When Yuri was nine, his parents decided to leave Belarus, “not for religious reasons, they just wanted a better life,” he says. At first, they tried to emigrate to America with their only child, but when that “didn’t happen,” they opted for Israel.
“I can’t forget what it was like when we arrived and I stepped off the plane,” he recalls. “There was this fruity smell, like fields, like going to the country, cows, manure, a good smell. We came into the building at the airport and there was a flood of new immigrants, and they gave us free trays of oranges, which we rarely saw in Belarus. It was like paradise.”
For a while, life was difficult for the transplanted youngster. He had no friends and didn’t speak the language. Today, he says, he realizes it was harder for his parents. Back in Belarus, his father worked in a factory and his mother was a housewife. In Israel, they both went to work cleaning offices. “I’d join them after school, cleaning cubicles. Life was just hard in Israel. We weren’t starving, but we had some hard times,” he says.
Occasionally, another kid would pick a fight; Yuri knew enough boxing by then to take care of himself. Still, it wasn’t until he was 15 that a gym opened in Haifa and he could return to the sport. “Boxing is a very unpopular sport in Israel,” he says. “The only boxers were Russians and Arabs. But I daydreamed about it, and as soon as the gym opened, I went,” often training alongside Arab fighters. “There were some trainers from the Soviet Union there, and my trainer asked me why I joined. I said I wanted to be world champion.”
Foreman fought more than 50 bouts in Israel, winning almost all of them, and became Israeli champion three years running, as a lightweight and later as a welterweight. But by 1999, he’d figured out that to be a world champion, he was going to have to go “where boxing is big”—the United States. He arrived that year on a tourist visa and stayed with a friend in Brooklyn.
On his second day in America, Yuri Foreman found a job in Manhattan’s Garment District. “I cleaned the store and made deliveries, pushing carts full of clothes down the street,” he says. “I worked six days a week, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and at first I took home $200 a week. Later I got a raise—to $250.”
But there was the matter of his championship dream. He started asking people about the best place to find a gym, and they all said Gleason’s. So he went there but found that the gym charged a fee he couldn’t afford. Enter Bruce Silverglade, the Jewish owner of Gleason’s, who purchased the venerable facility, which dates to 1937, in 1983 and moved it from the Bronx to Brooklyn the following year.
“We have a program we call Give a Kid a Dream, to help kids who want to learn to box and can’t afford to pay, so we helped Yuri,” Silverglade says. “He proved himself right away. Many kids, they give you a story about what they want to do, but they’re all talk and no action. Yuri was serious about the sport. And that’s what makes a champion—self-motivation. He was coming in at night after working the whole day.” Foreman started working with trainers at Gleason’s, including Pedro Saiz, a one-time champion fighter in his native Dominican Republic. “You got to work hard if you work with me,” Saiz says, “and he does. You got to work hard, be smart, be dedicated.” He smiles fondly at Foreman. “He does it all.”
In 2001, Foreman was still struggling, still working in the garment district, when he entered the New York Golden Gloves competition, long one of the major proving grounds in amateur boxing. He won the 156-pound competition, and decided to turn pro. He made his professional debut in February 2002 and won on a second-round knockout.
“Pro boxing is different from amateur,” he says. “There’s no headgear, the gloves are smaller and the fans want to see more toe-to-toe fighting. But my focus is to be ready, to fight my fight. I worked my day job until my fifth pro fight.”
By then, Foreman had new co-managers, Alan Cohen and Murray Wilson. “I found him through The New York Times” in 2004, says Wilson, who owns two midtown Manhattan restaurants, with a laugh. “They had an article that said he could potentially be a Jewish champion. I’m interested in all things Jewish, so I called Bruce Silverglade at Gleason’s Gym. We got together with Yuri, and we made a deal. I don’t have enough good adjectives to describe him. He’s the nicest kid I’ve ever run across. He’s respectful, humble, honest, and he’ll stay that way.”
Cohen and Wilson take care of everything on the business side of the fight game, enabling Foreman to concentrate on boxing exclusively. “We give him a stipend, and we make all the decisions about everything, right up to the point where he has to OK it. But we don’t do anything without his consent, and his wife’s consent.”
