Underdog Yuri Foreman beat Daniel Santos by unanimous decision recently in Las Vegas to become the first Jewish Israeli world boxing champion. Foreman, who was born in Belarus and emigrated to Israel at age 10, moved to Brooklyn to pursue his boxing career, but wound up taking another path as well – he is currently completing his studies to become an Orthodox rabbi. Foreman wears a Star of David on his boxing shorts and entered the championship bout to the strains of Pantera mixed with a shofar.
You are literally the Jewish George Foreman. Does that feel like fate to you?
Yeah. The Jewish George Foreman without the grill.
You’ve spoken proudly about being an Israeli boxing champion. How does your identity tie into your drive as a boxer?
A lot. I’ve been in Brooklyn quite a few years, but my love of Israel keeps growing. I’m an Israeli citizen and my dad lives there, a lot of friends. I’m very connected to the country and to the people. I have a lot of support from Israel and from Jewish people around the world. In Brooklyn, especially. I feel very connected.
At the same time, is there part of you that wishes people would see you as just ‘Yuri Foreman, World Champ,’ and not ‘Yuri Foreman, Jewish Israeli World Champ’?
No. I’m fine the way it’s happening. I’m the world champion, even though right now it still strikes me, ‘Oh, wow, I won the world championship a week ago.’ I’m just very happy right now. It’s great being the Israeli boxing world champion, and bringing back the title to Brooklyn is a great feeling.
Will you use your title to represent Israel?
Of course. I always come into the fight with the Israeli flag. My hope is to inspire people in Israel that you can be spiritual and still pursue other things in life. Not necessarily that if you’re spiritual, you have to give up on your dreams. You can be religious and be a boxer, or be a musician.At what point during the bout did you realize you were going to win?
During the 12-round fight I didn’t even concern myself with, ‘Am I ahead at this point?’ or not. I was really just concentrating on being in the moment, trying to focus from round to round. After the 11th round, my trainer told me, ‘Three more minutes and you’re world champion,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m winning.’
You hadn’t had a major fight in some time. Did you feel the cobwebs?
No. I’ve been getting ready for this fight all my life.
You’ve said that smarts is one of your greatest assets as a fighter. How does that come into play?
Trying to really think and outsmart your opponent. You try to be a few steps ahead of them. For example, Santos is left-handed and I’ve never fought a professional left-hander. So I had my game plan. I had to stay focused and move to my left, behind his left-to-right. He’s also a bigger guy. He’s stronger. So I had to use my head.
Do you think the general public overlooks the intelligence of boxers?
Not many people know what’s going on in the ring. Many people just look at it as some form of violent sport and there’s not much brain involved. For me, boxing is very intellectual. You have to really use your head in order to win. It’s not always power. It’s also how you use your power, and taking advantage of the mistakes of your opponent.
You spoke openly about praying during the fight. Do you think all boxers pray in the ring?
In the ring you’re involved with someone who wants to take your head off. Sometimes you need help, so why not ask God? Prayers help with being focused and also feeling more calm. Not panicking.
What do you find spiritual about boxing?
It’s a different kind of spiritual. You’re aware of not just your own power, but the outside force of God. You go through difficult moments. If you get hit by a strong punch or something hurts, I make a really quick request like, ‘Please, God, give me help or give me strength.’ That’s how I translate it. It’s spiritual.
How soon do you think it will be until you defend your title?
Right now, I’m not throwing any predictions. I’m relaxing. I’m a little bit tired still. I’m resting from boxing, and then we’ll see. I know there are a lot of fighters who want to have a piece of me right now.
When you were training at the Arab gym in Israel when first starting, did it ever feel like more than just sparring?
When I came to Israel, I was a kid. For me, it was a tense moment. I’d never been at that gym. There were a lot of people staring at you. But after, they want to spar with you, you spar. There was never any hatred. I just wanted not to get beat up. And then you work out, you spar and things change. You become friends. You get respect. Whether you’re Jewish or Arab, who cares? You just want a good workout.
Is there anything from the Torah that you particularly identify with?
In a Torah portion about three weeks ago, there was a passage about Abraham where God tells him to go by himself from the land of his father. God tells him, it’s your journey, you have to do it by yourself. You have to leave your house, leave your Dad. So I relate to this portion.
Do you ever find anything contradictory about boxing and the Jewish laws that you’re studying?
No, I don’t. I look at boxing as very different than anybody else may see it. Many people probably think of boxing as pure violence. To tell you the truth, there’s more violence in American football. In any professional sport, there’s so much injury from violence, but people tend to talk about boxing more.
I did boxing for such a long time before I became religious. So I’m not going to spend my daytime thinking, ‘Okay, this is wrong.’ I know I’m doing the right thing. There are a lot of Jewish people around the world that I made a little bit proud. And I’m very proud and very honored by that.
You list Hayao Miyazaki films and anime among your favorites.
I love Miyazaki. It’s more than cartoons for me. Me and my wife really enjoy watching. They’re very dramatic, amazing, great stories. And I love Japanese cinema like Kurosawa movies, The Seven Samurai or Ikiru. I’m fascinated by the silver screen.
In a recent New York Times article, everyone was falling over themselves saying you’re like a son to them. What, you’re such a mensch?
[Laughing.] I don’t know. I don’t know.
We have an Hasidic reggae rapper and an Orthodox rabbinical student world boxing champion. What do you think the next hot crossover is going to be?
Good question! I don’t know. There’s some great, great moviemaking. My wife is in film; she’s a director. Perhaps her!
The ‘Hebrew Hammer’ is already taken, and some people call you the ‘Lion of Zion.’ But if you could make up your own Jewish nickname, what would it be?
Oh man, you’re putting me on the spot here. I don’t know. I actually never give myself a nickname. This ‘Lion of Zion,’ it’s not me who came up with it. It’s actually unofficial. I also heard about people talking about the ‘Fighting Rabbi.’ But I don’t like nicknames. I like Yuri Foreman the way it is.
I bet you like ‘Yuri Foreman, World Champ’ even better.
[Laughing.] Yes, I like that.
That’s a very good nickname, Yuri.