A world champion boxer-turned-rabbi is returning to the ring on a comeback mission this month.
Yuri Foreman, after winning 27 of his first 28 pro fights, won the World Boxing Association’s super welterweight championship title in 2009 in the Las Vegas desert. But his life story began in Gomel, Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, where he was born and started boxing after getting bullied in elementary school.
On June 6 he spoke via Zoom to roughly 100 supporters of the Jewish state during an Israel Bonds program hosted by Chabad houses across the country, including those in Pittsburgh. The event featured the talk with Foreman, followed by a virtual training session for those who purchased at least one $36 Israel Bond.
Foreman, who did not hesitate to break the mold of the stone-faced fighter, laughed when recalling the much-promoted fight between Mike Tyson and Donovan “Razor” Ruddock — the first of two times the heavyweights squared off that year — which he saw shortly before moving to Israel in May 1991.
“I was growing up with Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, all action stars, martial artists,” he said. “When I saw Mike Tyson [fight], I was just blown away. After that fight, I realized I wanted to go to the United States. I wanted to be a world champion.”
In his new home in Haifa, Israel, Foreman continued to develop his nascent boxing skills at gyms in an Arab village where Russian immigrants would serve as trainers and mentors.
During his nine years in Israel as an amateur, Foreman participated in 50 fights and some national tournaments, and took home the Israeli national championship three times.
“But, growing up on ‘Rocky’ movies, I always wanted to try my best in America,” Foreman said.
He moved to Brooklyn in 1999 and started training at the iconic Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, where he estimated about 130 world champions had trained during the establishment’s 84-year history.
“The American dream — it sounds really good, but the reality is you have to work a lot, you really have to have faith in yourself,” Foreman said.
“In sports, it’s not just your physical self. It’s not, ‘How big are your muscles?’ It’s also the soul, it’s the spirit … and that’s what pushes you over obstacles,” he added. “I realized boxing is not all physical [and] that’s when I started looking into my spiritual self — my Jewish roots, so to speak.”
Foreman eventually connected with a synagogue and, under the mentorship of Rabbi DovBer Pinson, started studying Judaism. In 2014, he was ordained a rabbi.
Foreman racked up a 75-5 record as an amateur boxer in New York. After turning pro, on Nov. 14, 2009, he defeated Daniel Santos in a 12-round decision to become a WBA champ — the first hailing from Israel. He lost the belt a year later in a fight with Miguel Cotto, the first fight to take place at the new Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York.
J. Russell Peltz, the Philadelphia-based boxing promoter who gave audiences a history of Jews in boxing before speaking Sunday with the Israeli pugilist, asked Foreman, who is a vegan, about the impact of winning the belt.
He admitted he occasionally wondered if the whole night had been a vivid dream. “It was amazing,” he said. “You have a long-time goal and then you achieve it.”
But rather than looking back, Foreman is keeping his eyes set on his boxing future; he will be back in the ring later this month for a comeback match.
“There’s more bouts out there,” the 40-year-old boxer told Peltz. “The fire is still burning. I still have this childhood dream to do my best and win it again … the fire in my chest burns as ever before.”
The former champ was quick to point out to viewers, though, that not every day is happiness and sunshine for professional athletes.
“I’ve been in boxing most of my waking life and [there were times] I looked up, I had no energy, I had no desire,” Foreman said. “I’m still having those days. Things you love doing — you’re still going to have those days. And it’s healthy.”
Harold Marcus, the June 6 event’s organizer and the executive director of the Development Corp. for Israel in Pennsylvania, compared Foreman’s battles in the ring to Israel’s battles with its neighbors.
“When Yuri Foreman does battle in the ring, he’s fighting an opponent, not an enemy,” Marcus told the online audience. “The battle is 45 minutes and he knows it will begin and end with a handshake.
“Israelis fight a different fight and for 75 years they’ve been in this battle,” he added, promoting investment in the Jewish state. “Israelis have to live 24/7 with the possibility of a rocket being launched, with the possibility of having 15 seconds to get into a shelter.
“I can tell you,” he said, “there is no handshake.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.