By Thomas Hauser
Late last year, two young men made their way through fourteen inches of snow in New York. They were familiar with harsh winters, having spent their early years in the Soviet Union. Then they'd left the cold behind and moved with their families to Israel. For a while, they'd lived under the same roof in Haifa. Later, they'd gone separate ways. Now one lives in New York and the other in London. They hadn't seen each other for four years.
There was an embrace. The snow continued to fall.
"I'm very happy to see you," Roman Greenberg said.
"You've gotten a lot bigger," Yuri Foreman told him.
What made their reunion noteworthy is that Greenberg (left) and Foreman, both Jewish and Israeli citizens, are undefeated professional fighters.
Between 1901 and 1938, there were 26 Jewish world champions, most of them from New York and Chicago. Abe Atell was the first. Benny Leonard and Barney Ross followed. But great Jewish fighters have been few in number. As legendary trainer Ray Arcel once noted, 'Punching people in the head isn't the highest aspiration of the Jewish people.'
The last Jewish world champion was Mike Rossman, who knocked out Victor Galindez of Argentina twenty-five years ago to capture the light-heavyweight title. But in reality, Rossman fought under his mother's maiden name, rather than that of his father-manager Jimmy DiPiano.
"It doesn't matter," Rossman said when the discrepancy was noted. "My mother's a Jew. And in the Jewish religion, whatever your mother is, that's what you is."
That brings us to Roman Greenberg and Yuri Foreman.
Greenberg was born in Russia in 1982 and speaks fluent Russian, Hebrew, German, and English. When he was ten, he moved with his parents and infant brother to Haifa.
"Some parts of my life were not so nice," Greenberg recalls. "When we arrived in Israel, it was quite hard. We lived on the streets; my parents, my little brother Alex, and me. It was not good in Russia, but those early days and nights in Israel were an absolute nightmare. There were times when we had nothing to eat. Those are the experiences that push people to get to the top. You do not even want to remember that something like that happened. My ambition is that my children will not have the same problems I had when I was young."
When Greenberg was eleven, some friends who had started boxing invited him to a gym. Two years later, Roman had his first fight. "It was very exciting and very frightening," he remembers. "But I won on a knockout in eighteen seconds. Then the referee put my hand up in the air and said I won, and I told myself, 'I like this. I want to do this again.'"
Greenberg won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships in Budapest in July 2000. Overall, he compiled an amateur record of 47 wins and 5 losses. "I was knocked out once," he says. "It happened when I was fifteen years old. I fought a guy who was twenty-six and the national light-heavyweight champion. He knocked me down. I got up. He hit me again. And then there was a blackout."
Greenberg turned pro in 2001 after serving for seven months in the Israeli Army. He now divides his time between London and Tel Aviv, where his parents live with his 12-year-old brother.
"You have to be careful in Israel," Greenberg says. "You never know when or where something bad might happen."
Greenberg himself escaped tragedy two years ago when he and some friends wanted to go to a discotheque in Tel Aviv but were short of the funds required for admission. That night, a suicide bomber killed 21 people in the same discotheque and injured hundreds of others. "Sometimes it's good not to have money," Roman acknowledges.
Greenberg is promoted by Evans-Waterman Boxing Promotions. His record stands at 14 wins and 0 losses with 11 knockouts. But critics note that he has fought only one opponent with a winning record, and there's an assumption in some circles that Roman is little more than a promotional gimmick. That view stems in no small measure from the fact that he's white, Jewish (from Israel, no less), and a small heavyweight (221 pounds).
The contrary view is expressed by Robert Waterman, who says, "When I first saw Roman training in Israel in 1999, I saw raw talent. Then he turned pro, and I realized that we were onto something special. Roman has a good boxing mind and incredibly fast hands. None of us claim that he has been fighting world champions. We wouldn't be doing our jobs right if we rushed Roman before he became more skilled as a boxer and matured physically. But in each of his fights, we've stepped up the level of competition to give him a test. And the truth is, based on his experience to date, Roman couldn't be doing any better than he is now. In fact, on three occasions, Roman has fought an opponent that Audley Harrison fought. And each time, Roman won more decisively than Audley won."
