Yuri Foreman, Boxing's Rabbi, Has a Bad Night


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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.

After becoming a three-time national champion in Israel, where the sweet science isn't popular, he was given the chance to come to the United States. He told his dad that boxing was his only hope of escaping poverty and that he had to move to the U.S. to pursue it, "or I would work next to him the rest of my life." His dad scrounged up some money (his mother passed away in 1998) for a one-way ticket. He toiled—"carrying fabric from 34th to 42nd Streets, the most colorful fabric that only Africans buy"—in New York's Garment District during the day, and training at Gleason's Gym at night.

He climbed through the amateur ranks and turned pro. After rejecting Judaism his whole life, Foreman—who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and beloved parrot, Yankel—gradually became inspired to study and he is now a rabbinical student at the Iyyun Institute. "Boxing helps me to be a better Jew," he says. "All this commitment makes me to be more focused."

It sure was a nice story, while it lasted.

Even when healthy Foreman's boxing style can look robotic. But on closer examination it is an awkward mix of a deliberate Soviet style (he is sometimes called "Bore-man") and footwork inspired by Muhammad Ali. Foreman has always been obsessed with Ali and tries to imitate the great champion's fluid, lateral movements. But after Foreman's knee buckled in Round Seven, he couldn't move laterally or pivot off his right leg to land effective punches. Miguel Cotto, who was ahead on all the judges scorecards, made him eat stiff jabs.

Foreman's second fall to the canvas was also the beginning of one of the strangest chain of events in recent boxing history. Foreman's wife freaked and tried to have the fight stopped. A boxing commissioner tried frantically to get the referee's attention to halt the bout, but the ref waved him away, and then a towel was thrown into the ring by Foreman's trainer. Believing the fight was over, a crowd of people entered the ring.

But Foreman wanted to continue, bum knee and all, and the referee insisted the fight would go on. "Suck it up, kid," said referee Arthur Mercante Jr., whose late father had been the ref at the last major fight in the South Bronx, when Muhammad Ali fought at the old Yankee Stadium in 1976. "He was game, there was no need to stop the fight." The stunned crowd seemed to agree with Mercante's verdict and cheered when the action resumed. Foreman was somehow able to gut out the eighth round and even landed some solid blows. Some Israeli flags, hidden for most of the night, started waving frantically in isolated pockets of the stadium.

In Round Nine, at the 42-second mark, Foreman hobbled around the ring. He was hit with a left to the body. He crumpled. Mercante, wearing a baby blue shirt and a black bow tie, waved his arms to indicate the fight's conclusion. The mostly pro-Cotto crowd cheered at the technical knockout and joyfully waved their Puerto Rican flags.

But Foreman had won the respect of everyone. Foreman, now 28-1, told me after the fight that it wasn't the punch that dropped him—it was his weak knee. Meanwhile, in the bowels of the stadium his black bow tie askew, Mercante seemed overwhelmed by the moment and thanked everyone who supported his controversial decision to resume the bout. "They were in the middle of a great fight..."

Cotto (35-2), who was as gracious as ever, joked, "I beat Foreman twice."

"It was a great night," said Foreman, now the former title holder, whose post-fight face looked like hamburger. He tried to smile. He couldn't hide the disappointment in his voice.