food at me. I was the new kid on the block. It’s something all kids go through.”

Four years later, when he was 13, according to the lore that has sprung up around Salita, the boy who would be Kid Kosher ended up at Starrett City Boxing Club in East New York because his parents and older brother were determined that the child learn to fight back. “That makes a good story,” Salita says. “But boxing was never for the purpose of defending myself.”

In school, Salita says, he was shy. “I wasn’t a cool kid, I wasn’t with the in crowd. Let’s put it this way: The prettiest girls in school didn’t know who I was. In the boxing gym, I felt comfortable.” There was also money, or the lack of it. “You know, people come from nothing, and they’re hungry. Some people channel that into going to Harvard. Some people get a car dealership, become successful businessmen. I wanted to prove myself to myself and to other people. I channeled it into boxing. And it so happened I was talented at it.”

Salita was one of the only white people at the gym. The other boys loved to spar with him, though “spar” probably isn’t the right word. He made a game punching bag. “He had that European style,” says Jimmy O’Pharrow, Starrett’s founder and Salita’s longtime trainer. “Stand up straight, that ‘art of self-defense’ stuff. But this is a ferocious country. It’s always been a ferocious country. And I taught him to fight ferocious.” O’Pharrow, who is Catholic, black, and 80 years old, is perhaps the young fighter’s closest friend in the world and a man who rarely utters a sentence that doesn’t seem destined for boldfaced type. Their relationship serves as the emotional linchpin of Golden Boy.

At Starrett’s, the radio was always tuned to Hot 97. Salita shadowboxed to hip-hop—Tupac Shakur, the Fugees, the Notorious B.I.G. “He didn’t fight white boys,” O’Pharrow says. “I had him fighting black boys, Spanish boys, kids who were out to kick his ass. And I taught him how to kick their ass, how to slip and slide, how to fight their way.” Today, as O’Pharrow will tell just about anyone with a notebook, “Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish, and fights black.”

His parents were happy their boy had found something he liked—“They thought it was an after-school activity, like tennis,” Salita says. But when he started arriving home with black eyes, they weren’t so happy. Each of Salita’s parents had a master’s degree. A prizefighter their boy wanted to be?

Over the next few years, Jimmy O would drive Salita to tournaments around the country, often paying the entry fee. Salita remembers the T-shirts each entrant received. “A free T-shirt! That made my day.”

O’Pharrow bought Salita a raincoat when the boy complained about running in the rain. He bought him an air conditioner during one sweltering summer. He told the boy he could be great.

His mother woke Salita at six every morning. He would run to the school yard, then run around the school yard, then run home to shower, then attend school, then back home for some homework and a nap, then the gym, then back home and more homework. One afternoon when he came home after school, he found his mother on the living-room floor, shaking from a seizure. She had breast cancer, and it had spread. Salita was 14.

The next couple years, he woke himself. He still ran, still worked hard in school, still followed Jimmy O’s every bit of advice. But now to his daily itinerary he added trips to Sloan-Kettering hospital, where his mother was spending more and more time. Sometimes he slept there, in his mother’s room.

Jimmy O remembers the day she arrived outside the gym in her car. Soon she would be back in the hospital for good. Times before, when she wanted to say something to Jimmy O, she had left the car. Today she waved. It hurt too much to walk. She called Jimmy O to the car window.

“I want you to take care of my boy,” she said.

She shared a hospital room in the last months of her life. Her roommate was an Orthodox Jewish woman. It was that woman’s husband who called another woman, and that woman called a rabbi to speak of the young boy who had one afternoon in the hospital room proclaimed his plan to be a world-champion boxer. The rabbi called Salita. Did he want to talk?

Salita’s family, like many Soviet Jews, was not observant. There were no weekly trips to the synagogue, no Friday-night candles, no Passover seders. He had a “Russian style” bar mitzvah. It was held in a Russian restaurant, now closed, in Brooklyn. There was a cake with thirteen candles. There were no prayers. Salita wore a yarmulke and a band played “the mazel tov song.”

“The mazel tov song?” I ask.

“You know. ‘Da-dum-da. Mazel tov, mazel tov, mazel tov.’ ”

Still, Dmitriy met the rabbi. Why? Because he was a lonely immigrant who didn’t fit in at school? Because his mother was dying? Because even though he’d never been religious, he’d always thought himself a Jew, had been so enamored of the religious freedom he saw in his adopted country that he had himself circumcised a few months before his bar mitzvah? (His uncle did the same thing at age 55.) Because, he says, “I always believed in God, and had a personal spiritual relationship with Him.”

In 1998, Salita won a bronze medal in the national Junior Olympics, “to show my mother I could do this at the highest level.” Shortly thereafter, Lyudmila died. Every day for the next eleven months, Dmitriy went to shul to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Not just any shul, but the Chabad House on Ocean Avenue. Chabad Lubavitch is a sect of Hasidism, a populist Jewish movement emphasizing spiritual revival that began in Eastern Europe during the eighteenth century. Based in Crown Heights, the Chabad Lubavitch utilize telethons, the Internet, and loudspeaker-equipped vans (“Mitzvah Tanks”) in the quest to save Jewish souls. Salita didn’t go because he thought his soul needed saving. He went because his mother was dead, and the Chabad House is where the rabbi who had called him taught.

