The first Israeli citizen ever to fight for a world boxing title will step into the ring in Las Vegas next week.
Yuri Foreman, 29, will take on Daniel Santos at the MGM Grand next Saturday as the undercard of the Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto fight. At stake is the World Boxing Association light middleweight crown.
Foreman is studying to become an Orthodox rabbi and is known as the ‘Lion of Zion’.
He immigrated to Israel from Belarus with his family in 1990, at the age of 10. Nine years later, he moved to New York to further his boxing career.
Speaking from his home in Brooklyn, Foreman said: “I had big dreams, big goals, and I knew that the United States is the capital of boxing. This is where I wanted to come in order to pursue my dreams.”
Santos, 34, is the favourite for Saturday’s fight. He has won 32 of 36 fights and has only been defeated once.
But some observers give Foreman a good chance of lifting the title. He is undefeated in 27 bouts.
Foreman learned to box in Belarus at the age of seven. His mother took him to a gym after he was beaten up at a local swimming pool.
He described his early years in Haifa as difficult. “Jews from the former Soviet Union were not accepted in Israel,” he said. And he would often go straight from school to help his parents clean office buildings.
“Perhaps I was just a little paranoid. “But I always felt a little unwelcome there.”
A lack of boxing facilities in Haifa, forced Foreman and his friends to train on a basketball court behind a primary school. He said that when they went to Haifa city hall to complain that nearby Arab villages had facilities, they were told to “go box with the Arabs”.
So the group went to nearby Kfar Yasif, where they had heard of regular sparring sessions.
“At the beginning, you come into an Arab boxing gym and they look at you as though you are not their friend,” said Foreman. “But after sparring and training, things change. Sport transcends differences. I went there twice a week from then on.”
Foreman won three national championships in Israel.
His first stop in New York was the legendary Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, where he soon caught the eye of trainers during sparring sessions. In the daytime, he worked for a Persian Jew in Manhattan’s garment district sweeping floors and delivering suits.
Foreman was not religious in Israel, but in Brooklyn he developed ties with the Chabad Lubavitch and, a few years ago, began studying to become a rabbi. He hopes to return to Israel soon with his wife, Leyla Leidecker, a former Hungarian model.
Both Foreman and Dmitriy Salita won the amateur Golden Gloves boxing competition in 2001. Now, they both have title fights a few weeks apart.
“I don’t know if it’s divine providence,” says Foreman. “But it’s definitely a good sign.”