When I was a young boy growing up in the Soviet Union, the government forbade people from practicing their faith, so I wasn’t exposed to spirituality or organized religion. I have many good memories about my early childhood, although life wasn’t always easy. I remember waiting in line for hours for imported shoes and clothing, as well as for certain foods such as bananas and oranges. It seemed perfectly normal at the time―it was just a part of life.
Although many people in Russia didn’t have a lot of material goods, being healthy was always a priority. Children were expected to participate in sports because we knew that exercise was good for us and it was also a source of national pride, especially during the Olympics.
I was a competitive kid and, by the age of 7, I started to get into trouble. Oday I home all bruised up and my mother suspected that I had been bullied. Two older boys had been taunting me during swim class, and when I refused to do their bidding, they beat me up. That day she enrolled me in a boxing class at the sports center in town. She told the trainer to: “Make a man out of him!”
Six months later, I ran into those same bullies from swim class, but this time the outcome was different. They began to mock my friend, who was smaller than me, and I told them to leave him alone or they would have to deal with me! When they refused to stop, I assumed a boxing stance and threw a “one-two combo” (left-right punch), straight to the bully’s face. The other one ran away. I would never have dreamed of doing this before, but boxing had made me more confident and gave me the ability to defend myself and to stand up for others.
After watching so many American action movies, boxing made me feel like a superhero. I loved the musky smell of the gym, the sound of thick leather pounding against bags or bodies, and the shouting from the sidelines. It was intoxicating. I vowed that I would one day become a world champion. One thing I was never a fan of is defeat. I cried uncontrollably after my first loss and I stopped going to training sessions. It was only after my coach called my parents to ask where I was that I returned. Even to this day I hate to lose. I feel the same drive and determination when it comes to achieving physical and spiritual goals. I want to be a winner and I want to teach others to be winners, too!
When I was 10 my family immigrated to Israel. I remember arriving in Tel Aviv and feeling the unfamiliar heat of the dessert. I took a deep breath of the fresh, fragrant air. Israelis welcomed us with juicy plump oranges. I had never tasted anything so sweet and succulent. I felt like I had landed in paradise. There we were in a new country with no money and no jobs. My family settled into a studio apartment in the basement of a housing complex in Haifa. Not exactly the Garden of Eden I had imagined. I went to a school understanding nothing because I didn’t speak Hebrew. My parents got a job cleaning offices and I helped them after school.
Life was tough, but I never gave up on my dream. There were no boxing gyms in Haifa, so I would work out with a few friends in a makeshift camp set up behind a high school. We trained outside under the blazing Israeli sun with only one head protector and a few battered pairs of gloves. I won my first amateur fight in Israel at age 15, weighing in at 132 pounds. Our team would travel around the country fighting Jews and Arabs alike, but we came to respect one another because we were good fighters and we all had a common goal―to someday be called “champ.”
For several years my team toured in Europe and South America. During this period my mother’s liver began to fail and she was in and out of hospitals for treatment. One day I went to visit my mom in the hospital with my silver medal displayed around my neck. When she saw me and my medal, she smiled and kissed me. I promised her that I would be a world champion soon. But her condition deteriorated quickly and, in 1998, I got a phone call from my father telling me to go immediately to the hospital. It was the Sabbath, so there was no public transportation and I didn’t have enough money for a taxi. So I ran all the way, arriving just as the doctors were taking my mom off life support.
My mother was a beautiful, educated woman with a degree in music. It hurt her to be cleaning offices, so my father often did double shifts so she wouldn’t have to work. I was 17 when I lost my mom. I mourned for three weeks before returning to the gym. The training helped me to deal with my grief and I was even more resolved to fulfill my promise to her and to myself. Soon after her death I took home my third Israeli National Championship.
As thrilled as I was to win titles in Israel, I felt it was time to try my luck in one of the boxing capitals of the world―New York. While I waited for my visa in Jerusalem, I visited the historic “Wailing Wall,” where people chant and write prayers that they stick into its ancient cracks. It is said that God answers these rolled-up missives. I hadn’t prayed much in my life, but I placed three prayer requests into the cracks of the sacred wall that day.
My American Dream
Once again I arrived in a strange land without money and not being able to speak much of the language. This time, however, my welcome was not as warm as the climate in Israel. I started work the next day, which was dark and chilly, hauling clothes in the Garment District of Manhattan. After work I headed straight to Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, where legends like Jake LaMotta (The Raging Bull) and Muhammad Ali had trained.
It was there that I met my future wife Leyla Leidecker, a Hungarian fashion model and amateur boxer. We eventually moved in together and, although she wasn’t Jewish, she was curious about Judaism and the Kabbalah. She had many questions, most of which I couldn’t answer, so we decided to take a Kabbalah class at a synagogue in our neighborhood. The rabbi began his lecture by comparing life to boxing, which got my attention. He said, “Sometimes life throws at us punches that we don’t see coming. We find ourselves just like a boxer who is hit with a heavy blow and is looking at up at the lights above.” (The boxing phrase “looking at the lights” means you have been knocked flat on your back looking up at the ceiling.) “Kabbalah,” the rabbi continued, “will provide you with spiritual teachings that will help you find the inner strength to get back on your feet and keep fighting.”
In the gym I was able to hone my boxing skills, but I felt like something was missing in my life. After listening to the rabbi, I realized there was so much more work I needed to do, personally and professionally. Kabbalah taught me how to take control of every aspect of my life, how to deal with the challenges I faced, and how to be in the moment―at home, at work, and in the ring. It turned out to be exactly what I needed to help me become a better boxer and better person.
In November 2009 I sat in the locker room of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, decades of hard work coming to a head, as I prepared to fight for a world champion title. The locker room was quiet, but I was surrounded by my trainers, my “cutman” (the person who tends to injuries), and my managers―the people who had been with me for most of my career. As my coach wrapped my hands, I was filled with emotions, including doubt and fear of the “unknown.” I thought about the press that said I was an inexperienced underdog and that it would be an easy night for my opponent Daniel Santos, the three-time world champion. What if I get knocked out by a “lucky punch” I worried?
I tried to put these negative thoughts out of my head as I listened to the roar of 20,000 people in the stadium. A TV screen showed the fight before mine and I watched one of my friends get taken down by a punch that left him “looking at the lights.” At that moment a cameraman came in and said, “Foreman, two minutes you out,” meaning that I my fight was about to start. But to me it sounded like, “Foreman, in two minutes you’ll be knocked out.”
There wasn’t much time, but I began reflecting on my life. I thought about when I was seven and first dreamed of becoming a professional boxer and how there I was, fourteen years later and thousands of miles away from my home town preparing for the biggest battle of my life. I thought about my visit to the Wailing Wall and my three prayers where asked God : Please help me become a world champion, let me marry a model (keep in mind I was 18), and to guide me on my journey through life. suddenly realized that God helped me find my faith in Judaism, led me to my wife Leyla, and brought me to the arena where I now stood. There was just one more prayer that remained, and if God had already done so much for me, He would surely give me the strength and courage to accomplish my final goal. I knew God was in my corner that night!
This is how a reporter from the Los Angeles Timeswrote about what happened that night:
“Rabbinical student Yuri Foreman became the first Israeli fighter to win a world boxing championship when he scored a shocking and one-sided decision over Puerto Rican Daniel Santos in a WBA super-welterweight title fight Saturday night….at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Foreman (28-0, 8 knockouts) knocked Santos (32-4-1, 23 KOs) down in the second round, had him pinned against the ropes in the third, then appeared to hurt the champion with a flurry of punches near the end of the fourth round.