Boxer has a will to win, and to worship

It's a little after noon when Yuri Foreman steps through the door of Gleason's Gym, located above a furniture store in a former waterfront warehouse beneath the heel of the Manhattan Bridge.

If prizefighting had a Mecca, this would be it. The oldest boxing gym in the U.S., Gleason's has been a home to 132 world champions, including Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran and Jake LaMotta, the "Raging Bull."

Foreman, the unbeaten "Lion of Zion," became the latest to join the list after twice knocking down heavily favored Daniel Santos to win the World Boxing Assn. junior middleweight title last November in Las Vegas. That made him the first Israeli fighter to win a world title and earned him one of the championship banners that cover the walls of the dingy gym.

Yet after climbing to the top of a sport he has long attacked with zeal, Foreman finds that his accomplishment has to share the spotlight with his other pursuit. The boxer, you see, is studying to be a rabbi, spending each morning in the middle of the Torah learning how to interpret the will of God, and each afternoon in the middle of a gym learning how to break the will of his next opponent.

"Never in my wildest dreams would I ever believe that I would be putting on a card which would feature a future rabbi," says Foreman's promoter, Bob Arum. "This is the most unique thing that's come along."

The two worlds, boxing and religion, do not necessarily contradict one another, Jewish scholars say. Many of the greatest Jewish leaders were warriors, they say, so it's not hypocritical to pound somebody's flesh while also trying to redeem their soul.

"Judaism is very much stressed in the here and the now. That is, it's a celebration of life, not withdrawal," says Rabbi DovBer Pinson, Foreman's rabbinical instructor. "The stereotype of Jews in America is Woody Allen. I think that's a very good stereotype to break."

Los Angeles Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, who has invited the boxer to speak at the Jewlicious cultural festival in Long Beach this weekend, said Foreman "has been able to keep one foot firmly planted in his Jewishness and the other foot planted in the world that he loves, boxing. Young people need positive role models and Yuri's a great role model. His story is very compelling."

It's a story that includes an Israeli national title won while training in an Arab gym, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a death threat from a masked gunman, and a marriage to a Hungarian model.

Those are just the highlights.

The 29-year-old Foreman never set out to be a Jewish icon. In fact, he never set out to be Jewish, having grown up in a secular family in Belarus and Israel before finding religion -- and a pro boxing career -- in Brooklyn.

"Becoming a Jew," he says with a grin, "was a gradual process."

The journey began on the banks of the Sozh River in Gomel, the second-largest city in the former Soviet republic of Belarus and a place that was once home to a vibrant Jewish community. That community was nearly wiped out twice, first during the pogroms of czarist Russia at the start of the 20th century and four decades later by the Nazis.

By the time Foreman was born in 1980, his family had become so secular that his parents thought their ceremonial kiddush cups, passed down from their ancestors, were fancy shot glasses for drinking vodka. "We were so far away from Judaism we didn't know to hide it," Foreman says.

When Foreman was 5, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station about 100 miles to the southwest covered Gomel in a cloud of radiation, forcing the family to evacuate to Estonia. They returned months later, but Foreman's father rarely stayed in Gomel for long, traveling to buy shoes and other goods that he and Yuri would sell on the black market.

A couple of years later, after Foreman was picked on by bullies at a swimming pool, his mother marched him to a boxing gym and told the trainer what had happened. "The trainer promised her it would never happen again. And he kept his promise," Foreman recalls.

But if Foreman learned to fight in Belarus, he learned to box in Haifa, the Israeli port city where his family moved just months before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He trained there with Michael Kozlowski, a former Soviet national team coach.

Boxing receives such feeble support in Israel, Foreman had to train in the courtyard of an elementary school or on the balcony of Kozlowski's apartment, where a punching bag hung. To get in a ring and spar, Foreman and his training partners had to drive to a distant Arab neighborhood gym where they knew they weren't welcome.

"You are a Russian Jew and they know that. They were trying to hurt you," Foreman says of the fighters training there. But "after the workouts we'd shake hands. And then slowly we had friends."

He became Israel's most decorated boxer, a three-time national amateur champion. He was invited to celebrate Muslim holidays in Arab homes, where he was always seated at the head of the table. When Foreman won his world title, he received almost as many calls and e-mails of congratulations from the West Bank as he did from the rest of Israel.

"Boxing," says Foreman, who fights with a Star of David on his trunks, "transcends the differences between nations. Like the Arab and Jewish nations."

Kozlowski moved to New York and almost immediately set up shop at Gleason's.

Foreman soon joined him there and turned pro in 2002, debuting on a series of small cards staged in a hotel and an Italian restaurant. After his fourth win, a bloody decision over a journeyman, Foreman decided that Kozlowski's style, which worked well at the tactical, elegant amateur level, wouldn't work in brawling professional fights, where the bouts were longer and the combination punching far more furious. So Foreman suggested they add another trainer to teach him the nuances of the pro game.

"He took it as an offense," Foreman says. "We split. Very badly."

Within days a beefy Russian man knocked on Foreman's door and handed him a package. Inside was a bullet and a message warning the fighter that if he didn't return to Kozlowski his name would be in the news, Foreman says. The FBI investigated the threat but no charges were filed.

Kozlowski still trains boxers at Gleason's, where the door of his locker is covered with a laminated flier that reads "Coach of WBA World Champion Yuri Foreman." But the two haven't spoken in nearly eight years.

Before leaving Israel, Foreman says, he visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where he scribbled his petitions on a piece of paper and slipped it into a crevice.

"I wrote that I want to be world champion," he said. "One of the [other] things I wrote is to have a wife who's a model."

Both prayers were answered in Brooklyn, where he met and married Leyla Leidecker, a former fashion model turned documentary filmmaker who also had a brief boxing career.

"Without Leyla I don't know where I'd be today," says Foreman, sweat dripping after a spirited session of shadow boxing and rope-jumping at Gleason's. He skips workouts only for the Sabbath. "I would definitely not be a world champion."

Nor would he be Jewish. It was Leidecker, who also grew up secular under communist rule in Hungary, who encouraged Foreman to add a spiritual dimension to his life.

"I was always a spiritual person looking for a system of beliefs," says Leidecker,a former Metro New York boxing champion who sparred with Hilary Swank while the actress was preparing for her role in "Million Dollar Baby." "I tried a few things, and Judaism was the most pleasing."

She and Foreman, who met at Gleason's, were soon attending religion classes together. When one rabbi likened the struggles of daily life to two boxers in a ring, they were hooked.

Foreman decided on his own to become a rabbi, a goal Pinson, his rabbinical instructor, says he should reach in the next two years. Before then, he'll have to defend his boxing title this June in New York against former welterweight champ Miguel Cotto.

The Puerto Rican endured savage beatings in three of his last four fights; but that isn't likely to happen against Foreman, who has just eight knockouts in 28 fights -- and just one since 2004.

"Listen, I'm not a big expert on boxing. I don't really know boxing at all," Pinson says. But "the way Yuri boxes, no one seems to get hurt.

"A person like Yuri, that's a beautiful thing. He's a world champion and he has a high profile," Pinson says. "He's a good example of how to live as a Jew."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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