“SOMETIMES the setbacks make us stronger,” says Yuri Foreman, reminiscing about, not only the difficulties during his boxing career, but the struggles throughout his early days in life across Israel and America. But it’s this poverty-stricken past that fuels him and helps maintain his positive outlook, adding, “Sometimes we look at our past to find the strength to keep going in future.”
Foreman, an Orthodox Jew born in former Soviet Republic nation of Belarus, grew up during genuine hardship in Israel. Here, after emigrating at 10 years of age, he helped both his parents in cleaning jobs, while beatings at the hands of bullies had earlier forced his mother to oversee him stepping into an Arabic boxing gym in Haifa.
“My part was just like any immigrant kid,” Foreman explains of his family’s initial problems in Israel. “New school. No language. Fights at school. After school I took a bus to the office building where my parents were working and I was helping them. One thing that I found difficult was that I was aware that my parents were always broke and barely making their ends meet. I always tried to help as much as I could.”
Life is much better for the now 38-year-old, with the move from Israel to the United States, more specifically New York, during his teenage years having proved to be a blessing for him and those around him. He remembers fondly, “Gleason’s Gym is my second home.”
“The first day when I was arriving to New York City from Israel, that’s the gym I went to. Bruce Silverglade [the owner] is almost a father figure to me and one of the most generous people I have ever encountered with a true kindness.”
Swapping the harshness of life in Israel for the prospects of ‘the American dream’ ultimately resulted in ring success. Foreman reached the pinnacle of his career in 2009. At the MGM Grand Garden Arena he outpointed Puerto Rican Daniel Santos over 12 rounds to see the WBA light-middleweight belt wrapped around his waist.
Foreman became the first ever Israeli fighter to achieve world champion status in any division. But what happens next after finally grasping an achievement he often dreamed of during the bleak days back in his homeland?
“And after winning the title, I did experience joy and I was happy. It was really a culmination of years of training and dreaming and at the same time feeling huge honour in representing my country in the squared-circle. But it wasn’t the joy of realisation that felt like ‘wow, I have arrived’ and I completed my boxing mission.”
It was here that Foreman sought more from life, with boxing now at the forefront alongside his religious beliefs, asking himself “what now?” and “where do I go from here?”
“I realised after that, boxing for me is more than just a sport or a profession that I like. Boxing very often is a kind of a vehicle through which I express myself. So at that point I realised that winning a title is not the end.”
Enlightenment for this former world champion came in the form of rabbinical studies, eventually becoming a fully ordained rabbi in 2014. Such a dedicated religious background doesn’t exactly go hand-in-hand with the more dangerous and aggressive nature of prize-fighting. But after a decisive Brooklyn synagogue meeting with rabbi DovBer Pinson upon arriving on American soil, Foreman was instantly intrigued in exploring his Jewish heritage and is now making both interests work in tandem.
“I got very interested in Judaism and wanted to learn in depth,” outlined the fighter now known as ‘The Boxing Rabbi’. “Personally I think sports unite people and being a rabbi perhaps will give me an opportunity to reach out to more people and influence some folks.”
Foreman’s roots are now deeply embedded in America, happily describing it as his “second home” where he has since got married and had three children. Although, Israel is still within his constant thoughts, despite the tough and testing upbringing there, and he “definitely” plans on returning to help spread his message and instil a sense of peace during turbulent times.
“We are metaphysical beings. We are comprised with physicality in body and spirituality in soul. Judaism teaches that humans can attain spiritual heights only through involvement with the physical world. The path of perfecting yourself lies through perfecting the world we live in.”
Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of violence back in his home nation and its surrounding areas, but another senseless act of aggression fell worryingly closer to his adopted doorstep earlier this year.
“Look what happened previously in Pittsburgh,” Foreman states painfully, recalling the tragic synagogue shooting, believed to be the worst anti-Semitic attack in recent US history.
“We mourn the 11 holy souls who were so cruelly torn from our midst, and pray to God to provide strength and comfort to their shocked and grieving families. Their unfathomable pain is shared by the entire Jewish people and all people worldwide.
“It’s shocking and devastating and every Jew feels this sorrow. Our history shows that we Jewish people have been knocked down countless times. We have been rising up each time, again and again and continue to fight.”
Boxing, like any other sport, takes a backseat in the grand scheme of things when such paramount issues come to the fore. But, as the topic of conversation reverts back to the profession in which has given him a better life, Foreman is optimistic yet realistic about what lies ahead.
“Currently I’m in the gym and training. Just like any other sport, but specially so in boxing, mental preparation is a crucial part and it sometimes takes a bit longer than preparing your body. I do plan on fighting. Currently I’m promoter-less so I’ll need to take care of this as well.”
Foreman went into the first defence of his former 154lbs crown in June 2010 against the legendary Miguel Cotto already hampered by an injury and his then braced right knee awkwardly buckled ruing the seventh round of proceedings, signalling at the beginning of the end to the bout.
In a courageous final stand, literally on one leg, Foreman managed to hold off Cotto for another two rounds before the referee was forced to intervene. In light of his efforts the dethroned champion declared: “I’m a world champion, now a former world champion, and you don’t just quit. A world champion needs to keep on fighting.”
That’s the same admirable attitude that saw him return to the ring just nine months after doctors warned him to take at least a year out after undergoing surgery for a torn UCL and meniscus in his right knee, in which torn cartilage around the joint was also removed.
Nearing 40 years of age and following such damaging injury setbacks, Foreman still shrugs off any worries regarding carrying on fighting, claiming, “My knee and all previous injuries are healed and not bothering me at all.”
Looking back fondly on that Yankee Stadium outing against the now retired future Hall of Famer Cotto, despite ultimately relinquishing his world title during a maiden defence, Foreman admits, “It was definitely a learning experience and a lesson.
“It taught me that you need two good knees to fight someone like Cotto,” he jokes. “But memories of Ha’Tikva [the Israeli national anthem] blasting in the Yankee Stadium make me very proud too.”
He should be, no matter how and when his boxing story comes to an end.