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Dmitry Salita enters ring

Courtesy of JewsWeek.com January 6, 2003

by Elie Seckbach

The Kosher knockout

At a November bout in Las Vegas the crowd had to wait.
Why? Because it was Saturday night and Dmitry Salita hadn't recited Havdalah yet. He was waiting for the Sabbath to end. When it did, Salita went into the ring and knocked out his opponent.
Meet Dmitry Salita, the 20-year-old boxing phenom who won't fight on Shabbat.

Dmitry Salita is just 20-years-old but already is raising lots of eyebrows. He's a professional boxer, who keeps kosher, will not fight on the Sabbath, studies with a rabbi and is poised to be the next world champion.

Some call him the kosher knockout, other refer to his as Dmitry "Star of David" Salita, but no matter how you call him one thing is for sure: Salita is among the elite junior welterweight (139 pounds) boxers in America.

Last year he was crowned U.S. Champion for ages 19 and under. His trainer, Jimmy O'pharrow describes him in the following way: "He looks Russian, prays Jewish, fights black."

Bill Caplan who handles the public relations for legendary boxing promoter Bob Arum says about Dmitry: "Good Jewish boxers come along like Haley's comet, once every 71 years. The last time we had a Jewish World Champion was in the 1930's. Back then we had Barney Ross but he quit boxing to join the Marines during World War II." Salita informed me that Ross himself came from an Orthodox family and that he has served as a role model for the young boxer.

Since becoming a professional Salita has had nine fights, winning them all, seven by knockouts. His last fight took place in Las Vegas in November against Ron "The Gambler" Gladdin. Dmitry entered the ring as he always does, with Hava Nagila music blasting in the background. On the left thigh of his blue shorts he had a white Star of David. In less than 90 seconds, a minute twenty-five to be exact, Salita sent "The Gambler" to the canvas. A sharp left uppercut knocked the daylights out of Gladdin. Not bad for Dmitry's first fight to air on HBO.

But what makes Dmitry so special is the fact that he is an observant Jew who keeps kosher and does not fight on the Sabbath, making him one of the few orthodox professional athletes in the world today.

And just so everyone understands the caliber of Salita, his promoter is Bob Arum, the same man who represents World champ Oscar De La Hoya and also represented Mohammed Ali. Salita and Arum came together after a New York rabbi from Chabad called the boxing promoter to tell him about the young Jewish boxer.

Every day Arum gets hundreds of calls from people who tell him they have boxers for him, but this was the first call he had ever received from a rabbi. Arum asked the rabbi to forward him a video of Salita. When he got the tape he took one look at it and signed Dmitry on the spot."

As perhaps a way of saying thanks, Arum has made large contributions to the three Chabad houses in Las Vegas.

Recently I caught up with Salita and had a chance to ask him about his career, benig a role model, and what his future holds:

How does one end up becoming a Jewish boxer? I asked.

"I don't see anything special about it, I understand it's not the usual thing that Jews are supposed to do; it does not fit the stereotype. What I'm doing is out of the box, but I feel proud of it. For me it is the right thing to do."

Dmitry Salita - Winner
"Look, my rabbi does more mitzvahs than I do, but I try to do my share."
-- Dmitry Salita

Salita has been boxing for seven years he says. He originally started out with Karate, but with the encouragement from his older brother Michael he moved onto boxing: "My brother told me to try it out, so I went to City Boxing Club in Brooklyn and I was hooked from day one."

I asked Dmitry how the other boxers, the non-Jewish ones, accept him as an observant Jew given the nature of the sport. "You have to understand, me being observant didn't happen over night; it took a long time. People ask about what they don't understand. Everyone accepts it."

So would you say you're are an ambassador of traditional Jews? "Listen, Jews themselves have to be proud of who they are and their heritage and feel special. If you respect and understand your heritage it will make you respect other people more. It will make you a better person."

What made you want to learn about Judaism? "I realized that as a Jew it's my duty to learn about my religion, my past and do to what's in my ability. Look, my rabbi does more mitzvahs than I do, but I try to do my share."

Dmitry went on to tell me about the first tournament he participated in after he began observing the Sabbath. "I was in Mississippi for the U.S. championships and they changed the times for me, so I could observe the holy day. Then on the morning of the fight, which was Saturday, I had to sign a paper saying I was OK for the fight. I told the lady, I said, "I can't sign that". Everybody kind of heard about me and that I can't fight and were a bit annoyed, so the lady said: "What, you can't even sign this paper?" And this Latin guy who was standing near by, told me, "don't apologize to her. Do what you have to."

Dimity went on to win the U.S. Championship. The papers he did end up signing were autographs for fans.

What is your day like? "I get up in the morning and pray, then I go jogging, go study with a rabbi in Brooklyn, then work out. Boxing requires a 24-hour-a-day commitment."

What was the last thing you studied? "We are going over the Tanya book for the second time. In the last chapter we read about the Alter Rebbe and the 19th of Kislev, the day he was released from the Russian prison, that day was declared Rosh Hashanah for Chassidim."

You were born in the Ukraine, did you observe Judaism there? "We didn't know anything, accept that we were Jewish. There was no freedom of religion during those years."

Do you follow the news from Israel? "Yea, I can only express my opinion as a Jew. It's terrible that the Jewish people have to suffer. After all the past. I pray that things will get better. I have some family there."

Salita's next HBO fight will take place on February 1st. Don't miss it. Don't even be late, because if you're a few minutes late it might be over.

Elie Seckbach is an award winning journalist and a writer/producer for Fox News.

Last update: February 20, 2003
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