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.”