Photographed by Alisdair McLellan
By Mark Simpson (Arena Hommes Plus, Winter-Spring 2011)
‘A few months ago there was a British boxing team training at my gym,’ recalls Yuri Foreman, in his charming, easy-going Russian accent. ‘I saw the young kids, 12, 13, and, well, they looked just like Russians. They all looked very tough, y’know. Tough faces. Wiry bodies. They walk around in the winter in t-shirts!’
They’re hard, I say.
‘Yeah, very hard. They had hard accents too!’
Ah, they must have been Northern. You on the other hand are a very pretty looking Russian. And I don’t mean that as an insult.
‘Haha! Believe me, I’m taking it as a compliment!’
You get the feeling that some boys have taken up boxing because they want their face made a bit uglier, if you know what I mean.
‘Yes, I do.’
You managed to keep your face pretty, Yuri.
‘Yes, they say in boxing you need to be careful of boxers with pretty faces because it means they’ve got good defences. They know how to fight.’
YURI Foreman, the Lion of Zion, the Jewish-Russian Israeli who boxes with a Star of David on his shorts, certainly knows how to fight. How to stand his ground and come first in a world that sometimes seems to want you to come last. The first Jewish WBA champion in 30 years and the first Israeli ever to win a world title (the Israeli VP recently called him up on his cell phone to tell him how proud Israel was of him). The first to box in Yankee Stadium since Muhammad Ali took on Ken Norton in 1976. And in a couple of years time when he finishes his studies of the Talmud and Jewish mysticism – which he takes in the morning, before he goes to Gleason’s gym, Brooklyn, in the afternoon to spar and pummel – he will also be the world’s first professional boxing rabbi.
Some find all this a bit difficult to swallow. The stereotype of Jews as rather more intellectual than physical is a popular one. On his chat show recently an incredulous Jimmy Kimmel demanded of Yuri: ‘I wanna see some proof that you’re Jewish!’ ‘After…,’ Yuri parried, without missing a beat, to loud audience laughter. Yuri is fast on his feet.
Just like Muhammad Ali – a fast-talker and even faster mover who used to brag about having a pretty face and how he was gonna keep it that way. Ali was one of Yuri’s boxing heroes. ‘I watched lot of his boxing tapes. He was a pioneer. He was a new kind of boxer. Y’know, when I was a kid doing shadow boxing I was always trying to kind of imitate him in some kind of way. A heavyweight staying on his toes for 15 rounds. Amazing. Mike Tyson was also a huge hero of mine. Marvin Marvellous Hadler, Ray Leonard. And Rocky Balboa, of course!’
Mike Tyson liked to trash talk – like David Haye the British heavyweight champion who recently got into trouble for saying his upcoming fight against Audley Harrison was going to be “as one-sided as a gang rape”. Has the boxing rabbi ever trash-talked?
‘No, never! I don’t believe in trash talk,’ Yuri asserts, passionately. ‘Boxing is a very physical sport but it’s also a mind game. You have to have a very strong mental and spiritual edge. Sometimes boxers trash talk because they want to impress the audience, and sometimes they do it because they need to pump themselves up. They might be a bit vulnerable there – not so strong. Listen, you can talk all you want but at the end of the day you have to use not your mouth but your fists and brain. Trash talk is for the playground.’
Perhaps this is why his namesake the legendary George Foreman (‘Yuri’ means ‘George’ in Russian), who himself has found God (it happens more than you might think to ex-boxers), approves of Yuri. ‘Everyone tells me that Yuri is just the best man you could ever meet. You don’t hear that about boxers today. Everybody wants to imitate Mike Tyson. But this Yuri Foreman seems to carry the baggage of decency, and I like that about him.’
In fact, while it’s just about possible to beat Yuri in the ring – he lost his WBA title to Miguel Cotto this June at that Yankee Stadium fight after an old knee injury flared up – it’s utterly impossible to dislike him.
