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On Saturday, Rabbi-to-be Throws Jabs

Discussion in 'Other Sports' started by da1, Nov 13, 2009.

  1. da1

    da1 Member

    Apr 8, 2008
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    On Saturday, Rabbi-to-be Throws Jabs
    Published: November 10, 2009

    Yuri Foreman stepped up to the top bench of the banya to embrace the soothing power of the heat. The beads of sweat bubbled and greased his skin. He shuttered his eyes and felt the problem immediately. The sauna was too hot.

    “O.K.,” he said, getting down. “Let’s start slow.”

    In the weeks before a prizefight, a boxer must exercise caution. The event has been planned for months. Trainers are owed money. Emotional balance and mental focus cannot be strained. Germs must be avoided. A flash flu can ruin everything.

    Now Foreman wore a towel on his head as if it were a prayer shawl and dripped gobs of blackberry jam into his tea at Spa 88, a Russian day spa near Wall Street. It is his sanctuary. He kissed the old pudgy men he knew on the cheek as they passed, and talked about the relationship between his pugilism and his Judaism.

    “It’s like exercise for the mind,” he said of his rabbinical studies. “In the ring, very spiritual things can happen. Judaism, it’s like the core. It gives you that sense of security. It’s always with you.”

    Over the years, there have been scores of Jewish boxers and dozens of Jewish boxing champions, but historians are hard-pressed to find a boxer training to become a rabbi and fighting for a championship title at the same time. On Saturday, on the undercard of the Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto match at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Foreman (27-0, 8 knockouts) will get his first title shot, against Daniel Santos of Puerto Rico (32-3-1, 23 knockouts), the World Boxing Association champion at 154 pounds. The bout is being featured as part of the HBO pay-per-view telecast.

    It is extremely uncommon for a boxer from Israel to fight for a world title, and Foreman’s handlers said politicians and diplomats from Israel planned to attend.

    On paper, Foreman is the underdog. Santos, 34, has more experience, against better fighters. He has knockout power in both hands. And, most critical, he is a left-hander. Foreman, 29, has not boxed a left-hander as a professional. Nor has he shown a willingness to use his power: his last knockout came three years ago.

    “I’m not saying he’s a pacifist, but he fights like one,” said Bruce Trampler, the fight’s matchmaker. “You can’t be content to win the rounds in a title fight. It could be your only chance. It is the moment, and in the moment, you have to be willing to take guys out.”

    Foreman was never the aggressor. He was born in Gomel, Belarus, and his family was so poor that he slept in an Army cot in the hallway. His early memories are trailing his mother with a knife tucked in his waistband as she walked through Gomel for fear that she might be kidnapped. The blade of the knife was so big (“like Crocodile Dundee,” he said) that it pricked his knee as he shadowed her. When he was 5, thugs forced his mother into a car and she was missing for days.

    “Welcome to Russia,” Foreman said.

    When he was 8, he said, his mother made him take boxing lessons after he was beaten up by other boys while taking swimming lessons.

    At age 10, after the fall of the Soviet Union, his family immigrated to Israel. They lived in an Arab slum in Haifa, and young Yuri helped his father clean office buildings and work on construction sites. In Haifa, he met Michael Kozlowski, a Russian boxing trainer.

    “In Israel, there are no boxing gyms,” Kozlowski said. “I had balcony. I hang the heavy bag on balcony. We train on my balcony.”

    As an amateur, Foreman won several tournaments and moved with Kozlowski to New York to become a pro. Kozlowski worked in a linen plant, and Foreman lived with his family.

    “I have two daughters, and one day, my ex-wife says to me, ‘Either I go or Yuri goes,’ ” Kozlowski said. He chose Yuri.

    “He’s like my son,” Kozlowski said. “How can I betray my son?”

    In the gym, Foreman met and fell in love with Leyla Leidecker, a Hungarian model and documentary filmmaker. They wanted to move in together. Foreman was also looking for breathing room from Kozlowski, whose tough reputation is buttressed by the motto on his Web site: “Win or die.” Eventually, he started training with another coach.

    The split was messy. Foreman said he was visited by a masked gunman who delivered a package. Inside was a bullet. Foreman alerted his promoter, who hired a private investigator, and Kozlowksi said he was visited by F.B.I. agents. The pupil and the coach still train in the same gym, but do not speak to each other.

    “He betrayed me; there was no split,” said Kozlowski, who added that he was unsure whom he would be rooting for Saturday night.

    “Sometimes I want God to punish him because life is serious,” Kozlowski said. “But I want him to win also, you understand? He is like my son.”

    Foreman says his old coach is too intense. “He cares more about his fighters than his own family,” he said.

    After the bullet incident, Foreman and Leidecker married and moved to Brooklyn. Leidecker described herself as curious about spirituality. One afternoon, she typed the words “kabbalah” and “Brooklyn” into a search engine. The hunt led to Rabbi DovBer Pinson, who now supervises Foreman’s foray into matters of Jewish law. Foreman trains on kosher food and teaches troubled yeshiva students how to fight.

    “For him, it’s not just about the fight,” said Pinson, who said he was surprised by Foreman’s performance in the Torah study group. “He was least advanced in the group, and he’s been able to retain thousands of facts, dense material. He gets it.”

    When Foreman was struggling with his former manager, a group of Jewish investors heard about his story and bought out his contract. His marketing value as a potential boxing rabbi did not hurt.

    “What can I say? I’m a loudmouth Jew and he gives me a lot of pride,” said Murray Wilson, a New York City restaurateur and one of Foreman’s managers.

    Unlike other boxing managers who struggle to recoup the costs that go with stabling a fighter — food, training, rent, medical tests, sparring, travel expenses — Wilson said he and his partners were content to enjoy their investment. Foreman’s lack of the knockout power that television networks prize has resulted in low purses. Santos will make $123,750 for Saturday’s fight, Foreman $41,250.

    “Our original contract with him is that we’d send him a check every week for expenses until he starts making his own money,” Wilson said. “We haven’t taken a dime. He’s like a son to me.”

    Foreman’s father, who lives in Israel, will not attend the fight. Foreman has enough to worry about, he said, the most important of which is beating a fighter who can punch harder, is more experienced, and is left-handed. Foreman removed his name from Google alerts to shield himself from writers complaining about the way he fights. There are risks that come with going for knockouts, the punches that come back, the ones you do not see.

    “I want to be able to do more than eat and go to the bathroom,” Foreman said in the banya, referring to his future. “I want to be able to have, you know, a conversation.”


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