Boxing champ and rabbinical scholar
Yuri Foreman tries to explain how kid born in former Soviet Union, raised in Israeli ghetto can lead such charmed life in US
Yuri Foreman leans over a table in the corner of Gleason’s Gym, a newsboy cap pulled down over his dark, piercing eyes. The thud of heavy bags and the rat-a-tat of speed bags form a mesmerizing rhythm around him, and for a moment he’s at a loss for words.
He just smiles instead, and it’s hard to blame him.
His name will be on the marquee next month for the first fight at the new Yankee Stadium, when he defends his junior middleweight title against Miguel Cotto. He’s married to a Hungarian model and documentary filmmaker who happens to be an exceptional cook. And he is only a couple of years away from finishing a rigorous program to become a rabbi.
Foreman finally breaks the silence, trying to explain how a kid born in the former Soviet Union and raised in an Israeli ghetto can lead such a charmed life in the United States.
“The thing is, the reason why I came here was just because of boxing,” he says. “I became a three-time champion in Israel
and I could see it would never bring me nowhere, and if I want to pursue my dreams I would have to go to the place that boxing is famous, and where I can test my skills. And America, that’s the place where it all happened.”
Last November, on the undercard of the Manny Pacquiao-Cotto match at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, those dreams were realized. At age 29, the soft-spoken kid whose parents told him to take up boxing after bullies beat him up defeated Daniel Santos. He’s the first Orthodox Jew to win a world championship in nearly 75 years.
His face in the days afterward showed the wear and tear, cuts and bruises framing those brown eyes, as he celebrated over lunch at a kosher restaurant in midtown Manhattan.
Seated near him were a trio of people representing the three pillars of his life: Leyla Leidecker, his wife; Rabbi DovBer Pinson, who has guided his spiritual journey; and Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum, who has guided his career inside the ring.
“Nobody has a story like he does,” Arum says. “Usually to master the rabbinical studies that he has, people do nothing else, and he combines it as a world-class athlete. That to my mind is exceptional.”
Foreman’s story begins in Gomel, a city of half a million people on the banks of the Sozh River in Belarus, near the border of Ukraine. Back then, the Iron Curtain still stood resolute, and life was difficult for a working-class Jewish family.
Comforts were scarce, religion prohibited by the government.
Just before the fall of communism, Foreman’s family immigrated to Israel, where his father took low-paying jobs cleaning offices. Yuri was about 11 years old and remembers running home from school so that he could help them out. He was an outsider, just another Russian immigrant to the other Jews. Boxing was the furthest thing from his mind.
“In Israel, boxing is an unpopular sport. There is no exposure,” he says, munching on a chicken sandwich that his wife has prepared. “There are two people who do boxing, Arabs and Russian immigrants. It’s really an immigrant sport, you know?”
'In Israel, boxing is an unpopular sport' (Photo: AP)
Foreman learned to box from another Russian immigrant, but it mostly amounted to some shadowboxing. They had no equipment, no gloves or heavy bags or rings. When they went to Haifa City Hall to ask for space to work out, the woman there told him, “Go box with the Arabs.”
So he did.
He would venture into Arab neighborhoods by himself every Wednesday, feeling incredulous glares cast upon him. He looked different, spoke another language, didn’t fit in. Other kids relished the opportunity to fight him, even though they quickly learned he could hold his own.
“I was going to boxing gyms in Arab villages because they had equipment, they had gyms, you know?” Foreman says. “In the beginning, you just don’t look like them. You don’t look Arab, you look Jew. But boxing is just like any other sport. It closes the difference between nations. After a lot of hard work, we became friends, and I still have a lot of friends over there.”
Beyond the bonds Foreman made, he became an accomplished amateur, and soon heard the call—not of religion, not yet—but of the fame and fortune that can only be found in the United States. He knew that if he wanted to be a champion, he would need to seek out the best trainers and the toughest competition.
So he packed his bags and in 1999, one year after his mother passed away, left his father and friends in Israel for Brooklyn.
He moved in with a trainer he had met in Haifa, Michael Kozlowski, and found a job working in the garment district in Manhattan. He would run from the modest apartment over the Brooklyn Bridge to work, then return after his shift to get in some sparring at Gleason’s, a second-floor gym near the East River that has been home to numerous world champions over the years.
