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G-D in His Corner

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“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.”

Salita, says his longtime trainer, “looks Russian, prays Jewish, and fights black.”

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.”


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