From the Talmud to the title 

Yuri Foreman leans over a table in the corner of Gleason's Gym, a newsboy cap pulled down over his eyes. The thud of heavy bags and the rat-a-tat of speed bags form a mesmerizing rhythm around him, and for a moment he's at a loss for words.

He just smiles instead, and it's hard to blame him.

His name will be on the marquee next month for the first fight at the new Yankee Stadium, when he defends his junior middleweight title against Miguel Cotto. He's married to a Hungarian model and documentary filmmaker who happens to be an exceptional cook. And he is only a couple of years away from finishing a rigorous program to become a rabbi.

Foreman finally breaks the silence, trying to explain how a kid born in the former Soviet Union and raised in an Israeli ghetto can lead such a charmed life in the United States.

"The thing is, the reason why I came here was just because of boxing," he says. "I became a three-time champion in Israel and I could see it would never bring me nowhere, and if I want to pursue my dreams I would have to go to the place that boxing is famous, and where I can test my skills. And America, that's the place where it all happened."

Last November, on the undercard of the Manny Pacquiao-Cotto match at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, those dreams were realized. At age 29, the soft-spoken kid whose parents told him to take up boxing after bullies beat him up defeated Daniel Santos. He's the first Orthodox Jew to win a world championship in nearly 75 years.

"Nobody has a story like he does," says Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum. "Usually to master the rabbinical studies that he has, people do nothing else, and he combines it as a world-class athlete. That to my mind is exceptional."

Foreman was born in Belarus, back when it was still part of the Soviet Union. His family moved to Israel around the fall of communism, where his father took low-paying jobs cleaning offices. Yuri was about 11 years old and remembers running home from school so that he could help them out. He was an outsider, just another Russian immigrant to the other Jews.

Boxing was the furthest thing from his mind.

"In Israel, boxing is an unpopular sport. There is no exposure," he says. "There are two people who do boxing, Arabs and Russian immigrants. It's really an immigrant sport, you know?"

Foreman learned to box from another Russian immigrant, but it mostly amounted to some shadowboxing. They had no equipment, no gloves or heavy bags or rings. When they went to Haifa City Hall to ask for space to work out, the woman there told him, "Go box with the Arabs."

So he did.

"I was going to boxing gyms in Arab villages because they had equipment, they had gyms," Foreman says. "In the beginning, you just don't look like them. You don't look Arab, you look Jew. But boxing is just like any other sport. It closes the difference between nations."

He knew that if he wanted to be a champion, though, he would have to seek out the best. So in 1999, one year after his mother passed away, he left his father and friends for Brooklyn.

He moved in with a trainer he had met in Haifa and found a job working in the garment district in Manhattan. He would run from the modest apartment over the Brooklyn Bridge to work, then return after his shift to get in some sparring at Gleason's, a second-floor gym near the East River that has been home to numerous world champions over the years.

Foreman began to make a name for himself, winning the New York Golden Gloves title. About a year later he turned professional, and remembers making $800 for his first fight.

"By then, people started noticing me — 'There's Yuri Foreman, he's a good fighter.' But turning professional was one thing," he says. "The financial situation was tough."

Foreman eventually split with his coach in a dramatic falling out, but he met Murray Wilson, a successful New York City restaurateur. Wilson saw a Jewish kid remarkably similar to himself, bought out his contract and started sending Foreman money to get by. He has yet to accept a penny in return.

"I wanted to see him get his feet on the ground," Wilson says. "He became to me like a son. Every fight I turn the other way, I get so nervous."

Foreman keeps a somber face when he discusses his bumpy road to boxing stardom. But that boyish smile returns when he remembers seeing Leyla Leidecker at Gleason's one afternoon.

She had been working out across the room, and her blond hair immediately caught his eye.

"I didn't want to be the guy that, like, you go to a dance floor and there'll be the prettiest girl and nobody ever invites the prettiest girl to dance," Foreman says. "And I said, 'I'm going to invite the prettiest girl.' The worst-case scenario, she says no."

Eventually, she said yes.

They became inseparable, a pair of immigrants whose story could fit just as snugly in the 1920s as it does today. She was more spiritual than Foreman back then, and thought it would be a good idea for him to learn a little more about his roots. They tried out a synagogue in their Brooklyn neighborhood and happened to walk in on a discussion led by Rabbi DovBer Pinson.

His talk that day centered around the enduring struggle between good and evil, and he was using boxing as an allegory to make his point.

"Rabbi Pinson didn't know I was a boxer," Foreman says. "After class, he talked to us for a while because we were the new people. Gradually, after a couple of years of studying, I said, 'Whoa, this really helps me. It focuses me, it gives me inner strength.' I thought, 'This is something that I want to explore a little deeper.'"

Foreman decided to embark on an intensive, six-year course in rabbinical studies. He jokes that he could have been a Wall Street lawyer with the all the time it takes, or maybe a doctor.

Then he laughs and says, "But I guess we also need spiritual doctors, perhaps."

Foreman finishes his lunch on the little table in the corner of Gleason's, and looks to a wall on the far side of the room. Posted above the chipped mirrors used for shadowboxing, where the paint is peeling off the wall, a banner proclaims the home of the WBA world champion.

He shakes his head, almost in disbelief.

The buzz that began in the gym has swept across New York City as June 5 draws near, when Foreman will step between the ropes for the first fight at Yankee Stadium since Muhammad Ali fought Ken Norton on Sept. 28, 1976. There is a billboard for the fight in Times Square and a constant stream of announcements during every home baseball game.

It's not the same Yankee Stadium where Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and Ray Robinson once plied their trade. That building is a pile of rubble just across the street. But it seems somehow fitting that the first fight in the new stadium features a Jewish fighter, because the first title fight at the old ballpark did likewise: Benny Leonard defeated Lew Tendler on July 23, 1923, just a few months after it opened.

"As far as I'm concerned, Yankee Stadium is the best place for this," says Arum, who also promoted the Ali-Norton fight. "Long after I'm gone, and he's gone, people will remember this."

It's an interesting matchup between a former champion in Cotto, beloved by the huge population of Puerto Ricans who reside in the Bronx, and Foreman, a fighter whose incredible back story has finally obscured the critics who panned his defense-first style.

"Every great fighter that transcends the sport a little bit has a great story," says Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports. "Yuri's is obviously one of the more compelling ones.

"The question is, though, will he put himself in the limelight as a boxer? It's one thing to have a great story, it's another to deliver in the 20-foot square ring."

Foreman's ability has won him all 28 of his pro fights, but only eight by knockout. And those numbers are a hard sell to network executives like Greenburg who prefer action.

When he fought for the title, Foreman earned only a shade over $40,000.

"People, I guess, are entitled to their opinions," he says, shrugging. "Believe me, a clean shot connects to the head, it's a painful, painful thing."

Foreman jokes that he doesn't like getting hit, that's why he prides himself on defense, as he rises from the table at Gleason's. He has a massage appointment to keep, followed by some rest at home and a little studying, before he returns to the gym for another workout — his life barreling ahead with no break in sight.

"He's going to be a great rabbi, he really will. His goal is to go to Israel and run a congregation there," Arum says, pausing for a moment. "Hopefully, after a few more fights."

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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