Foreman’s wife, Leyla Leidecker, is a Hungarian-born former model who makes documentary films and is a former boxer herself. They met at Gleason’s Gym, where she still works out. “That’s her over there,” Foreman says, pointing out a stunning blonde in shorts and a red T-shirt, training alone. “Because she boxed, she has no worries about me boxing,” he says. “She knows how much I have to train, the right diet. We watch tapes of my opponents together. She’s a team member.”
Leidecker describes her husband—“the sweetest person ever”—as a smart fighter who’s cautious and doesn’t take unnecessary risks. “He’s very good at reading an opponent’s moves,” she says. “I worry, of course, but I don’t express it because that creates negative thoughts.”
Foreman ranked “maybe 500th or 600th” after his first professional fight. But with each victory, he moved up in the rankings.
“I’m very competitive,” he says. “If I’m running with someone, I want to run faster or longer. I had tough opponents, and I was beating them. Then I got into the top 10, and each fight was do or die to get my dream in my reach. Finally I got to be the number one challenger, and they said I’m fighting for the championship, and I said, ‘Wow!’ Suddenly my dream was almost a reality. It’s not a gift. I worked hard, there were no shortcuts.”
Early in his professional career, Foreman had begun to feel “drained mentally, physically and spiritually” as he struggled to balance his work and his boxing. He even considered giving up on his championship dream and returning to Israel, as many of his friends predicted he would. But he hated the idea of conceding.
And by that time, he and Leidecker, who was not Jewish, were married, and she began to ask him questions: What is kosher? What about the Sabbath? What is Kabbalah?
“I didn’t know anything,” he says. “I was very secular. I never learned about Judaism, never was interested. I ate non-kosher food and didn’t care. To me, it was all nonsense. I was never invited to a Shabbat dinner.”
But his wife found a class about Judaism in their neighborhood taught by DovBer Pinson, a Chabad Orthodox rabbi, and they went to the class together. “He was gentle, soft-spoken, knowledgeable,” Foreman says. “In the first class, he brought up a parallel of life being like a boxer: When you get knocked down sometimes, you have to get up. And he didn’t know I was a boxer! After the class, I spoke to him, told him I was a boxer, and he invited us to Shabbat dinner. Here we had no family, and a stranger invited us! There was so much food, so much caring and love, it was awesome. So we kept going to his class, and Leyla decided to convert.”
Leidecker, who describes herself as “a spiritual person who was looking for what Judaism has to offer, its system of belief,” found the Orthodox conversion process “not hard for me, not a big deal if you’re really into it. I studied, and I still study every day.”
As he studied with the rabbi, Foreman found that the experience was having a major impact on him. “I became a more conscious person,” he says. “My vision broadened. I could listen to others and be more grounded, focused. And it helped me in boxing, too, not to lose my head in the ring. Judaism is my outlet. I come to the gym and I give 150 percent, but when I leave, I’m a different person.”
Soon, he began to think of becoming a rabbi himself. Foreman sees no conflict between fighting and his rabbinical training. To him, both are spiritual undertakings, two sides to the same coin of being in the moment, getting the most out of each. “I’m learning that boxing is not everything of me,” he says. “It’s a big part, but with Judaism, I have become more of a better person.” Pinson, who heads IYYUN, the Institute for the Exploration of the Deeper Dimensions of Torah, is as impressed by his student as Foreman is by him. “No other fighter can balance spirituality and physicality” like Foreman, the rabbi has said. He called Foreman a “gentle lion” who is breaking stereotypes about boxers and Jews.
Gradually, Foreman became more and more immersed in his studies, and about three years ago, he joined a class that would lead to his becoming a rabbi. There were others in the class at first, but they dropped away, and now he is the only student. Unlike his wife, who is primarily interested in Judaic philosophy, his focus is on Halachic law.
Foreman figures that it will take him another two years—for a total of five years of study—before he can become a rabbi. “And when I pass, it’s still just the beginning,” Foreman says. “You still have to learn.”
The fact that a boxer, now a world champ, is studying to become a rabbi has brought Foreman an inordinate amount of media attention. So it seems only fair to ask if this cannot be seen as just a shtick, a clever means of gaining publicity. In response, he smiles. “I told a friend in Israel about it, and he thought it was a PR thing,” he says. “I said no. With God involved, it’s got to be legit. If you study with the rabbi, he’s not joking. It’s difficult to stay with a shtick for five years.”