Foreman began to make a name for himself, winning the New York Golden Gloves title. About a year later he turned professional, and remembers making $800 for his first fight.
“By then, people started noticing me—‘There’s Yuri Foreman, he’s a good fighter.’ But turning professional was one thing,” he says. “The financial situation was tough.”
So was his relationship with Kozlowski, whom he characterized as an overbearing trainer whose “win or die” approach became too much to handle. Foreman moved out of the apartment they shared and decided to begin working with another coach, but the split was anything but cordial.
Foreman offers a polite “no comment” when asked about what happened next, then chooses his words carefully while telling his side of the story. Not long after his working relationship with Kozlowski ended, Foreman was visited by a masked gunman who delivered a package with a single bullet in it. The young fighter notified his promoters and the FBI became involved.
Kozlowski says federal agents visited him but denies having anything to do with it. No one was ever charged.
“What I think now is he wants, at this point, he builds this story because he wants to send me back to Russia,” Kozlowski says. “It sounds like a story from a movie. I don’t know.”
Kozlowski still trains at Gleason’s Gym, though the two avoid each other whenever possible.
Foreman eventually met Murray Wilson, a successful New York City restaurateur who had come across his story in The New York Times. Wilson wasn’t looking for a reason to get involved with boxing, but he saw a Jewish kid remarkably similar to himself and made the decision to help support him. Wilson and his partners bought out his contract and started sending Foreman money to get by, with the idea that he could one day pay him back.
Wilson still has never accepted a penny from any of his purses.
“I wanted to see him get his feet on the ground,” Wilson says. “Unfortunately, he became to me like a son. Every fight I turn the other way, I get so nervous.”
Foreman keeps a somber face when he discusses his bumpy road to boxing stardom, approaching the questions about his past in a matter-of-fact manner. But his eyes light up and that boyish smile returns when he remembers seeing Leyla at Gleason’s one afternoon.
She had been working out across the room, and her blond hair immediately caught Foreman’s attention. She was beautiful, a model who had appeared in numerous advertisements and whose career had taken her around the world and dropped her off in Brooklyn.
Call it serendipity. Or perhaps fate.
“I didn’t want to be the guy that, like, you go to a dance floor and there’ll be the prettiest girl and nobody ever invites the prettiest girl to dance,” Foreman says. “And I said, ‘I’m going to invite the prettiest girl.’ The worst-case scenario, she says no.”
Foreman was rebuffed at first. “I thought he was a nice person,” Leyla says, “but you know, I just felt he was younger than me.” Then she finally gave in when Foreman invited her to the Golden Gloves at Madison Square Garden, where he would be fighting for the championship.
“I remember I didn’t have any money to buy a ticket, so I borrowed like, 30 bucks from my friends and I got her a ticket,” Foreman says. “It was pretty much our first date.”
They became inseparable, a pair of immigrants whose story could fit just as snugly in the 1920s as it does today. Leidecker worked on her many film projects while Foreman toiled in the heat of Gleason’s Gym, both trying to make something of themselves.
Leidecker was more spiritual than Foreman back then, and she thought it would be a good idea for him to learn a little more about his roots.
They tried out a synagogue in their Brooklyn neighborhood and happened to walk in on a discussion led by Rabbi Pinson. His talk that day centered around the enduring struggle between good and evil, and he was using boxing as an allegory to make his point. It made sense to the young couple on every level.
“Rabbi Pinson didn’t know I was a boxer,” Foreman says. “After class, he talked to us for a while because we were the new people. Gradually, after a couple of years of studying, I said, ‘Whoa, this really helps me. It focuses me, it gives me inner strength.’ I thought, ‘This is something that I want to explore a little deeper.”’
Foreman decided to embark on a six-year course in rabbinical studies, one of the most intensive programs possible. Long days of training became enmeshed with heavy course work and lengthy, searching Torah studies with Pinson at Yeshiva Iyyun.
He jokes that he could have been a Wall Street lawyer with the all the time it takes, or maybe a doctor. Then he laughs and says, “But I guess we also need spiritual doctors, perhaps.”
