Brooklyn Boxer, Via Belarus

By Noah Borenstein

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.
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Yuri Foreman is white and Jewish, and that makes him a rarity in the New York boxing scene. The 23-year-old Foreman, a promising junior middleweight from Brooklyn by way of Belarus and Israel, is one of the few prominent Jewish boxers in the past 50 years, on a short list that includes “Dangerous” Dana Rosenblatt and Tim Puller, aka “The Hebrew Hammer.”

Foreman — who will put his 11-0 record (six knockouts) on the line this Saturday as part of the fight card at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. — welcomes the attention his heritage has received. He understands that it’s all part of what makes him a marketable commodity. He has no desire to be “the great Jewish hope,” but he is proud of his background.

“It’s a lot of money. When you get on top and you’re Jewish and a white kid, it’s like, ‘Ooh,’” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Foreman stands just shy of 6 feet and weighs in at 154 pounds. He spoke to a reporter last week at the Red Brick Gym in East Newark, N.J., still dripping from his training session for the upcoming fight — against Ken Hock (10-3-1, 7 knockouts).

Although not religiously observant, Foreman stands tall as a Jew in the ring. When he fights he dons a Star of David on his trunks, and he sometimes marches into the ring to the music from “Schindler’s List.”

“I like Jewish culture,” he said. “I see the Orthodox, and there are so many synagogues everywhere. I’m living one block away from one…. When I’m watching them, it warms your soul. And the food is the best.”

Born in Gomel, Belarus, Foreman began boxing after watching Mike Tyson’s 1991 fight against Donovan “Razor” Ruddock. A few months later, the 10-year-old Foreman immigrated to Israel with his family. Once they settled in Haifa, Foreman continued to learn the ways of the ring. After posting a 75-5 record as an amateur, Foreman decided he needed to move to the United States to further his boxing career. Foreman, who considers himself Israeli, said he identifies strongly with Judaism.

“I grew up in Israel,” he said. “I was there for nine years. All of my best years I spent there. There is so much hate in the world….. I want people to see that Jews are not bad people.”

Since Foreman signed with promoter Lou DiBella and turned pro in January 2002, he has shown himself to be confident and capable. He is wiry but strong with plenty of punching power; he prides himself on being in great shape. His main obstacle now is making himself a quicker, more mobile fighter, something he has focused on with trainer Tommy Brooks, who has worked with several former champions, including Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.

Foreman seemed well on his way to accomplishing that goal during his sparring sessions at steamy Red Brick. In one set, he bounced off the deadened, duct-taped canvas, commanding the action with quick body shots. In his final session of the day, he went on the defensive, frustrating his opponent by not letting him in too close.

“Every time I see him, he looks better,” said Harold Lederman, who has been a fight judge for more than 30 years and now works as a judge and a columnist for HBO Sports. “He punches harder, has quicker hand speed, and he’s in better condition. He looks like he’s moving his head a little more,” Lederman said.

Foreman, who will occasionally hear a Hebrew phrase or even “Shalom” when he’s in the ring, has been warmly received by fans. At a photo-op at Carnegie Deli last week, he was quick to get into his fighting pose for photographers, but he couldn’t keep the scowl on his face for more than a few seconds without cracking his sweet smile.

It’s that magnetic personality that makes him stand out. He’s quick with a joke (occasionally a Jewish one), engaging and curious. As popular as Prada in the Hamptons, Foreman has only one foe outside of the ring: his previous trainer, Mike Kozlowsky. Foreman said he had a falling out with Kozlowsky because his then-trainer had wanted to micromanage his life outside of the ring. Foreman said that even now, when he runs into Kozlowsky, his former trainer is still upset with him over the split.

Foreman’s manager, Gary Gittelsohn — who has advised or represented several champions and is no longer taking on clients — has only nice things to say about Foreman. “Everyone involved in his career cares very much about him,” Gittelsohn said. “He’s not just another client.”

As relaxed as he is, Foreman only lets a few people into his inner circle: Everyone is a friend, but there are few confidants.

“He’s private,” said Thierry Gourjon, a photographer who has been documenting Foreman since the boxer’s fourth professional fight. “He’ll let you in to a certain extent.”

Foreman spends most of his time with his wife, Leila, a fashion model and amateur featherweight fighter from Hungary whom he met at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. They were married on May 1 in a ceremony at City Hall. Although Foreman speaks three times a week with his father, Andrei, who still lives in Haifa, he has yet to mention the marriage. Foreman thought it would be easier to tell his father about the marriage after the fact, but it hasn’t been. And so he’s been putting it off, against his better judgment.

“I was thinking if I should tell him before [the wedding] or after. I decided to tell him after. Then I’m married, and I said, “If I’m going to tell him that I’m already married a week, maybe he’s going to be hurt.’”

Foreman calls Leila his “best friend.” In their new apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood called DUMBO (an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) they are competing to see who can learn Spanish faster, and they dream of one day fighting on the same card.

Their only disagreement centers on who will be fighting in the main event.

Noah Borenstein lives in New York City.

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