I stood in a boxing ring at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn’s Dumbo, opposite Yuri Foreman, the onetime World Boxing Association super welterweight world champion. My left leg was forward; my knees were bent in a “boxing stance.”
“One, two, slip, right upper jab, left hook,” Foreman directed, and I began the sequence, having learned what each of these terms meant only five minutes prior. He shuffled backward around the ring and I pursued, my gloves meeting his pads with a dull thump.
“Don’t move when you punch,” he said.
Before I “slipped,” a defense of thrusting back one hip and dipping below the opponent’s approaching punch, I faltered, having forgotten which way to bend. Did I start this round with my left hand? So that meant I lean right? No. I should go left. I had stopped moving and was standing in a kind of stupor. “Come on,” Foreman beckoned. “One, two.” We began again and I found a rhythm, punching faster, making quick jabs at his palms, which he held up in a mock “Please don’t hit me” pose. Then I made the mistake of deliberating, a violation of Foreman’s No. 1 rule.
“Don’t think,” he said. “The second you think, you get hit.”
Foreman, who is training for a comeback and will fight next on June 3 in Queens, grew up Orthodox Jewish in Belarus when it was still the Soviet Union. His mother worked as a hairdresser and his father as a factory worker. Kids often picked on him. As a boy, his mother signed him up for swimming lessons. Boys taunted him in the shower and beat him up. So, she sent him to boxing instead, at the age of 7, to learn self-defense.
Three years later, Foreman’s parents moved to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union. The family of three struggled to fit in there. His parents cleaned offices and Foreman met them after school to help. His mother became depressed, tired of scraping by on meager wages, distressed that she couldn’t speak Hebrew. Foreman had trouble making friends. He tucked his shirts into his pants like a Russian boy, making him an easy target for bullying.
“It was kind of a rough patch. We were not very welcomed to begin with, and Russian people are hardheaded,” he said.
On his second day of school, a group of kids his age surrounded him in the hallway by the stairwell. One slapped him. They scratched his face. He fought back and managed to do some damage, but still came home bruised. On Valentine’s Day, the girls in his class paired off with the boys of their choosing and Foreman stood alone in the classroom. The girl who ended up stuck with him rolled her eyes and said the Hebrew equivalent of “Ugh.”
Foreman worked his way to becoming a professional boxer and was chosen on an Israeli team that traveled internationally to fight other teams. They took first place in Cyprus and silver in Italy. He doesn’t think it fair when people peg boxing as a “violent” sport, because all sports contain violence. If it doesn’t, it’s not a real sport. His father used to say to him, “Yuri, if chess is a sport, then masturbation is heavy lifting.”
As he advanced, Foreman didn’t think Israel possessed the boxing opportunities he needed to succeed. He moved to New York at 18 in 1999, a year after his mother died, though he doesn’t discuss why, other than to reiterate that she was depressed.He started training at Gleason’s when he arrived. In a grainy video on its website, Bruce Silverglade, the owner, gives a tour of the space. The frame captures Foreman practicing by himself in the ring. He catches the camera and waves energetically before giving a salute. It’s hard to tell exactly what year it’s from, but Foreman looks young, with a fuller head of wavy blond hair and a smooth forehead. Then Silverglade hints, “We have Yuri Foreman, one of our upcoming fighters that we mentioned earlier. He’s gonna be a champion pretty soon.”
In 2009, Foreman beat Daniel Santos at MGM Grand in Las Vegas to win the WBA super welterweight world championship title as the first Israeli Jew and as a rabbinical student. At the time, he held a perfect score of 27 victories and no losses. No one has knocked out Foreman yet.
His career faltered after he won the world championship with two subsequent losses, including a highly anticipated-turned-contentious fight at Yankee Stadium a year later against Miguel Cotto, where he damaged his knee and lost his champion title. “I was just home for a few weeks; it was depressing,” he told the Forward after the loss. “I was on strong painkillers. The leg was very skinny. I wanted to forget about this as quickly as I could.” He became a fully ordained rabbi, but for now he has put the diploma on the shelf so that he can focus on boxing. He retired in 2013, he told me, to get out of signing a bad contract. He claimed that money came as an afterthought, though when he was 15, he dreamed of becoming rich and marrying a model, which he did (he married Leyla Leidecker, who is both a model and a boxer).
“Wrong move and you’re hit,” Foreman often says. “You have to be alert. You have to be sharp. You have to be a few moves ahead of your opponent. You have to be intellectually very smart and thinking fast and not so much thinking, because if you start thinking, you’re going to get hit.”
That blustery Friday morning, I arrived at the gym at 9 a.m., a few minutes before Foreman. Silverglade told me I needed to sign a waiver, so I looked over the paper that read “I acknowledge my risk of death” and scribbled my name. Then I paid $20 for a day pass.
At Gleason’s, duct tape holds the stuffing inside the seats of the bench presses, and lockers are adorned with peeling Polaroids. One photo is captioned “Baby face killa!!!”