Greenberg himself admits, "Soon, I need to fight opponents who have better skills and different kinds of styles to see how I deal with them." Then he adds, "When I move up in class, people will see how good I can be. Size isn't everything. It's what you do with your ability that matters."
Meanwhile, Yuri Foreman is pursuing his ring career on the other side of the Atlantic.
Foreman was born in Belarus in 1980. When he was eleven, his family moved to Haifa. "At first it was difficult," he remembers. "I was missing my friends. And sometimes in Israel, there was discrimination between the Russians and the Jews. The Russians were also Jewish, but the Israelis would call us Russians and say we didn't deserve to be there, so there would be fights in school between the immigrants and the Israelis."
In Israel, Foreman learned the rudiments of the sweet science under the watchful eye of another Russian immigrant who taught adolescents to box in an outdoor lot. There was no ring and no heavy bag.
"They wouldn't give us a gym because we were just Russians," says Foreman. "We went to City Hall and begged for a place to hang a bag and put up a ring. All they told us was, 'Go box with the Arabs.' So finally I went to the Arab gym. The first time I walked in, I saw the stares. In their eyes, there was a lot of hatred. But I needed to box; and boy, did they all want to box me. After a while, the wall that was between us melted. We all wanted the same thing. I traveled with them as teammates. It helped that I won almost all the time. And finally, we became friends."
But outside the ring, there were constant reminders of the divisions within Israeli society. "Sometimes it was hard with the suicide bombings," Foreman says philosophically. "But after so many, it becomes kind of normal. I wasn't scared because I believe in destiny. If you're supposed to be on one of those buses, there's nothing you can do. So when a bombing happens, you feel sad and then you go on with what you have to do."
Foreman compiled a 75-5 amateur record and was a three-time Israeli national amateur champion. Then, like all Israelis, he received notification at age eighteen that he was required to serve in the Israeli Army.
"That would have ended the dream of boxing for me," Yuri remembers. "For three years, no boxing. So the first letter, I ignored it. Then comes a second letter, and I ignore that one too. Finally, I get a blue letter; the one where they say they're coming to pick me up. That was when I left Israel and came to America. Someday, I hope to go back to Israel to visit. But I cannot go now because the Army wants me."
Foreman's first job in New York was in a clothing store in the heart of Manhattan's garment district. He swept the floors, made deliveries, and did whatever else was necessary. Meanwhile, he began training at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn. He turned pro in January 2002 and now has a record of 13 wins against no losses with 6 knockouts. His trainer is Tommy Brooks.
"One of the happiest things in my life is to train with Tommy Brooks," Yuri acknowledges. "In my first fights, I was too amateur, too straight, too open with no head movement. When you go to better competition, the good opponents will take advantage of it. The first few months with Tommy, I had to think to do what he was telling me, like angles and bending and throwing more combinations. Now it's natural to me. I still make mistakes, but I'm making them less."
Foreman is also a newlywed, having married a 29-year-old model from Hungary. They met at Gleason's Gym, where the future Mrs. Foreman was training for her first amateur fight, which she won on a second-round knockout. "There's a big age difference between us," Yuri acknowledges before adding, "There's a big experience difference too."
In truth, neither Greenberg or Foreman is particularly religious. Roman was bar mitzvahed and attended religious schools in his youth but is no longer observant. Yuri has little religious training and admits, "I don't really follow the traditions. I go sometimes to synagogue with my ex-boss from the clothing store, but that's all."
Still, boxing, more than any other sport, thrives on ethnic confrontations. Thus, Greenberg has engendered interest from promoters on both sides of the Atlantic, and Foreman is also considered marketable. Both fighters, in turn, have held onto their Jewish identity for reasons that go beyond the commercial.
"Right now, there is no support for boxing in Israel," says Foreman. "Roman and I had no support at all. If we're successful, it will bring support for boxing in Israel."
And Greenberg adds, "It's important to me that I'm a Jewish fighter. The Jews have had a hard life for all of our history. If there's a Jewish heavyweight champion of the world, it would be good for Jewish people around the world."
But lest one think that Greenberg is too parochial, it's worth noting one final thought from him. "My heroes are Roy Jones and Muhammad Ali," says the heavyweight from Israel. "Roy Jones is from a different planet. I think he's the greatest fighter ever. And Muhammad Ali; what can I say? I like everything about him."
Award winning author Thomas Hauser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org