Junior middleweight Yuri Foreman is planning on a sweet New Year. In keeping with Jewish tradition, he ate apples with honey on Rosh Hashanah—the sweetness symbolizing good things to come. If he dispatches Troy Lowry in Hollywood, FL this Friday, raising his record to 19-0, he’ll be off to a good start.
While Yuri is driven to succeed, he’s not indifferent to others’ well-being. In early October, at Joe Grier’s boxing gym in Paterson, NJ, he encouraged the African-American prizefighter Eric Harding to try the apples and honey routine. Harding, who also has a fight this Friday, seemed like he was going to try it. If he ends up winning, maybe he’ll start wearing a Star of David on his trunks like Yuri.
When an elder Spanish gentleman who was part of Harding’s team entered the gym a few minutes later, he greeted Yuri with a “Shalom.” The 25-year-old native of Gomel, Belarus seemed moved by his thoughtfulness and responded with a fist-to-fist pound. “Como estas?” the fighter said, bungling the inflection but getting props for the effort.
The differences between Yuri and his comrades-in-arms can’t be masked. Nor would this Semitic speedster ever try to. His outsider status forged his identity as much as his exploits in the ring. For the first 10 years of his life, he and his parents were Jews in historically anti-Semitic Belarus. For the next decade they were treated as unwelcome Russians in Haifa, Israel. Now, living in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn with his wife, Leyla, and making the tough commute to hardscrabble Paterson, he is finally at home: home among this mishmash of humanity pressed together in a tiny space, home in a real gym like Grier’s, where fighters share a bond, and where one’s nationality, color, or religion is secondary to what you do inside the ropes.
Shadowboxing in a sleeveless shirt that clung to him like a scuba suit, he was a wiry knot of predatory muscle. Every movement was angular, precise, blindingly fast, intended to deliver or dodge harm. Trainer Joe Grier clicked away on a hand counter while his charge snapped short punches that would get an approving wink from Joe Louis: 1,400 in two rounds. After another 20 rounds of speed drills like these, Yuri banged out a set of 150 sit-ups. Grier then retired his fighter for the day.
When the two were in training mode, Grier delivered the orders and an ever-dutiful Yuri was all “Yes, Sirs” and “No, Sirs.” Later, Yuri ran a few hard miles (he doesn’t believe in going light) before attending to his holiday duties.
“He’s a jewel,” Grier said, looking across the room at Foreman, who stood over a spit-bucket straining about a quart of sweat from his soaked shirt. “In this game today!? He’s
like a gift. So dedicated and loyal. He puts everything into the game he can. No shortcuts. Sometimes I gotta slow him down.”
Watching the two men work, it was clear their relationship was more than professional. There was a sense of intimacy between them. You’d think that they had been paired from the beginning, when Yuri was a three-time Israeli national champion. In fact, the two only met last year when Grier stepped in to cover for his friend, celebrated trainer Tommy Brooks, who was tied up shooting the ill-fated reality show “The Next Great Champ.”
Grier has been training fighters for 40 years. He is not famous but is respected in the boxing community. The difference between the two is often dumb luck, a matter of a special kid walking through the door. Fight agent Johnny Bos, who has been advising Foreman, said he’ll be matched tough in roughly a year’s time. He’ll have that career-defining fight, presumably for one of the alphabet belts, and we’ll learn just how special he really is.
So far, Foreman has been matched just as nearly all of the bankable prospects out there are: protected, brought along gently. In his last fight, broadcast on ShoBox, he thoroughly outclassed 16-0 (12 KOs) Kevin Cagle, the best record on his resume to date. But Cagle is from Greensboro, NC, and had never fought outside of his home state, meaning that he has beaten 16 nobodies.
Foreman boasts only seven stoppages. In lieu of a big eraser, one positive is that he’s gotten 82 instructive rounds under his belt. A young knockout artist often finds himself rudderless when he eventually faces an opponent that won’t be easily disposed of (Kermit Cintron’s disintegration at the hands of Antonio Margarito earlier this year is a case in point). Friday night’s opponent, Troy Lowry, doesn’t appear to be a big step up from Cagle. While he has a respectable record of 27-5 (16 KOs), he’s from St. Paul, MN. When talking opponents, MN and NC are interchangeable acronyms that almost always suggest mediocrity.