After eleven months, Salita continued to go to the Chabad House, sometimes for just a few minutes. He wrapped tefillin around his arm and forehead, then said morning prayers. Much of the time, he had no idea what was being said.

“It wasn’t crazy,” he says. “I don’t want you to paint a picture that I was crazy religious from the beginning. I ate French fries and cheeseburgers. It was very step-by-step. If it felt uncomfortable, I took a step back.”

He made deals with himself. After one boxing tournament, he went to both Friday-night and Saturday-morning Sabbath services. After another, he shut off his computer Friday at sundown and kept it off until Saturday night. One weekend, he kept the television off. A few weeks later, he avoided talking on the telephone.

The better he fought, the more observant he became. The more observant he became, the better he fought. When he was 17, he won a silver medal in the U.S. Nationals, and the next year, a gold.

In 2001, the day after he turned 19, he won New York’s Golden Gloves title as a junior welterweight (the same as super lightweight—up to 140 pounds), along with the Sugar Ray Robinson Award for outstanding fighter of the tournament.

He turned professional in June 2001, signing with Bob Arum, and, with Jimmy O’s blessing, left Starrett’s and started working out at Brooklyn’s fabled Gleason’s Gym so he could train under the tutelage of Hector Roca, who has taught thirteen world champions.

From sundown Friday until sundown Saturday he refused to work or turn on the lights or even punch an elevator button. He attended Friday-night services and chose not to fight on the Sabbath. Friday-night fights are a staple of the boxing world, and if he hadn’t been so observant, Salita certainly would have landed more televised matches and made more money.

There were other problems, too. When Salita signed with Arum in 2001, he expected big arenas and big fights in New York City, where his fan base was. Instead, he found himself trading punches in Nevada, in Arizona, once even in Puerto Rico. He had hoped for exposure on HBO but ended up on regional stations “geared to the Hispanic market. A few times at the press conference, I had to speak Spanish.”

He fought nineteen times for Arum and won nineteen times. “And I was able to support myself, but things didn’t work out like we expected.”

Kid Kosher was ready for a change, and when his contract expired three years ago, Salita signed with Lou DiBella, a former executive at HBO Boxing and the creator of Broadway Boxing, a venture dedicated to presenting New York–based fights.

Salita knows that his commercial success is owed in part to his novelty. “It was a combination of being good and being the white, Jewish guy. But I won the nationals, I won the Golden Gloves, I won the Sugar Ray Robinson Award. I’ve won inner-city tournaments for as long as I’ve been fighting. I’ve been through the mill.”

Last August, he scored a technical knockout over Shawn Gallegos, and Salita thought he was poised for the success he had anticipated. “The plan for after that was to fight on a big pay-per-view card,” Salita told me last winter. “But that didn’t happen. And there was talk of a Madison Square Garden fight, but that didn’t happen.”

Some of Salita’s fans said Salita was too good, that top fighters were ducking matches against him. Others said he wasn’t good enough. “The people in his corner, they believe in him,” says Bert Sugar, the former editor of The Ring magazine (“the Bible of Boxing”) and Boxing Hall of Fame historian. “They’re rabid. But they’re cheering more from their heart than their heads. I don’t think he’ll ever be an exceptional fighter. But boxing needs its heroes, and right now, there aren’t many. He can be a hero.”

In December, Salita earned a unanimous decision over junior welterweight journeyman Robert Frankel, but Salita fought in desultory fashion, even got knocked down in the first round. “It was like I was just showing up at the office,” he says. “I was going through the motions. I just didn’t step it up.” People who said he didn’t hit hard enough said it again.

“Yeah, it irritated me,” Salita says. He says that because he’s a technically proficient boxer, people think he lacks the requisite hostility. Yes, he would like to shut those people up with some more knockouts. “But I wasn’t as aggressive as I should have been in my past two fights. I need to get back to my old style. I know there will always be critics, and I have to accept that. All I can do is the best I can, to pray and do the best I can.”

The Frankel performance didn’t help his career, but it didn’t derail it, either. On March 18, he fought in Atlantic City at the top of the undercard for the James Toney– Hasim Rahman heavyweight title bout. A victory, and the exposure it would bring, would get him that much closer to a title shot for the junior welterweight championship—and a healthy payday. “Half a million if it were televised, and in a place like Madison Square Garden,” Salita says. “Or at least a quarter of a million.”

Ramon Montano knocked Salita down twice in the first round. And though Salita came back, counterpunching his way to an unpopular draw, he was shaken.