Yuri Foreman was born August 5, 1980, in Gomel, second largest city in Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, and the hometown of dimple-chinned Jewish action hero Kirk Douglas’ parents. Just 170 miles south from the birthplace of another heroic Yuri whom Mr Foreman strikes me, only slightly fancifully, as facially resembling: Yuri Gagarin. And barely 50 miles north of Chernobyl which exploded when Yuri was just seven years old, forcing his evacuation to Estonia for three months. So in a sense Yuri was born between the technological highs and lows of the Soviet Union. Which collapsed just a month after his family left for Israel in 1991. ‘It couldn’t live without us!’ he quips.
Yuri took up boxing when he was seven. He had started the sport programme all children had to undertake in the USSR, choosing swimming – but was being bullied by older kids and came home with bruises on his face. His mother wasn’t impressed and took him to a boxing gym. ‘She thought, “Oh, he will just go to boxing for a while and learn enough to see off the bullies,” but it didn’t work out that way of course. I ended up dropping the swimming and took up boxing instead.’ But not before running into one of his Pool Bullies and settling the score, just like in the movies.
Yuri was the youngest in the group of young boxers in Gomel and keen to impress his trainer. ‘I was quite proud when he used me as an example to the older kids – “See how Yuri is hitting the bag non-stop!” In addition to loving the atmosphere – and smell – of the boxing gym, Yuri credits his hero-worship of his trainer with inspiring his love of boxing. ‘He had a very strong personality, was very funny, very strict and very muscly. I didn’t want to let him down. It’s funny because the other day I was reading an interview with him in a newspaper from Belarus, and he told a story I remembered very well. I had my first fight when I was 7 1/2 and I lost the fight. I was in locker room, crying because I was ashamed. He came and comforted me and told me, “You know what? You’re going to be a professional world champion one day.” I was like ‘Wow!’ Again, just like in the movies: Yuri’s life is the kind story of struggle that Hollywood used to love telling.
On arrival in Israel Yuri and the other Russian migrants were greeted at the airport by Israelis with wedges of fresh oranges: ‘I never tasted anything so sweet and delicious before. I thought we had arrived in paradise.’ But pretty soon he realised that Israel wasn’t paradise – at least, not for Russian immigrants in Haifa in the 1990s. School was entirely in Hebrew, and he wasn’t welcome. ‘I had a lot of fights in school. I wasn’t accepted. There was always a gulf between native Israelis and Russian immigrants. At 15-16 I felt they hated me and I wanted to return the favour, y’know?’
His family’s new life was tough. His father got a job cleaning offices which Yuri would help him with after school. In the Summer Yuri worked on construction sites with Arabs, seven days a week. There was no boxing gym in Haifa, the third largest city in Israel. But in a nearby Arab village there was. Young Yuri decided to train there. The Arabs weren’t very welcoming either, to begin with. ‘They set up a sparring match for me with one of their boxers. In the beginning they try to kill you, then they see that you can actually box and defend yourself and so they accepted me. It’s like that in lots of situations in life – they don’t like you to begin with, you’re not welcome, but then they see you can fight and they accept you.’
Yuri had a glittering amateur boxing career in Israel, winning national champion three times. ‘I could have just stayed there and been four or five or six times Israeli champion, but that’s pretty much it. Basically I was stuck with the question, “What do I want to do in my life?” What I wanted was to pursue my dreams, my career. I wanted to be a boxer. And New York is home of boxing. I made a decision. I remember my Dad came home from work and I told him “Dad, I want to move to New York and try my best over there. He was silent for five seconds and then he said, “OK”. And that was it. He bought me my ticket.’
There were no wedges of fresh orange at JFK. Life was even harder in New York. ‘I had always wanted to go to America, and always had big, big idea that when I got there life, for some reason, was not going to be that difficult. Not so difficult as being an immigrant in Israel. But it was MORE difficult, because I didn’t have my family or friends. It was very tough. I had to find a job right away to support myself and found job in Lower Manhattan’s Garment District, pushing clothes racks. Working for my American Dream.’ Yuri worked from 9-6 and then ‘trying really hard not to forget the reason I actually came to the US’ he would force himself to go training at Gleason’s.
