Yuri Foreman: A Spiritual Journey

Yuri Foreman: HoganPhotos.com
Yuri Foreman: HoganPhotos.com
By Thomas Hauser

On November 14th, on the pay-per-view undercard of the mega-fight between Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto, 29-year-old Yuri Foreman will challenge Daniel Santos for the World Boxing Association 154-pound crown.

Santos-Foreman shapes up as a competitive fight, but there’s a more significant selling point. When the bell rings, Foreman will become the first Israeli citizen ever to fight for a world title. And he’s a rabbinical student to boot.

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 over the past seventy years, there have been few world-class Jewish fighters. As legendary trainer Ray Arcel observed, “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 in 1978 to capture the WBA light-heavyweight title. But Rossman fought under his mother’s maiden name, rather than that of his father-manager Jimmy DiPiano, and there were questions about his authenticity. “It doesn’t matter,” Rossman said when asked about the situation. “My mother’s a Jew. And in the Jewish religion, whatever your mother is, that’s what you is.”

Foreman’s religious identification is on solid ground. He was born in Belarus. When he was eleven, his family moved to Israel.

"At first it was difficult," Yuri recalls. "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 boxing in an outdoor lot. There was no ring; not even a heavy bag. “They wouldn’t give us a gym because we were just Russians,” he remembers. “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. But 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."

In Israel, Foreman compiled a 75-and-5 amateur record and was a three-time national amateur champion. In 2001, he came to New York. His first job in America entailed sweeping floors and making deliveries for a clothing store in Manhattan’s garment district. He also began learning English and is now fluent in three languages (Russian and Hebrew being the other two).

Foreman turned pro in 2002. He’s co-managed by Murray Wilson and Alan Cohen, who were classmates at William Howard Taft High School (class of 1956) in the Bronx. His trainer is Joe Grier.

“If boxing was just a job for me,” Yuri says, “I’d choose a different job because boxing is very tough. But I love boxing. I like training; I like the competition; I like pushing myself to the limit. To me, boxing is an intellectual sport; almost like chess. You make your move; and if you make a wrong move, you pay for it. You have to use your brain very fast. It’s a great sport, and it’s an honor for me to be part of it.”

When Foreman came to the United States he had little religious training and no interest in the rituals of Judaism. He went to synagogue occasionally with his employer, but that was all.

Five years ago, things began to change. “I was struggling financially,” Yuri recalls. “I was feeling the challenges in boxing and with my money situation and my desire to be a good provider for my wife. I realized that I needed to become stronger spiritually so I could become stronger physically.”

Then Foreman men Rabbi Dov Ber Binson.

“He’s a Chabad rabbi, which is orthodox,” Yuri explains. “He started inviting me and my wife to his house for dinner, and things happened from there. I can’t observe something that I don’t understand, so I took my time with the religion. It didn’t make sense to me to eat Kosher and not use electric devices on Shabbos until I understood why. But the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I started studying Judaism seriously, reading books and taking classes with my rabbi. I questioned everything because questioning makes for better understanding. Then, when I understood the reasons for the laws – the Kosher law, the Sabbath law, the family purity law -- I could say, ‘Okay; now it makes sense to me. Now I want to follow these laws.’ My religion doesn’t mean that I do everything right all the time. But it gives me guidance to make my decisions.”
In 2006, at Rabbi Binson’s invitation, Foreman began studying to become a rabbi. “We meet twice a week,” Yuri says. “I’m taking it at my own pace, because my first priority is to be a good provider for my wife and right now that comes from boxing. But the study of Judaism is like a bottomless well for me. It has made me like a tree that grows for years and finally gives fruit. For all of my life, this was inside me. Now it comes out.”

Yuri smiles. “My rabbi says that Brooklyn is the closest thing on earth to Jerusalem. I lived in Israel for eight years, but I didn’t know about Judaism. I had to go into exile in Brooklyn to learn about Judaism.”

In a few more years, Foreman will face a day of reckoning outside the ring. “They’ll test me on everything I know,” he says. “I hope that, at that time, I will become a rabbi.”

But first there’s the matter of Daniel Santos.

Santos will go into his battle against Foreman as the betting favorite. He’s a world-class fighter with a 32-3-1 record and 23 KOs. He won the WBO welterweight title by knocking out Ahmed Kotiev (who’d defeated him by decision in their first encounter). Last year, he knocked out Joachim Alcine to claim the WBA 154-pound crown. Along the way, he has beaten Antonio Margarito and Jose Rivera.

Foreman is a technically sound fighter with a 27-and-0 record. His Achilles heel is a lack of power; eight knockouts with only one of them coming in his last twelve fights. The English equivalent of “Yuri” is “George.” When it comes to punching power, George Foreman and Yuri Foreman are vastly different fighters.

Still, in recent years, Yuri has gone in reasonably tough. His last seven opponents had a composite record of 163 wins against 22 losses with 2 draws. There’s a school of thought that he got a gift decision against Anthony Thompson (the toughest of those opponents) when they met at Madison Square Garden two years ago. But co-manager Murray Wilson, puts the matter in perspective when he says, “I was at the Thompson fight. I saw it as well as anybody else. The judges said that Yuri won it. That’s it; game over. What’s Yuri supposed to do? Jump up and down and complain that he lost?”

More to the point; Santos will be 34 years old when he and Foreman meet on November 14th. He will have been out of action for sixteen months and fought only once in the preceding two years. Also, in mid-August, there were whispers that Santos weighed 194 pounds. In other words, the champion is there to be taken. It’s up to Foreman to do the job.

What would a Foreman victory mean for boxing? Bob Arum (Yuri’s promoter) notes, “Certainly, it would energize a new fan base. Whether that fan base would be large or small, I have no idea. But for me as a Jewish person, to give a young Jewish man from Israel the opportunity to fight for a world championship and then have him win it would be enormously satisfying. I’d consider it one of the most significant achievements of my career.”

Foreman has his own thoughts in that regard. “I see myself as smashing stereotypes,” he says. “I know that, if I win, it will do a lot for boxing in Israel and make many Jewish people proud.”

“But not just Jewish people,” Yuri adds. “Last month, the father of one of the boys I boxed with in the Arab gym called and told me, ‘We follow your career. We’re all rooting for you. We’ll be very proud when you become a champion. After you win, we want you to come to our village for a celebration and we’ll kill the nicest of the sheep for you.”

But will the dinner be kosher?

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (“An Unforgiving Sport”) has just been published by the University of Arkansas Press.
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