He wore sunglasses at the press conference. Later, in his hotel room, he rose slowly and stiffly to greet the stream of well-wishers and gawkers, speaking softly and politely to each. His face was swollen and bruised and lumpy.

“You scared me in the first round,” a visitor said.

“Hey,” Salita replied, “I scared me.”

Four days later, Salita and I met for lunch in Brooklyn. Beneath each of his eyes were purpling bruises. On each cheek, healing cuts. His right ear was still swollen and crimson. He wore a baseball cap and a blue-and-white striped sweatshirt over a gray T-shirt and baggy jeans and blue-and-white running shoes. Peeking from beneath his sweatshirt were the fringes of his tzitzit.

He said he was discouraged. He said he wasn’t sure what to do. He thought maybe he should move up a weight class to welterweight. He said he thought he might have gotten knocked down twice because he was weak from such rapid weight loss. (“I don’t think it had anything to do with weight,” O’Pharrow told me later. “It had to do with stupidity. He got caught with two good shots. But he showed he had some balls.”)

Salita said Jimmy O had advised him to take some time off, to think, take a trip to Israel. Instead, he thought he’d head down to Miami Beach. “There’s great food there,” he said. “And pretty girls.”

After fighters get knocked down, Salita told me as he dug into his sushi, “they’re either never the same or they’re better. I ask and pray to God that I’m headed in the right direction.”

We ate in silence for a while. To break the quiet, I asked him about a horrible boxing story I had just read in the newspaper.

The same night Salita boxed his way to a draw, a welterweight named Kevin Payne endured a brutal eight-round pummeling in Evansville, Indiana, on his way to a victory in a split decision over Ryan Maraldo. The next morning, Payne died after surgery to relieve swelling in his brain. His neck was also broken.

“Yeah, I knocked out the guy who killed Payne,” Salita says in his quiet, respectful way. “Knocked him out in the third round.”

After lunch, he drove me to a subway station, and along the way, we talked again about the odd intersection of professional violence and personal piety.

Salita said he would rather inspire a child to be religious than to fight. “One hundred percent,” he said. “It’s not even a question.”

He asked if I would mind stopping for a minute at the Chabad House, and when we got there, he asked if I wanted to come inside. There, one of the yeshiva students asked if I would put on the phylacteries and recite the Shema with him.

Later, in the car, I mentioned to Salita that I hadn’t spoken Hebrew in a while.

“That’s the first time you’ve put on the tefillin?” he asked.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Then that’s a good thing for you.” For a Lubavitcher to lead a nonobservant Jew to be more Jewish is considered a mitzvah. “And a good thing for me too.”

Four months later, we’re driving in Salita’s Lexus to a kosher restaurant in Brooklyn. The workout with Keitt is over. The July 20 fight, which will be televised on FSNY (“The network that doesn’t pay me anything,” Salita says), is still a month away. Tonight, before he goes to sleep, Salita will take a walk. He’ll call Jimmy O, as he does every day. Next week, he’ll drive up to training camp in the Poconos.

After Atlantic City, Salita left Gleason’s and returned to Starrett’s, “to get hungry again, to remember who I was—like Rocky when he went back to the Philadelphia gym in Rocky III.”

He has decided to fight as a welterweight. He began training again with Jimmy O and the old man’s surrogates like Harry Keitt. His friends say he hasn’t been this happy, or focused, since he and Jimmy O were driving around the country to tournaments, collecting victories and T-shirts.

His cell phone rings. Salita answers, speaks in Russian. It’s his father, who is at Sears. He has some questions about the pots and pans he is buying for his son to take with him to the Poconos. Salita will do his own cooking. There aren’t many kosher restaurants near Bushkill, Pennsylvania. (Once, when he was putting on tefillin in his room at training camp, another boxer looked in and asked what Salita was doing. Salita told him. “Oh,” the other boxer said, “I thought you were hooking up to the Internet.”)

Salita says he’d like to be able to afford a chef for future training camps. He would like to buy a house in Brooklyn and an apartment in Miami Beach “with a water view.” He would like to be featured as the main event at Madison Square Garden. “My long-term goal in boxing is, if I choose, I’ll never have to work again. And I’d like to be able to help my brother and my father. And there are a lot of unaffiliated Russian Jews around here. There are a lot of things that could be done.”

He says that after this fight, he’ll go back to junior welterweight, because now that he’s training with Jimmy O again, he’s confident he can keep his strength. Plus he’s looked at that division and says he can win it.

But first, he’s got to win Thursday night.

“I’m on the verge of a breakout fight,” Salita says as we pull up to the restaurant. “You know what I mean? You pass the test or you don’t.”

His most fervent fans say he has already passed. “Dmitriy has been a champion since the day he laced up and said he wouldn’t fight on Shabbat,” Salita’s publicist and fellow Lubavitcher told me. “He fights for a higher power.”

Jimmy O sees things a different way. “You go to shul to pray to God,” he says. “But in the ring, you’re alone. And if God gets in the ring with you, you kick His ass.”

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