In Round Seven of a boxing match at Yankee Stadium Saturday night, Yuri Foreman sidestepped. His knee buckled, and he fell to the canvas. He limped around the ring, his face contorting as pain surged through his right knee. His wife, a model, screamed at Foreman's befuddled cornermen to stop the fight. Foreman, who was defending his super welterweight belt, was desperate to continue. It was the biggest night of his life. The crowd stood on its feet, admiring his courage. Then he slipped again, hobbling around the ring as Miguel Cotto, a handsome Puerto Rican star, hunted him down.
Leading up to the bout, Foreman's unique personal story had made him a New York media darling and sentimental favorite. As an Orthodox Jew, he's a rarity in the modern world of fisticuffs.
A couple nights earlier, I attended the New York Friar's Club tribute/roast to Bob Arum, the promoter of the Cotto-Foreman "Slugfest at the Stadium." Arum grew up in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn. He is Jewish and he has long craved to promote a Jewish champion. In November 2009, Foreman became the first Orthodox Jew to win a world title since junior welterweight Jackie "Kid" Berg in...1932. Many of the bawdy jokes at the roast poked fun at the current lack of great Jewish athletes.
"It's good we have Foreman," said comedian Stewie Stone to an audience of 400 people, many of whom were old palookas like Tommy Hearns, George Foreman, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, and current stars like Andre Berto and boxer of the decade Manny Pacquiao, a Filipino who stands 5'6.5".
"We don't have many athletes. A Jew gets to 5'6" and we call him 'Stretch.' Manny, you could be a center on a Jewish basketball team." There were many other off-color straight-from-the-Catskills lines involving the Ten Commandments, Manischewitz kosher wine, chopped liver, and the theory that Foreman, who is as pale as the moon, must be the cousin of former heavy weight champion and grill salesman George Foreman.
On fight night, Yuri Foreman, the future rabbi, became the face of Judaism for the hundreds of thousands watching on HBO and the 20,772 fans—mostly Puerto Ricans—in attendance. In the 1920s and '30s about one-third of pro fighters were Jewish, but those days are long gone. Foreman tried to bring back some of their glory by entering the ring to the ancient moaning of the shofar. He wears a yellow Jewish star on his black trunks. He calls himself the "Lion of Zion."
Born in Gamel, Belarus, his father ran a rinky-dink black market operation: he would go to Poland, buy Levis and Nikes, and smuggle them into the Soviet Union and resell them. As a kid, the Soviet athletic system targeted Yuri as a swimmer. He is now 5'11", thin-waisted and broad-shouldered. But as a child he was small, poor, and Jewish, which made him a target for bullies. His mother dragged him to the boxing gym to learn to defend himself. He loved the feel of the place—the smell of the old leather gloves and the punching bags. And when Foreman, who enjoys quoting the Burgess Meredith character in Rocky movies, looked into his trainer's eyes he saw "sheer will power." A year later he confronted one of his tormentors. "I punched him in the face—ba-bam—it made me feel good about myself," he says.
When he was ten, his family was allowed to immigrate to Israel. "The stamp in my passport that said I was Jewish was a curse from heaven," he told me. In Israel his mother and father cleaned office buildings. In the summer and holidays, Foreman worked construction with Arabs from 7 a..m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week. Foreman, an only child, was harassed constantly because of his status as an impoverished outsider. By age 15 he was sent to a boxing gym in the Arab village of Kfar Yassif. "They wanted to take my head off," he says. The Arabs eventually took him in. "After time, the hate and negativity faded away."
Something else happened at age 15, which would have a direct impact on Saturday's title defense: he was in a serious bike accident, in which he severely hurt his right knee. He was in terrible pain for weeks, but his family couldn't afford to send him to a doctor. The injury has lingered for 14 years, but had never caused Foreman problems in the ring.