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Yuri Foreman’s long road to his title shot

12
Nov

LAS VEGAS – To say that Foreman was born to be a boxer is not a stretch: Yuri is the Russian version of George. So, yes, his actual name is George Foreman.

The path the Belarus-born Foreman took to big-time boxing is nothing like that of his famous predecessor, though. This Foreman’s story is unusual even by boxing's unusual standards, playing out on three continents and seeing him become so devoted to his religion that he wants to become a rabbi.

And now he’s realizing a life-long dream: He fights Daniel Santos for Santos’ junior middleweight title on the Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto undercard Saturday at the MGM Grand.

“I remember when I was a kid in Israel,” he said. “A trainer asked me, ‘Why do you want to box? I said, ‘because I want to be a world champion.’ That always stuck in my head. It was, for me, just something I had to do.”

Foreman’s journey began in Belarus, where he was born into a Jewish family when the Eastern European country was part of the Soviet Union.

The Russian-speaking boy took up boxing after he was beaten up by a bully when he was 7 years old and all of 60 pounds. Immediately, he said, he fell in love with the sights, sounds and smell of the gym and vowed to become a champion.

The dream seemed to be dashed about three years later when his family immigrated to Israel and settled in the northern coastal town of Haifa, which has no boxing gyms. The closest one was in the Arab village of Kfar Yasif about an hour away, which was prohibitive on more than one level. His parents could provide neither the transportation nor the money to make the trip and there were obvious concerns about a young Jew traveling to an Arab town.

The only fighting Foreman did was in the streets, where he encountered discrimination because of his Russian background. Still, he never gave up on his boxing career and finally took matters into his own hands when he turned 16.

“A friend of mine had a car,” he said. “So we went to the gym and trained. The traffic was horrible but I wanted to do it. I was 16. What could my parents do?”

At first, the Arabs were leery of the Jewish boxer. Foreman felt dozens of glaring eyes on him as he hit the heavy bag. But he was always respectful, introducing himself to his Muslim gym mates and shaking their hands.

And when it came time to spar with him, the cold atmosphere turned warmer.

“Once they see you can fight, they respect you,” he said. “I think sports transcends all the differences people have. Walls come down when people like to do similar things. You forget about the Jewish-Muslim-Arab thing.

“They eventually welcomed me into their homes. They were good hosts. They always put me at the head of the table. They do everything for a guest.”

Foreman made regular trips to the gym and thrived there. He ultimately won three national amateur championships in Israel, which is the most-significant accomplishment possible in a country with bigger concerns than boxing.

At that point, in 1999, he had two choices: quit or move to the United States to take the next step in his career. He chose the latter. A trainer he knew from Israel who had moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., set him up with a place to live and a job in the garment district cleaning up and making deliveries.

Foreman worked all day and trained all night, which led to a Golden Gloves title in 2001. But it wasn’t an easy time for him. He knew few people and spoke only limited English, which he learned largely by watching American films in Israel.

And he missed Israel, a longing that exists even today.

“I was already 19,” he said. “It was a big thing, it was very interesting. It was also challenging. I had difficult moments. I worked from like 9 to 6 and then went to the gym. I did this almost every day. It was physically draining, you know, but it was good. I was on my own and I wanted to prove that I could survive without my father nearby.

“I was lonely, very lonely. I came close a few times to just buying a ticket and going back home. I wanted to succeed in boxing, though. That's what kept me here.”

Foreman turned professional in 2002 and slowly built a reputation as an extremely slick boxer who would be difficult for anyone to beat. He appeared to be on his way to realizing his dream of becoming a big-time boxer.

Along the way, he picked up two things: A wife and religion.

Foreman met amateur fighter Leyla Leidecker of Hungary at Gleason’s Gym and the two were married seven years ago. And, with her encouragement, he began to explore the religion into which he was born but about which he knew little.

“I was overwhelmed both physically and mentally,” he said. “I needed some kind of spiritual support. This is when I found my rabbi and started to explore Judaism. I lived in Israel 8, almost 9 years but didn’t really learn much about it. Even the basic things, like shabbos [the Sabbath], what it is eating kosher, the holidays.

“That’s how I got into this mode. It has been really meaningful to me.”

So meaningful that Foreman plans to become a rabbi, not to preside over a congregation but to return to Israel and introduce the religion to immigrant children like himself who have had limited or no exposure to their religious heritage.

This might be a first – a boxing rabbi-to-be. As Jewish promoter Bob Arum said, “Never in my wildest dreams when I started promoting Muhammad Ali did I believe I would put on a card featuring a future rabbi.”

For Foreman, though, it makes perfect sense.

“A lot of immigrants in Israel aren’t educated about being Jewish,” he said. “I think there’s almost a rabbi-phobia. They go to the other side of the street when they see a rabbi. This is how I grew up. Nobody gives you an education.

“I think I can go back and affect many young Russian Jews from the former Soviet Union. That’s something I wish I had.”

First things first, though. There’s that dream of winning a world title.

Santos, a three-time titleholder from Puerto Rico, is a formidable obstacle but not insurmountable. Most experts give Foreman a decent chance of winning. If he does, he would become the first Israeli to win a major title.

And it wouldn’t be for him alone.

“In the beginning, this was a selfish goal,” he said. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I started to be more aware of the bigger picture the more I studied with the rabbi, though. There are many people who have helped me get to where I am, my wife, my family, my father, my manager. It’s not just me. And I want to do this for the Jewish people and Israel. Hopefully, my victory will make boxing more popular there.

“I hope to inspire people. In the yeshiva [school of religious studies], for example, they study 10 to 15 hours a day. They also must develop their bodies, though: Strong body, strong mind.”

Foreman would seem to have both.

Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]