There’s a sign on the wall of that gym quoting Virgil: ‘Now whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forth, lace up his gloves, and put up his hands.’ Yuri put up his hands. And loved it. ‘It was like a lot of adrenaline! It was completely different experience for me. In Israel the boxing gyms are very small, with one ring, or no ring and just a few bits and pieces of equipment. Gleason’s has four rings, jump ropes, heavy bags, speed bags. I felt like “I’m in the right place now.” The fact this was the gym they used in Rocky made it all the more exciting for Yuri, who’d named his childhood dog, a Caucasian shepherd, after Sylvester Stallone’s dogged, everyman boxer who just wont quit.
Gleason’s was very well equipped indeed: Yuri met his wife there, Leyla Leidecker a former model from Hungary, and also a featherweight amateur boxer. ‘It’s very much a modern kind of place where you meet your soul-mate,’ he laughs. ‘If you can handle her in the ring you might get along!’ Their first date was in Gleason’s, attending a fight. ‘She’s a very smart girl as well as very beautiful and I’m trying to catch up with her.’ It was Leyla who introduced him to Rabbi Dovber Pinson, who is training Yuri to be a Rabbi. Like his hero Ali, Yuri found his identity through a religious awakening in adulthood.
‘In Israel I stayed away from religion, like my parents who are secular,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t see the point of eating kosher or not using electricity on the Sabbath.’ It was only in the US, cut off from his family and struggling to survive that he started to take an interest in Judaism. ‘I was so physically and emotionally drained that I needed a little bit of spiritual backbone. We could barely afford the rent, we didn’t have much money for food – sometimes in the Summer we would go through winter clothes hoping to find some change in pocket to buy lunch.’
In search of spiritual succour they attended a lecture by the Kabbalist rabbi Pinson. ‘He was explaining that life was like two boxers in the ring sometimes life hits you so hard that you find yourself lying on your back looking at the lights. He said that boxers always find a way to get back on their feet and continue fighting. He didn’t know I was a boxer so I was quite impressed. He was young too. After a while he invited us for a Sabbath dinner. That was cool because I’d never been invited to a Sabbath dinner in Russia or Israel. And here you come to the United States and someone invites you to explore Judaism!’ Yuri’s religious fervour isn’t perhaps so odd in a boxer. After all, ‘religion’ means ‘discipline’ and boxing is nothing if not a disciplined sport that requires, during training, an almost monastic separation from the world.
Yuri is not planning to be a rabbi in a synagogue when he is ordained. ‘I’d like to work with young people. Russian kids in Israel are very far from Judaism. Judaism can help on many levels when you’re growing up, it gives you strength.’
So rabbis can be heroes too?
‘Absolutely. As human beings we are both physical beings and spiritual beings. A rabbi is a spiritual teacher but he should also use his hands – be really physical, because we are living in the physical world.’
As I wind up the interview Yuri enquires earnestly after Ricky Hatton, who has been pictured in the scandal sheets recently taking cocaine and who has just gone into rehab. Being a cynical journalist I suggest he probably went into rehab because his publicist told him to. But Yuri nobly refuses to be contaminated by my cynicism. ‘I really like Ricky,’ he says. ‘He’s a great fighter but very down-to-earth. A People’s Champ. I’d like to think he feels he’s let down his fans and he’d better clean up his act because a lot of kids consider him their hero.’
‘Plus,’ Yuri adds, laughing, ‘I bet he wears a t-shirt in the winter!’
Yuri Foreman may not wear a t-shirt in winter, but he’s plenty hard enough. Hard enough to be soft. And I doubt he’ll ever let his fans down with bad habits. An unusual kind of boxer – and an even rarer kind of hero. The real kind.
© Mark Simpson 2010