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Adam Ritter Talks to
Boxer Yuri Foreman

Opposite Photo: Yuri Foreman
Photo Credit Adam Ritter


Photo Courtesy of Team Foreman

Rabbi Knows Best

It all began in the showers after swim practice.

It was there that perestroika-era Soviet bullies inadvertently triggered the launch of Yuri Foreman's boxing career.

"Older boys beat me up with bags with soap in it," Mr. Foreman recalls, conjuring a pixellating jelly doughnut in my mind's eye.

"I was ashamed that I got beat up," he confesses. "I came home, I was crying."

The American response would of course be to purchase semi-automatic weapons from the Internet and gleefully hunt down the Kubrickian bullies, but Mr. Foreman's family had a more sporting solution; "My mom the next day took me to the boxing gym. My first trainer told me, 'This ain't gonna happen again, I promise.'"

An unblemished professional fighting record of 25 wins (8 by KO) seems to have proven that trainer correct.

Yuri Foreman
Photo Credit Adam Ritter

Tale of the Tape

Hailing from Gomel, Belarus a republic of the former Soviet Union, Yuri, now 27, survived the soap scrape-up to mention nothing of the infamous disaster at nearby Chernobyl, about which he says, "Nobody was safe. They sent me for a month to Estonia, and they said 'Okay the radiation is gone, come back.'" With ever so a trace (a bissel, if you will) of satire, he speculates, "I think it's still there."

Mr. Foreman is hesitant to agree with me when I suggest that perhaps fallout from the reactor meltdown has given him superhuman mutant boxing abilities, similar to Doctor Bruce Banner (Though, he will admit to being an unabashed Hellboy fan).

The Foreman family relocated to northern Israel in 1991, settling in Haifa when Yuri was ten. "We went there and they started a life from scratch," he says.

Rather than the warm embrace of fellow Jews, the Foremans discovered an implicit condescension with which many immigrants are intimately familiar.

"This is the problem in Israel when you immigrate," he explains. "Russians get a little discriminated (against). People are mad because I was dressed differently, I couldn't speak the language - I was learning Hebrew but I couldn't speak it yet. All the Russians coming were poor."

Mr. Foreman adds aphoristically, "In Russia you are a Jew, in Israel you are Russian."

In light of the larger narrative, Yuri concludes, "Look at the news, what's happening right now in Israel…you cannot fight within each other. You have to hold strongly together and fight back."

Photo Courtesy of Team Foreman

Undeterred by the inherent bias of being an immigrant (and sometimes because of it), Yuri spent the next decade sharpening his boxing skills. The tail end of a budding amateur career brought him to Brooklyn in 1999. By 2001 he had become a New York Golden Gloves winner and shortly thereafter, Yuri turned pro in the Junior Middleweight Division.

(Sidebar: One man's Junior Middleweight is another man's Super Welterweight and yet another man's Light Middleweight)

Training at Gleason's Gym in DUMBO led to a different kind of knockout than he may have anticipated; it was there that he met Leyla Leidecker, a fellow boxer and former fashion model from Hungary.

It goes without saying that Mr. Foreman's first impressions were cemented less by the former than the latter. The couple was married in 2003.

My vision of a sweatbox populated with pug-nosed bruisers (based on numerous Rocky montages) is now officially KO'd. "You go in to Gleason's gym, there's so many women. It's like the new pick up place," he assures me.

Unfortunately my doctor has advised me against dating anyone who knocks people out for a living.

Photo Courtesy of Team Foreman

The Opening Bell

Despite his winning record, Yuri found himself financially strapped. "I was always broke. Me and my wife had no money, negative…hundred dollars."

A December 2003 New York Times article about Jewish boxers quoted Yuri as saying, ''A lot of people think professional fighters are all rich, but most of us are all poor.''

Enter local businessmen and boxing fans Alan Cohen and Murray Wilson, who after reading that article decided to buy him out of his existing contract.

His former manager was surprised and took the occasion to inform Mr. Foreman that "'…nobody would ever pay this kind of money to buy you out because you're not worth it.'"

Well, who hasn't heard that zinger at the end of a relationship?

Of his manager's outburst, Mr. Foreman concludes, "He got pissed and he decided to tell me the truth…that 'you are not that good actually.' Maybe I wasn't."

Unless that is, you're the kind of "dilettante" who impulsively categorizes a string of victories over the next five years "good."

With this winning record, a sly sense of humor and demure disposition, what pray tell is his ring nom de guerre? Mike Tyson was "Iron" (or "Kid Dynamite" if you played Punch-Out). Evander Holyfield was the "Real Deal". Eric Esch snapped up "Butterbean".

And Yuri Foreman is….Yuri Foreman.

My suggestions for a nickname do not exactly turn his lights out (James Toney); the "Belarusian Bomber", the "Jewish Jabber", the "Zion Lion" (Bob Marley beat me to it); he isn't moved, and I'm probably risking my health the more I talk.

Sadly, the "Brooklyn Brawler" and the "Russian Nightmare" were taken by wrestlers. Oy vey!

We can only hope the travesty of this namelessness will be remedied soon.


By December 2007, Yuri (then 23-0) had captured the (tongue-twisting) North American Boxing Federation Super Welterweight Championship. Previous NABF title holders include Muhammad "Louisville Lip" Ali (three times) and "Big" George Foreman (twice), both heavyweights.

Contrary to his first manager's murky declaration of his worth, no less than boxing icon Luigi "Lou" Duva compared Yuri to a young "Sugar" Ray Leonard, asserting, "He's a good boxer. A good puncher. He's starting to really get…a real ring generalship."

