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God’s Welterweight

God’s Welterweight

This champ sees God in the speed bag, halacha in the heavy bag, and when he does his roadwork on the streets of Midwood, he feels the presence of the divine.

And like the more famous Champ that came before him, one Muhammad Ali, this smaller, very Jewish champ can turn a phrase and deliver some lip.

"Anyone who wants a good whuppin’ from me is just going to have to wait until sundown [on Saturday]," says Dmitriy Salita, the "Star of David," as he’s called in the boxing business.

Salita, a 23-year-old Odessa-born emigre who took up boxing in elementary school to better handle himself against the taunts of kids in his Brooklyn public school, will make the first defense of his North American Boxing Association light-welterweight title next week against Spanish Harlem’s Edgar "El Chamaco" Santa at the Manhattan Center’s Grand Ballroom.

He won the 140-pound championship in August and is unbeaten in 23 professional bouts.

Salita says "my life has not changed at all" since winning the NABA title, save for a few more interviews.

Those interviews often focus on his unique place in boxing history. As far as is known, Salita is the first prominent Jewish boxer in the United States who strictly abides by halacha: only kosher food, no matches or training on Shabbat, daily davening before workouts and regular Torah learning.

"Kid Kosher," they call him.

With quickly recognized natural pugilistic ability, Salita rose through the ranks of amateur boxers, winning a New York Golden Gloves championship.

"I always wanted to be the best," says the fighter known in the emigre community by his Russian nickname, Dima. His success is "God’s blessing," he says.

Salita’s unusual story and outgoing personality (he speaks fluent English, talks like he grew up in Bensonhurst and has created a base of haredi boxing fans, the "Kosher Nostra") have drawn wide media coverage, from the New York dailies and the Washington Post to the hip-hop online magazine and the "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" show on PBS.

The "Odessa Boy" has made the cover of two local Russian-language newspapers. A documentary and Hollywood movie are in the works, he says. Last Chanukah he was invited to the White House for a holiday celebration with the Bush family.

The anomaly of his pious lifestyle and violent way of making a living draw frequent questions: people ask how a God-fearing individual can be in a profession of slugging others with his fists.

"It isn’t a conflict in my mind," Salita says, offering that he’s simply using the gifts God gave him. "For me it’s a form of expression. It’s a contact sport. It’s not violent."

Boxing is something that helped me become religious," he says. "Every time I train it helps me become closer to God. I feel his presence so much more."

"Before every training session and especially before competing, I would say a few prayers to prepare myself," he wrote in an essay published this year.

Salita was raised in a typical, secular Soviet-era family that came to the United States in the early 1990s when he was 9. At 13 he joined the Starrett City Boxing Club in Brooklyn.

"My gym is like a League of Nations," Salita says.

"I seen every kind of kid come through the doors," says Jimmy O’Pharrow, who runs the boxing club, "but I ain’t ever seen one like this Dmitriy. This kid looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black."

By fighting "black," O’Pharrow means that Salita, contradicting the image of white boxers as plodding, technically trained but artistically lacking athletes, has polish and a sense of style.

A year after joining the boxing club, his mother, Lyudmila, was hospitalized with cancer: she died in 1999.

Her hospital roommate was an Orthodox woman whose husband began speaking with Salita about religion.

At first he was wary about entering the religious world. Salita says the first time he visited an Orthodox synagogue with the woman’s husband, he felt "awkward" in the unfamiliar surroundings. But there was an attraction.

"What struck me was that I saw people there from all different walks of life," Salita says.

He kept going back. He made friendships in the frum community. He became a Sabbath observer. Eventually Rabbi Israel Liberow, a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic group, became his manager.

Salita today is a showpiece of American Orthodox Jewry, like senator and former vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman: an example of someone finding professional success while maintaining an observant lifestyle.

He acknowledges the added pressure of being a role model in the spotlight, but adds "it is not necessarily a bad thing."

Salita, who trains year-round in Brooklyn and does his roadwork on the streets of Midwood, transferred to the Fernwood Hotel and Resort in the Poconos three weeks before his Dec. 15 title defense to escape the media glare in New York. He says he likes praying and working out in a bucolic setting.

"It’s a good time for me to reflect," Salita says. "It reconnects me."

The cerebral Salita has set up his own Web site,, and his growing fame has brought him a few product endorsements.

"I make a living," he says, "but not at the level I want to be."

A part-time student at Touro College in Brooklyn, where he majors in business and Jewish studies, he is a student of his sport. Salita points out that one study had 3 percent of American Jewish men making their careers in professional boxing in the early 20th century.

So Salita is following a well-trod path, traditionally taken by newcomers and minority group members in the U.S. If he becomes a world champion, he would be the first Jewish one since light heavyweight Mike Rossman in the late 1970s.

By the time he is about 30, Salita says, he will be a former boxer.

"I want to be involved in business and real estate once my career is over," he says.

Until then, Salita says, "I want to beat some of the biggest names in boxing. My goal is to be world champion and be in the Hall of Fame. I have time to go."

And a few pious whuppins to hand out.

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