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Monday, June 7, 2010

Meet Yuri Foreman: A Champion Boxer And......A Rabbi?

NEW YORK – Yuri Foreman climbs down the steps of the subway to await his train for the short trek from his apartment in Brooklyn to Gleason’s Gym to train. He’s greeted at the bottom of the steps by a billboard with a huge visage of himself, smiling, that is designed to promote his fight for the World Boxing Association super welterweight title on Saturday at Yankee Stadium against Miguel Cotto.
Yuri Foreman, WBA Super Welterweight champion, hits a speed bag in preparation for Saturday's fight.
(Bebeto Matthews/AP)

[Photos: Boxing at Yankee Stadium]

Foreman won the championship by stopping Daniel Santos in November in Las Vegas and will defend it for the first time on Saturday in his adopted hometown as part of the first card at the new stadium.

Nary a soul recognizes him. Foreman anonymously slips onto the train and makes the quick ride to Gleason’s where, amid the cacophony of a bustling gym, he quietly goes about his preparations for his first title defense.

The dichotomy in his life is stark, a world champion professional boxer and an Orthodox Jewish man studying to be a rabbi.

His bicycle is his normal mode of transportation to a fight, an homage of sorts to his simple needs and humble upbringing.

Foreman, 29, is living a life beyond his wildest dreams, despite the fact that there’s no bling hanging from him and his entourage usually just consists of his wife, Leyla.

He was born in Belarus in the former Soviet Union into a poor Jewish family. The family struggled to survive and were often treated like outcasts because of their faith.

Foreman was often harangued by bullies and began taking boxing lessons when he was seven at his mother’s urging in order to defend himself after he was beaten up at a swimming class.

When the family moved to Israel when Foreman was 10, the situation didn’t change much for the better. His father still had to scrimp for work and the family still wasn’t accepted into the community.

In the Soviet Union, the Russians regarded the Foremans as Jews, he explained. In Israel, the Jews regarded them as Russians.

That, though, was the least of Yuri’s concerns. He had become fascinated with boxing and wanted to continue, but couldn’t find a gym or anybody to spar.

He wound up training and sparring at a gym near Haifa with a group of Arab boys, who were all too eager to beat up the Jewish interloper.

“They weren’t really too welcoming,” Foreman said, deadpan. “You kind of had to work on your welcome yourself. You fight, you defend yourself through boxing and after that, you see that people respect you.”

Foreman became good enough that he won three national championships in Israel, but that meant about as much as being the best ice skater in Hawaii. By the time he was 18, he knew he wanted to be a professional boxer and he dreamed of becoming a world champion, but he knew it would be impossible to achieve had he stayed in Israel.

His mother, who urged his first boxing coach to make a man of her son, died and the family continued to struggle financially.

So as a 19 year old, Foreman opted to fly to New York to pursue his dream. He had no connections, little money, few possessions. He left Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel with little more than the clothes on his back and his dream of becoming a champion. The odds weren’t particularly in his favor, but it turned out the relocation to New York was the key move in a rags to riches story that perhaps tops all others in boxing, a sport built on such stories.

“There’s never been anyone with a story like this kid,” promoter Bob Arum said of Foreman.

Foreman quickly assimilated athletically. He won the New York Golden Gloves championship and showed the talent that made him an Israeli champion.

But he had no money and had to work doing manual labor in New York’s garment district, hauling around huge racks of clothes for very low wages in order to survive.

[Photos: Latest images of Yuri Foreman]

His luck soon began to change, though, even as the odds seemed to be stacked against him. He turned professional and had modest success. Training at Gleason’s one day, he spotted a striking blonde woman who interested him.

He approached her, and though she rebuffed his initial advances, she was interested, too. The woman, a Hungarian model and part-time amateur boxer, Leyla Leidecker, would eventually become his wife. She would encourage him in his boxing and push him to understand his spiritual side.

Leidecker searched the Internet for Kabbalah and found a service at a synagogue near their home in Brooklyn. Foreman and Leidecker attended a service by Rabbi DovBer Pinson, who spoke of the similarities between boxing and life.

In 2007, as Foreman was 21-0 and beginning to be noticed by the major boxing sanctioning bodies, he decided to undertake rabbinical studies under Pinson at Yeshiva Iyyun.

It was an incredibly challenging step that hasn’t always been simple. But Foreman’s studies help him to keep his sport in perspective.

And though his style – he’s a boxer who moves and is far better defensively than he is offensively – held him back, the irony of what happened in the last several months is not lost upon him.

When Arum was considering putting Foreman on the undercard of the Manny Pacquiao-Cotto fight on Nov. 14 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, there was much resistance from those who felt he didn’t deserve the spot.

Arum liked what he saw of Foreman and decided to give him the coveted primary undercard spot on the Pacquiao-Cotto card despite the media outcry.

“I always knew he was a good fighter and I wasn’t listening to the big experts who were saying ‘He’s so boring,’ ” Arum said. “We had one guy, one prominent boxing writer, who took it upon himself to call the networks and tell them that if they put (Foreman) on, he would blast them. It was crazy. He went out of his way to hurt the kid.

“I knew the kid was talented and if I could bring that out, get him a championship, a big victory, that I would have in him a tremendously unique story.”

And now he does. Foreman, who only headlined one minor card in the past, suddenly finds himself as the main event in his hometown in one of the biggest cards of the year.

Because of his religious beliefs, he can’t fight until after the Sabbath, which ends at 9:13 p.m. ET on Saturday. So Foreman will pray until 9:13, then leave his hotel and be taken by a police escort to Yankee Stadium while a helicopter with an HBO camera aboard televises the action.

“The change in my life has been incredible,” Foreman said. “To be here, to see my face on the scoreboard (at Yankee Stadium), it’s amazing. I was a young man with a dream. I believed in myself. I believed I could become a world champion. But what has happened to my life has been incredible. I’m very thankful, but it’s crazy. Who would have ever thought this would have happened to me?”


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