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Jab With a Left, Hook With a Right: Orthodox Boxer Packs a Punch
The June 9 win was just another day at the office for Dmitriy "Star of David" Salita, 23, who advanced to a perfect 22-0 record. In 2001, he won the New York Golden Gloves championship at 139 pounds, and in 2002, he fought on HBO pay-per-view. ESPN.com even noted Salita as a rising star in its list of Boxing's Best of 2004.
Not bad for a nice Jewish boy.
Unlike most fighters, Salita practices Orthodox Judaism: He keeps kosher, refuses to fight or train on the Sabbath, and walks into the ring to the sounds of Chasidic reggae rapper Matisyahu (nee Matthew Miller).
Much like religious fighters Muhammad Ali and George Foreman before him, Salita, a junior welterweight, says that he's been able to utilize his faith to influence his success in the ring.
"I was always very spiritual," says Salita. "I just never channeled it in the way it should be channeled."
Fit for Hollywood?
His story is so compelling that Jerry Bruckheimer has taken an option on it for a movie about his life, tentatively called "Golden Boy."
So who's going to play Salita?
Although not Jewish, rapper Eminem has been reported to be in line to play the part, and has reportedly been training with Emanual Steward, who produced recent champion Lennox Lewis.
"To me, it's a rumor, like it is to anyone else. I haven't heard anything official," says Salita. "I hope that Matisyahu will make it on the soundtrack."
Salita's story begins in Odessa, Ukraine, where he lived until he was 9. Although he never felt much anti-Semitism in his native land, he realized that it was in the air.
"I remember the fact that Jews weren't free to let people know that they were Jewish," he explains. "It was difficult for them to get the better jobs, even if they were qualified for it."
Salita's parents then moved the whole family to Brooklyn, N.Y. Once they arrived, young Dmitriy ended up at Starrett City Gym, which was predominately filled with African-American and Puerto Rican fighters who demanded that the newcomer, a skinny white boy with a foreign accent, earn their respect, retells the boxer.
"It was like an initiation process," he recalls. "Being the new kid on the block, you have to show that you have heart and skill. You got to whup some butt."
A turning point in his life came when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer; Dmitriy was just a teenager.
While visiting her in the hospital, he also talked with the patient sharing his mother's room. She was a member of Chabad Lubavitch, and encouraged him to go to shul. Salita took her advice; after visiting the hospital, he would stop by the local synagogue and pray for his mother's safe recovery.
"The synagogue was very close to my house. I started taking small steps [toward being more observant]."
When he was 17, his mother lost her battle with the disease, making Salita delve even more deeply into his Judaism.
"I don't believe things happen in my life just by accident," he says.
His thirst for boxing has also intensified over the years, and his skills have flourished.
Salita earned the respect of his peers at the gym and turned professional. Ten years later, he's one of the sport's highest-regarded young prospects.
Last December, Salita was even invited to the White House for the annual Chanukah party, where he met President Bush.
"I didn't expect that at this stage of my career," he says. "He wished me luck and said he'd follow my career. It's very motivational to hear that from the leader of the free world."
Aside from boxing and religion, Salita also takes pride in reaching out to the Jewish community. He was in Philadelphia on June 23 to talk with some alumni from the Birthright Israel program. He met the group at an appropriate place - the National Museum of American Jewish History, at the Sting-Like-a-Maccabi exhibit, which displays memorabilia about early 20th-century Jewish boxing stars.
Salita listened to the participants' stories about Israel, and chatted with them about boxing and his faith.
After the event, he could not stop marveling at the exhibit.
"A lot of Jews don't know there was Jewish fighters who were considered some of the greatest fighters of all time," says Salita of his predecessors.
He adds with evident pride, "Benny Leonard is the Jewish Muhammad Ali."