Commentary

Foreman preps for Yankee Stadium bout

The rabbinical student/boxer will balance faith and fighting on June 5 in the Bronx

Updated: June 3, 2010, 6:22 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Yuri Foreman will spend all the daylight hours of June 5 in a state of quiet and restful contemplation.

There will be no telephone calls made or received in his midtown hotel room. The television will be unplugged, the computer will be shut down. The lights will be off. If he needs to go anywhere, it will be on foot -- or, if necessary, on the Trek hybrid road bike he uses to get to and from work every day.

[+] EnlargeYuri Foreman
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesBefore he fights on June 5, Yuri Foreman will spend the day focused on other things.

According to Talmudic law, this is how an observant Jew observes the Sabbath: "an island of tranquility in the maelstrom of work, anxiety, struggle and tribulation that characterizes our daily lives for the other six days of the week."

Then, sometime after 9:13 p.m. -- but not a moment earlier -- Foreman will emerge from his hotel room, climb into a car and speed behind an NYPD escort up to Yankee Stadium, where he will try to beat the living hell out of Miguel Cotto.

"It's gonna be quick, that's for sure," Foreman said, of the drive and of the turnaround, both in his day and in his demeanor.

That is because after sundown on June 5, Yuri Foreman -- Orthodox Jew and rabbinical student -- turns back into the "Lion of Zion," the unbeaten WBA junior middleweight champion of the world. And beating up on the likes of Cotto, a once-formidable former welterweight and junior welterweight champion, is his night job, so to speak.

"We are not just physical beings, not just animals," Foreman said on Tuesday following a workout at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, where he is finishing up his preparation to headline the first-ever boxing show at the new Yankee Stadium and the first one at any Yankee Stadium in nearly 34 years. "There is also a godly side to us, and it's important to balance it out. We can do something that looks barbaric, really like mayhem, you know? But it's also a very intelligent sport and you need inner strength to do it well."

If you think 34 years between title fights in the Bronx is a long time, consider that, according to the promotional materials for the fight, Foreman is said to be the first Orthodox Jew to hold a world title in 75 years, since Barney Ross. At the very least, he is a throwback to the '20s, '30s and '40s, when fighters such as Ross, Benny Leonard, Al "Bummy" Davis, Jackie "Kid" Berg and Abe Attell gave the Jews as much prominence in the fight game as that enjoyed by the Irish and Italians back then, and the Hispanic and Russian communities of today.

"I've heard about the great Jewish champions, and it's an honor to be a Jewish world champion," Foreman said. "But I'm not trying to fill their shoes, you know? But we're all related, you know, in some way."

Back in the '40s, even if a fighter wasn't Jewish, it sometimes was good business to pretend he was -- as former heavyweight champion Max Baer, who was half-Jewish, did, to the point of having a Star of David sewn onto the front of his boxing trunks.

And there is little doubt that this fight, like many of the biggest in boxing history, will draw much of its appeal along ethnic lines. Cotto -- from Puerto Rico -- and Foreman -- born in Belarus, raised in Israel and currently residing in Carroll Gardens -- represent two of boxing's most loyal and vociferous fan bases. Promoter Bob Arum says more than 12,000 tickets have already been sold, and hopes for a crowd of 30,000 by fight night.

"For the Hispanic and Jewish communities, this is like their Super Bowl," Arum said.

But unlike other world champions who have wrapped themselves in the cloak of religion mainly to sell tickets, Foreman's devotion to his faith is not a PR stunt. It is a way of life.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cotto, Yuri Foreman
AP Photos/Bebeto MatthewsForeman, right, and Miguel Cotto will do battle at the baseball cathedral in the Bronx.

"It affects every aspect of what he does," said Joe Grier, Foreman's trainer. "He's disciplined and he doesn't know how to cheat. It makes my job tremendously easier."

That means no one has to shake Foreman in the morning to get him to do road work, or nag him to come to the gym, or exhort him to work harder once he gets there. Said Foreman: "If I don't train, I don't feel good about myself."

Foreman's religion, Grier acknowledged, may also adversely affect the way he fights. A tall, speedy, athletically mobile boxer who fights like a right-handed -- and Jewish -- Hector Camacho, Foreman has just eight knockouts included in his 28-0 record, and not one since 2006.

Incredible as it may seem, the name "Yuri" in Russian means "George" in English, although Russian George has nothing in common with Texas George, the former heavyweight champion who lived by the KO punch. Grier suspects that, sometimes, Foreman's piousness may restrict him from inflicting real damage on an opponent.

"There's times when he has a guy in trouble and tends to not really finish the job," Grier said. "It could be something in the back of his mind that makes him do that. Maybe it might not be in his makeup."

To which Grier added, "I guarantee you that if he hurts Cotto, he is going to take Cotto out."

When Grier's theory was run past Foreman, he did not disagree. "I'm still trying to figure out what my nature is, you know?" he said. "It's a work in progress."

As are his Talmudic studies -- he is three years into earning his rabbinical degree -- as well as his effort to become a household name in households that haven't thought much about boxing, probably, in five decades.

That is why in the daylight hours of June 5, Yuri Foreman will rest, and reflect and read his daily psalms, one of which for that day contains the following passage: "For he will never falter, the righteous man … will not be afraid of a bad tiding, his heart is steadfast, secure in the Lord. He does not fear."

He will read that passage over and over, think about it, absorb it, and know it by the time the darkness comes and he is delivereth unto Yankee Stadium and a boxing ring.

There, the Lion of Zion will once again perform his nightly duties, which require not only the application of the mind, but the swift and violent laying on of hands.

Wallace Matthews is a writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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