On a chilly March afternoon in Dumbo, in a back room of Gleason’s Gym, Yuri Foreman, a world champion boxer who is training to be a rabbi, was trying to justify his twin personas, as violent sportsman and nurturing Jewish priest. “The human being exists as the physical body and the metaphysical,” Foreman told The Observer in his thick Russian accent. “In order to reach the higher spiritual heights, you have to delve into the physical world. You can’t go on as an island. If you are by yourself on an island, there is very little way you can change the world. Meditating on your own does nothing.”
Foreman had just finished a grueling 90-minute workout, and there wasn’t a hair out of place on his chiseled head. He bit a large chunk out of an apple and recalled how worried he was the day he left Tel Aviv, about a decade ago. “I thought, ‘I am going to New York. I hope I am going to make it.’”
Boxing commentator Bert Sugar recalls that Jewish fighters used to be so famous that Italian boxers changed their names to sound more Jewish.
Yuri “Lion of Zion” Foreman now holds the WBA super welterweight crown. He is the first Jewish champion in three decades and the first Israeli ever to win a world title. If he completes his rabbinical degree, he will also be the world’s first professional boxing rabbi.
Next month, Foreman is the underdog in a headline fight against Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto at Yankee Stadium. It will be the first major rumble in the Bronx since Muhammad Ali fought at the old Yankee Stadium in 1976. Foreman’s appearance harks back to the first bout at the original Yankee Stadium, almost a century ago, between Benny Leonard and Lew Tendler, both Jews.
During the 1920s and 1930s, about one-third of professional fighters were Jewish. Boxing commentator Bert Sugar recalls that Jewish fighters used to be so famous that Italian boxers changed their names to sound more Jewish. “Mike Tyson once told me he thought Sammy Mandel was the greatest Jewish boxer of all time,” said Sugar. “His real name was Mandella-he was Italian.” Sugar doubts Foreman’s rabbinical training would have his opponents trembling: “What’s he gonna do, hit him with the Torah? ‘In the beginning-whack-there was the word-whack.’”
First in the Bronx and then in Manhattan, Gleason’s Gym has turned out boxing legends for decades. Fighters now spar on the second floor of a former cardboard-processing warehouse. Jake LaMotta, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson all trained at Gleason’s.
That morning, Foreman wheeled his bike into the gym around 11:30 a.m. and greeted the gym’s Jewish owner, Bruce Silverglade, who was reclining at the entrance in a rumpled brown suit. Foreman changed into black shorts and a black T-shirt bearing a yellow lion inside a yellow Star of David and the word “Brooklyn” written in Cyrillic. Five-foot-eleven and a touch over 154 pounds, he started jumping rope while his stocky Dominican trainer, Pedro Saiz, looked on.
During boxing’s heyday, sportswriters typecast the Irish as brave, the Italians as sluggers and the Jews as master boxers. Foreman has scored eight knockouts in a 28-0 career, but he is known for speed and stamina rather than brute strength. He moves around the ring constantly, forcing opponents to seek him out.
“The hardest thing isn’t getting to the top,” Saiz told The Observer. “The hardest thing is staying there. But Yuri is a gentleman. He knows what he wants. He knows who he is.”
“You have to master your fears and nervousness,” said Foreman, “and while you are under attack, you have to calculate with a cool head every move for you and your opponent and figure out how to win the fight.”
Jewish boxing has always drawn from streams of immigrant kids. When the Soviet Union collapsed, a new wave of Jews poured into Israel and America. Foreman is joined by the heavyweight Israeli contender Roman Greenberg, born in Moldova and based in the U.K., and the junior middleweight contender Dmitriy Salita, born in Ukraine and based in Brooklyn.