Johnny Bos explains that several more desirable opponents had dropped out before Lowry was chosen. Yory Boy Campos was the initial opponent that had been lined up. Although the 18-year Mexican veteran has thick molasses coursing though his veins, he is still a worthy litmus test for an up-and-comer like Foreman. Campos is durable, tough and cagey, but Foreman possesses dizzying mobility and a jab that Bos considers one of the best in the business. Campos might make for a sweet win number 20. Besides, Bos added, you can’t beat the tagline: “Yuri Boy vs. Yory Boy.”
“[Yuri] has that in and out rhythm,” explained Steve Farhood, a boxing analyst who has called several of Foreman’s fights both for Showtime and for Lou DiBella’s Broadway Boxing series. “And when you’re on your toes that often, as opposed to digging the balls of your feet into the canvas, you’re never going to punch with power. It makes him elusive, it enables him to fight at his own rhythm, but at the same time there is a price to be paid for that style.”
On the other hand, Farhood continued, “If you have the goods, fighting in New York is a big plus, because HBO and Showtime executives are here, the media is here, a lot of these Internet sites are here. His handlers have to be careful not to let Yuri get a swelled head, then move him up to quickly.”
As soon as he finished his training, you could almost see Yuri’s war mask melt off his face. In his street clothes, which consisted of ripped jeans, a leather band on his right wrist, a rocker’s studded belt and a faded t-shirt, he looked like a scruffy teenage skater who regularly skips dinner. He’s all pipestem arms and ball-and-socket joints. The only sign of danger is in his sharp Slavic bone structure and spiky-punk hair, which look like shards of glass designed to keep pigeons away.
His commute home takes about two hours, requiring a lift to the train from Grier, a train transfer at Hoboken, and then a subway ride from downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn. It’d be much easier for him to go to Gleason’s, which is walking distance from his home. But when Grier said the kid doesn’t take shortcuts, he was being somewhat literal. Foreman doesn’t complain about any of this. Rather, he gives you the impression that he feels blessed—blessed to be married to his beautiful young wife Leyla, to be living in New York, to be practicing his craft everyday, and to have a future full of possibility.
It’s only when he gives you fleeting glimpses into his past, that you recognize why he is so unspoiled and resolute in pursuit of his dreams. In an unguarded moment, Yuri might reveal how as a child, he and his mother would count the scars and lumps that mapped his father’s back. (He was arrested and beaten mercilessly with billy clubs for attempting to sell contraband like brand-name clothes, bought in Poland and snuck back into Russia.) Or how, after the family of three emigrated to Israel, his mother grew so depressed and alienated that she became an alcoholic, and ultimately died of liver complications while the boy was away at a boxing tournament. He might allude to how the Russian kids were treated like scum by their Israeli classmates. Or how when he wasn’t cleaning offices with his parents after school, he lugged 100-pound bags of rocks on his undeveloped back as a summer construction job—one that only unfortunate Arab men were desperate enough to take.
Then there was his boxing coach, Michael Koslowski, who was like a second father to him—but was more Robert Duvall in “The Great Santini” than Steve Martin in “Parenthood.” Yuri lived with him for his first three years in the States (his father has stayed in Israel), but says there was a master-slave dynamic. When he decided to break from the trainer early in his pro career, an unpleasant Russian hood showed up at his door with a gun and with the intimation that he wasn’t long for the world.
Yuri faced down all these bogeymen. None of them could break him, or even subdue his cheerful disposition. If anything, it all gives rise to that hackneyed saying of Friedrich Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
But to the boxing fan that doesn’t care about a fighter’s backstory and is solely concerned with how far a prospect might go in the sport, suffice it to say that Yuri’s character will serve him well once he meets adversity in the ring. If boxing is 70% mental, as Teddy Atlas often reminds us, then Foreman is someone to keep an eye on—in spite of his low KO percentage or the fact that he has encountered neither a monster nor a maestro in the ring.
An hour after parting with Grier, Yuri ascended from the New Jersey PATH train. Behind him was the site of the former World Trade Center, which now looks like a giant meteor crater or an archaeological dig. He took in the swarms of people buzzing around him, the soaring buildings, the city sounds and the surprisingly balmy weather we were having. He nodded his head appreciatively. After taking off from Europe, touching down in the Middle East, and finally landing in the Big Apple, he had found his rightful place.
In a few days he would leave for Florida, allowing himself plenty of time to acclimate to his surrounds and to be in peak shape by Friday. He slung his gym bag over his shoulder and headed for the subway to Brooklyn. “Don’t forget to eat your apples with honey,” he said over his shoulder. “It can make your year sweet.”
Who will win #HOPKINSKOVALEV