'Lion of Zion'

Lion of Zion

By NATHAN BURSTEIN
October 29, 2009 14:36
4 minute read.
Yuri Foreman 248

Yuri Foreman 248. (photo credit: )

 
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It's Friday morning at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, and the Israeli is clearly the aggressor in one of the corner boxing rings. A pair of petite female fighters are running on treadmills not far away, and athletes of assorted shapes and sizes are sparring in each of the gym's other rings. But while there aren't enough people present for a true crowd to form, a small group nevertheless drifts over to watch Yuri Foreman in that corner ring, so clearly is his sparring a cut above the rest of the action taking place. The audience will surely be bigger November 14, when Foreman puts on his gloves in a very different sort of venue - the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where the 29-year-old will be the first Israeli in boxing history to fight for a world championship belt. For his undercard match against Daniel Santos, the World Boxing Association title holder, Foreman plans to wear his customary shorts - emblazoned with a Star of David and lion that have earned him the nickname "Lion of Zion" among friends and fans in the boxing community. "Like with all of the fights, I'm doing 100 percent of what is required," Foreman says of his preparations, in an accent that still bears traces of his childhood in the Soviet Union. "I know if I'm 100 percent ready, my confidence is higher. I'm confident." A three-time national boxing champion in Israel - where he moved with his parents at 10 - Foreman is both more and less of a paradox than outsiders might think: a Jew who packs a serious punch, an immigrant with plans to move again and a future rabbi who spends every day that's not Shabbat in demanding physical training. An unassuming 5'11" (180 cm.), Foreman weighed 160 pounds (72.5 kg.) the morning of his practice, with plans to shed an additional six before his light middleweight fight in Las Vegas. Quiet and focused, he isn't a trash-talker: When a trainer jokes that his sparring partner "should take a beating for being late," Foreman's reply is easygoing. "As long as it's me who doesn't take a beating," he says. That same sentiment - that he needn't be the one to get hit - was the attitude that initially brought Foreman to boxing. When he was attacked by other kids following swimming lessons in his native Belarus, Foreman's mother registered the seven-year-old for boxing, her plan being that he would never again find himself defenseless. Despite a four-year break from the sport following the family's immigration to Haifa, Foreman excelled following his return. With the help of a Soviet-born coach and a group of mostly Israeli Arab sparring partners, he quickly climbed the sparse ranks of Israeli boxing, securing his trio of national titles by the time he was 18. Having exhausted the country's limited resources for boxers, the 19-year-old fighter received a temporary athletic exemption from the army, moving alone to Brooklyn to train - and to represent Israel in his matches. A decade later - and following several years working in the garment district before he went pro - Foreman brings a record of 27-0, with eight knockouts, to his fight with the 34-year-old Santos, a bronze medalist for Puerto Rico at the 1996 Olympics. Favored by some commentators because of his agility and relative youth, Foreman also has, if not God on his side, then the wisdom that comes from rabbinical studies. A part-time pursuit over the last two and a half years, Forman says his embrace of rabbinical school brings balance to his days, which can involve both training at Gleason's and classes at the Iyyun Institute, a Jewish educational and cultural center in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, that's also home to a yeshiva. Currently examining the laws of kashrut, Foreman expects to complete his studies in roughly three years, and sees certain parallels between his two areas of focus. "Rabbinical studies are very difficult," he says. "They take dedication... They require a lot of concentration and thinking, just like boxing." Being in the ring can itself be "a very spiritual experience," he says, noting that he prays before fights. "The other guy wants to take your head off, but you keep saying quiet prayers, to get some energy and to be protected. It builds your faith." Part of an elite group of Soviet-born Jews now making their mark on the boxing world, Foreman isn't yet sure what he wants to do when his time as a fighter is over, though he hopes to remain connected to the sport in some fashion. Whatever his role, he intends to perform it in Israel, where he plans to return with his wife, a former model in Hungary and an Iyyun student who has logged plenty of her own time in the ring. Clearing up misperceptions about the sport is important to him, drawing a polite but pointed response when it's suggested that a boxer's purpose is to inflict harm. "People who don't understand boxing," he says, "think it's a violent sport. I don't look at it as a violent sport - it's not more violent than American football." "Boxing is a very physical and fast-thinking chess game," he goes on. "Many people think it's the art of smashing noses, but I always consider it the art of defense." In a sport that hasn't seen Jewish champions in decades, it's other Jews, he suggests, who are most surprised by his achievements. "People in a boxing gym really don't care what your background is," he says. "They see who you are - if you're a good person - and that's all."

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