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.