"You cannot argue with him," Mr. Foreman responds playfully, adding "I love Lou Duva. He's a legend."

Yuri describes his particular fighting style, saying "I look at boxing as to hit or not to get hit," before sagely concluding, "I don't like to get hit."

Are there boxers who LIKE being hit? Yuri explains, "Some people might, they have lots of heart. For them, victory at all costs. They get punched like crazy and they still go forward. That is the reality. I am a more skillful fighter…I like to move and not to get hit."

To get hit or not to get hit; that is the question. The answer often has grim consequences. On the night before we met, welterweight Oscar Diaz, Yuri's good friend, stood up for the 11th round of a grueling battle and after a wrenching yelp, he clutched his head and dropped to the canvas. Emergency surgery was performed to reduce swelling of the brain and Mr. Diaz is now in a coma.

His concern for his comrade evident, Yuri says of Oscar, "He's of Mexican heritage but he's an American fighter. He's known for his heart. And last night, tenth round he collapsed, and now he's in critical condition. This morning I woke up and, WHOA…Right now he's 50-50. He's 26 years old."

Indeed it seems there must be a looming Sword of Damocles over every boxer's head. In the face of such a tragedy does a fighter reconsider his day job?

"If I'm going to think about what happened to other fighters, I would be afraid it's going to be in my mind all the time," Yuri explains. "I don't see the point to think about negative things. Everybody's different."

Counter and Move

Speaking of different, did you hear the one about the Rabbi, the boxer and Raquel Welch?

Wait, scratch that last part.

Rabbis and boxers don't seem like the most natural combination, but then again neither were Jay Leno and Pat Morita in the box office smash, Collision Course, and look how… Well, maybe "Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan" would be a more suitable reference.

After a lifetime of parenthetical association, Mr. Foreman, in the wake of his wife Leyla's conversion and with her encouragement, embarked on a long spiritual voyage, ardently committing to rabbinical studies.

"Living in Israel I was a secular guy. I knew nothing about it and I didn't care. Not that I didn't like it, or didn't like religious people, I just didn't care. I was like please, leave me alone, I'm not interested."

Now Mr. Foreman stalks his prey in the night, but attends Talmudic classes by day, which can lead to soul-searching about the very essence of life.

"Sometimes you need a break to stop it and to reconnect with your own spiritual self. Not your knowledge or intellect…no it's more than that. What's your reason? What are you doing? Where are you going? Where are you heading?"

Sometimes the pursuit of answers begets only more questions; Such as, aren't Judaism and beating people mutually exclusive?

"By law you are not allowed to injure people. But you have to look from a different perspective. I'm doing it as sport, you know? I'm not looking to injure him. I'm looking to box. It's a chess match."

Will he pray for his opponents?

"You're not obligated by law, but boxing is rough. Like right now what's happening with my friend (Oscar). Sometimes you're saying a prayer…me and him are going out of this fight without major wounds."

What would his reality show be called?

"Rabbi Knows Best."

During a recent fight, his opponent's untamed dreadlocks were constantly in his mouth… Was he in trouble because it wasn't kosher?

"When you're in the fight, it bothers you, but you have a bigger fish to fry."

(I credit Mr. Foreman for even responding to that last one.)

To what end will these studies take him?

"God-willing, I can inspire kids. It would inspire a lot of Russian teenagers hopefully, that actually it's a cool thing. I understand how they would feel because I have been just like them."

The Score Card

The ultimate goal of any fighter is naturally to become world champion (except for that ultimate meatball Balboa, who's always trying just to go the distance). Thus the obvious question is whether a title shot will align on the horizon for Mr. Foreman.

In the esoteric labyrinth of pro-boxing sanctioning bodies, a championship match can seem as elusive as that Sonny Liston phantom punch.

"My last three fights," Yuri says, "basically the winner gets the title (match)… Never happened. Now they give me their word of honor."

Of course the often unappreciated benefit of winning a world championship belt is being able to threaten your kids with it when they misbehave. But Yuri assures me that when he and Leyla do have children, they won't use the belt for that purpose.

Mr. Foreman is planning for another fight later this year, but in the meantime, you can catch his upcoming silver screen debut; he will appear as a brawling Russian pugilist who must break Channing Tatum in the aptly titled Dito Montiel movie, Fighting, scheduled for a September 2008 release. Terrence Howard co-stars.

Of the film's fight choreography, Yuri reveals, "Channing Tatum was basically saying, 'Don't hit to the face hard, but body,' he said, 'just unload.' We were going at each other. Once actually, I hit Channing and he was bleeding."

Although I assumed that Mr. Tatum must have cried between takes (I don't really 'Do the Dew'), Mr. Foreman assured me otherwise; "He was the MAN and he didn't complain. Channing Tatum is the nicest guy."

Our time together winding to a close, one final question remained; did Yuri ever again see those swim bastards that Irish-Springed him in the locker room?

"A year later I was with a friend, going home (from the boxing gym) and the same one of the kids who beat me up and another guy - he was bigger - confronted my friend, who was much smaller."

Yuri interrupted the altercation to ask his former nemesis, "Do you remember me?"

The soap scum, his list of victims undoubtedly stout, labored to recollect. Yuri's response; "I punched him, then he ran away. It was funny…I did the revenge!"

Stop by Yuri's website, for more information and fight updates. You can also "do a google" (as John McCain would say) to be greeted by a bounty of blogs, videos and feature articles about the "Wrath of Gomel"…No? A "Kosher Crusher" perhaps?


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