His interest lies in Jewish law, while Leidecker is more into mysticism, but Judaism nevertheless strengthened their bond.
It also resulted in this seeming contradiction: A man who makes his living by pummeling other men shouts “Shalom!” and espouses the philosophies of peace and goodwill.
“It’s very important, if you have a dream to be an actor or an athlete, you have to pursue it. Religion should not be something that dictates what you want to be,” Foreman says, recalling a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where the host brought up the same paradox.
The religious community has been supportive, too.
“Rabbi is mainly a teacher, and no one is surprised if someone is a boxer and studying to be a teacher,” Leidecker says. “He’s studying to be a teacher in Judaism, and his main interest is to work with teenagers who are not really religious, so what better way to get them interested than boxing?”
Last week provided a timely example of Foreman’s desire to give back.
Despite being deep in training camp for the biggest fight of his life, Foreman took Tuesday afternoon off and headed to Staten Island, where he gave 35 kids some personal training during a clinic organized by The Atlas Foundation and the Cops & Kids Boxing program.
“Yuri has taught us that being a world champion isn’t just a title, but a responsibility,” says Joel Lion, consul for media at the Israeli Consulate. “And a true winner uses his influence to make a change in the lives of others.”
Foreman finishes his lunch on the little table in the corner of Gleason’s, and looks to a wall on the far side of the room. Posted high above the chipped mirrors used for shadowboxing, where the paint is peeling off the wall, a banner proclaims the home of the WBA world champion.
He shakes his head, almost in disbelief.
The buzz that began in the gym has swept across New York City as June 5 draws near, when Foreman will step between the ropes for the first fight at Yankee Stadium since Muhammad Ali fought Ken Norton on Sept. 28, 1976. There is a billboard for the fight in Times Square and a constant stream of announcements during every home baseball game.
It’s not the same Yankee Stadium where Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and Ray Robinson once plied their trade. That building is a pile of rubble just across the street. But it seems somehow fitting that the first fight in the new stadium features a Jewish fighter, because the first title fight at the old ballpark did likewise: Benny Leonard defeated Lew Tendler on July 23, 1923, just a few months after it opened.
“As far as I’m concerned, Yankee Stadium is the best place for this, particularly the first fight,” says Arum, who also promoted the Ali-Norton fight at the old ballpark. “Long after I’m gone, and he’s gone, people will remember this.”
The fight is an interesting matchup between a former champion in Cotto, beloved by the huge population of Puerto Ricans who reside in the Bronx, and Foreman, a fighter whose incredible back story has finally obscured the critics who panned his defense-first style.
“Every great fighter that transcends the sport a little bit has a great story,” says Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports. “Yuri’s is obviously one of the more compelling ones.
“The question is, though, will he put himself in the limelight as a boxer? It’s one thing to have a great story, it’s another to deliver in the 20-foot square ring.”
Foreman’s slick ability has won him all 28 of his pro fights, but only eight by knockout. And those numbers are a hard sell to network executives like Greenburg who prefer action.
In fact, it took Arum putting Foreman in the co-main event of a pay-per-view show to get him any attention. When he fought for the title, Foreman earned only a shade over $40,000.
“People, I guess, are entitled to their opinions. I don’t have to agree with them,” Foreman says, shrugging. “It’s one thing to see on TV, to watch the fight. It’s one thing actually being in the ring and feeling the punch. On the paper I might not be a power puncher, but believe me, a clean shot connects to the head, it’s a painful, painful thing.”
Foreman jokes that he doesn’t like getting hit, that’s why he prides himself on defense, as he rises from the table at Gleason’s. He has a massage appointment to keep, followed by some rest at home and perhaps a little studying, before he returns to the gym for another workout later in the evening — his whirlwind life careening ahead with no break in sight.
He hefts a green duffel bag over his shoulder and grins again before heading for the door. He’s exactly where he wants to be, happy with his life, proud of what he’s accomplished, with plenty of aspirations still to be realized.
“He’s going to be a great rabbi, he really will. His goal is to go to Israel and run a congregation there,” Arum says, pausing for a moment. “Hopefully, after a few more fights.”