Foreman arrived wearing a snug faded Superman T-shirt, black Adidas pants that hugged his slender calves, and a backpack loaded with two punching pads and gloves. Sometimes there’s a slight gash beside his eye or above his lip from training, but this morning his face was clear. He had been recuperating the past few weeks from bronchitis, which caused him to miss a fight April 20 at Hilton Westchester, the second bout after his comeback at Barclays Center on December 5, 2015, following a two-year retirement. He beat Lenwood Dozier in a unanimous decision of 77–75. He told me he wants to win back the world champion title. The day consisted of a condensed version of Foreman’s own training sessions: Start with jump rope, move to the ring, cool down on the speed bag and end with some abdomen work. At Gleason’s during his own 90-minute training sessions, Foreman draws a small crowd.
On another recent morning, Pedro Saiz, his trainer for the past nine years, a Dominican man who is stockier than Foreman, with kind eyes, remained quiet along the ropes but watched his protégé closely. The other trainer shouted at Foreman: “Don’t back up like that!” “You overstepped.” “Why you stop? Give me five push-ups.”
The amateur boxers hanging on the ropes fist bumped one another after the trainer cracked this last joke. In the open space behind them, others jumped rope in front of a mirror smeared with handprints, or beat Everlast punching bags beneath fluorescent lights.
Foreman left the ring after taking an “action-packed” beating to the head; he moved to the speed bag. Eye level to the contraption, he shifted his weight from each foot as if in a tap dance. His right forearm cranked outward from the elbow and back around as it slapped the pouch, which barely settled before Foreman sent it flying again. Sweat spewed from his arm and splattered the concrete.
I expected Foreman to go easy on me, partly because I have never boxed before, but mainly because I am 4’9” and in high school, my peers lapped me during the mile run, though he didn’t know that. But on the morning of my own lesson, my stomach cramped less than halfway through the three-minute jump rope portion, and Foreman refused my plea to stop.
“Thirty seconds to go,” he said, his brown eyes fixed on the clock behind me. Another trainer stopped to watch. “That’s it. You got it,” Foreman said. I tripped and couldn’t regain the rhythm. I gave up and handed Foreman the rope.
We moved over to sit on the perimeter of the wrestling ring so that he could wrap my hands in hot-pink gauze. He claims he was shy as a boy, but I find that difficult to believe. He often chats about whatever topic wanders into his mind. He likes the color gold. He watches Jessica Jones. In conversation, he bursts seemingly at random with startling, animated gestures. When talking about the commute to Gleason’s, he suddenly slumped in his chair and imitated sleeping passengers. At one point when we were talking, he inched toward me and mimed slapping someone. Another time he lowered his voice an octave, raised his arms and belted out Hebrew gibberish to imitate a rabbi. Though he can seem intimidating, throughout our training he kindly encouraged and even complimented my technique. Still, I have trouble envisioning him as a quiet kid prone to being bullied.
I don’t know how many rounds Foreman kept me in the ring for — maybe three, maybe five. I think a bell rang several times. indicating a break, but I never heard it. As we advanced in the training, and added on to the sequences, Foreman sneaked in a few “ducks” where he would swing his arm at my head, requiring me to squat to avoid the blow. As we danced around the ring, my brain vacillated between feeling numb and hyper-aware. It was at the latter moment when I ducked, too slow, and I felt Foreman’s pads graze my hair. It happened a second time, then, but with stronger contact. “Ah, I almost got you,” Foreman said.
Our time in the ring ended, and I felt a twinge of sadness. Sweat dripped from my hairline — and other places. My thighs hurt. It took a few seconds to catch my breath. I could see why Foreman loved boxing. Anticipate, react, defend, attack, move, pause and observe. And don’t think.
We grabbed Starbucks afterward, and I asked Foreman how he keeps up with those sequences in a real fight. How does he anticipate his opponent’s moves? Know which punch to throw? When to duck? When to pop a hook versus a jab? Yes, my right hand shook so hard that I gave up taking notes, but I was surprisingly baffled more by the mental difficulty of the sport than by the physical toll it took. Foreman looked at me and asked what type of boxer I thought I was. I shrugged. He told me I was a strategist. I like to plot my moves. Sounded about right. He’s more emotional, he said. Sometimes if his opponent provokes him in the ring, he’ll feel the urge to attack — not dissimilar, it seems, to the reaction he had in grade school, when the Israeli kids encircled him.
When I returned home, my right hand still quivering and my abdomen burning, I took the kind of shower I take after a long flight. Alone now, I went over the moves in my head. My sore muscles didn’t stop me from acting out the punches. Double jab. Triple jab. Left, right, left upper jab, right hook. Boom. Foreman’s words reminded me of my bat mitzvah, when I semi-blacked out and chanted flawless Hebrew for over an hour. I have one memory from that morning: looking up from the bimah and seeing my aunt’s face, and that’s it. I knew if I let those symbols on the Torah taunt me, I would screw up in front of, well, everyone. Being 13 and tone-deaf was hard enough.
Don’t think. The second you think, you get hit.
Britta Lokting is the Forward’s culture fellow. Follow her on Twitter, @brittalokting
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