By Mitch Abramson
As a child, the boxer Yuri Foreman followed a strict routine of school, followed by boxing. When he came to the U.S. in 1999, to follow his dream of becoming a world champion, Foreman was still married to that routine, working in the garment district by day and trekking to Gleason’s Gym at night. Foreman was as consistent in his routine as a mailman, quickly developing a reputation for being one of the hardest workers in the gym.
Eventually, Foreman quit his job and dedicated his life to boxing, winning the WBA junior middleweight title in 2009 against Daniel Santos, but that restrictive schedule didn't lessen just because he found success.
He was consumed with boxing, with the studying of other fighters, with the dietary restraints of making weight, and with the discipline of training. His routine was king, and he adhered to it like it was as precious as gold. But then it all stopped. Following the loss to Miguel Cotto at Yankee Stadium, and then the sudden death of his manager and friend, Murray Wilson in 2010, and after his perplexing loss to Pawel Wolak, Foreman took a leave of absence from the sport that had defined him, a sport that made it possible for him to live a comfortable life, with a wife and child and a nice home in Park Slope.
For nearly two years, Foreman didn’t fight, training occasionally, maintaining his weight but never committing to a return date to the ring. He abandoned his routine. During that time, he watched his baby son, Lev Micah, grow up. He enjoyed the company of his lovely wife, Leyla Leidecker; his knee healed, and he continued his studies as a rabbinical student. He is now just a few months away from becoming a rabbi, he says. Foreman developed a new routine.
Then, maybe eight months ago, Foreman began to get the itch and began to train with more vigor. Yes, Foreman, a creature of habit missed the routine of boxing. So he lined up a fight on a Joe DeGuardia Star Boxing card on Nov. 17 at the Paramount in Long Island, only to have that show canceled due to the Hurricane Sandy super storm.
Instead of taking that as a sign that his comeback was doomed, Foreman continued to look for a fight. He finally got what he wanted: another date for his return engagement, this time on Jan. 23 on the undercard of a Lou DiBella promoted card at B.B. King’s in Manhattan against an opponent to be determined. Just days before that formal announcement, Foreman said he was eager to return to the ring after a 19-month layoff. The routine had won out. He was a fighter again.
“This is really exciting to be in this position,” Foreman said in late December, while he was putting together his comeback fight. “Just to go back to training, you feel the excitement. I’m working toward new goals. But when you have a fight date, that’s a different type of excitement. You feel a little different toward training, you feel hungrier, more focused. You need to feel that way in boxing so that you don’t take any short cuts. And that’s how I feel right now. I'm ready. I know I have a fight to train for and I have that hunger and excitement again.”
He has a new approach to boxing, he says, a new manager that he is close to signing with. He is back with trainer Joe Grier. He is currently a promotional free agent. His contract with Top Rank expired after the Wolak bout and was never renewed, he said. Aside from his name recognition, he is basically starting from square one, he admits. But with the birth of his son, he says he feels more urgency now to make it than he did before when he first came to this country.
“Now it’s just about shedding the ring rust and just getting into the mix,” he says. “Hopefully, I’m smarter as a boxer. It’s different now because I have a son. I was dedicated before but I wasn’t serious. After becoming a father, I feel more responsible as a person. Now, hopefully I’m a smarter boxer, so we’ll see.”
Boxing is the most volatile of sports and no one could attest to its fickleness better than Foreman. In the run-up to his fight with Cotto, Foreman was everywhere, from fight posters in nearly every subway station to television and public appearances to promote the fight. For someone like Foreman, who literally arrived from Israel to Brooklyn with little more than his personal belongings and his ambition, it was a seminal moment. He had finally made it.
“It was the American dream,” he said of the fight with Cotto in June of 2010. “I literally came here with my back pack. I fast forward ten years and I had my picture in Times Square, even in subways. I would see myself all the time, see the posters for the fight. I‘m very fortunate to have gone through that. If someone had told me that in ten years you will be fighting in the new Yankee Stadium for the first time, I would have said, ‘Please.” But it happened. I’ve been praying for success.”
Foreman handled himself with grace in the promotion for the fight, and acquitted himself nicely against Cotto, fighting valiantly despite a bad knee injury en route to a ninth-round TKO defeat. In a sport that so often sees fighters quit on their stools, Foreman was hailed for his bravery, fighting on a knee that was later revealed to have suffered a torn meniscus and stretched ligaments, requiring reconstructive surgery to repair.
Less than a year after the Cotto fight and barely six months after Wilson’s death, Cotto was back in the ring against the hard-charging Wolak. He regrets taking the Wolak fight. He says now that he wasn’t in the right frame of mind, just months after his manager died, to take on such a fight, especially against a dangerous, straight-ahead boxer such as Wolak, who seriously tested Foreman’s surgically repaired knee, as well as his will to win.
“Yeah, it was too soon,” Foreman admitted. “Especially when usually athletes take a year off after having that kind of surgery. But I don’t know what got into my head. I was already training, four months after the surgery. It was a little bit too soon, much too soon. It was, I don’t know, just looking back I don’t know why I had to rush.”
In addition to being physically rusty, Foreman was still grieving over the loss of Wilson, a father figure who had taken Foreman under his wing and guided him to a world title. Wilson died on Oct. 13, 2010 of a heart attack at the age of 74.
“Murray was more than a manager to me,” Foreman says. “He was part of the family. Any time I had some event, we spoke on the event or texted, like every day. And anytime we had questions or I needed some help, he was always there for me. When he died it was like losing a close friend. He was like a father figure.”
Foreman felt a void after his death that wasn’t easily replaced. So Foreman did what he knew best: he returned to boxing, thinking that it would replace the hole that Wilson’s death left in his heart.
“It was like emptiness,” Foreman said. “The only solution- I went back to fighting. It was like closing my eyes and I thought by doing it, it would let me forget about it. I thought the best thing I could do is win in his honor. But God had other plans.”
The fight against Wolak was an unmitigated disaster. Foreman, so good at measuring his opponent and keeping his distance, was bullied around the ring for six rounds until he quit on his stool.
“I was so fed up with everything,” he says. “I said I was going to take a year off and see how I feel. With Murray passing away, I just needed to get past that.”
Now, he claims he’s fully invested in the sport, and his goals are what they used to be, dating back to when he first came to this country: to win a world championship. In that way, his career has come full circle. He has the hunger of a boy who has just arrived.
“My goal is to get my stock up, like on Wall Street and to get back into the mix,” he says with a chuckle. “And God willing I can be a world champion for a second time. Physically I feel great. The motivation is there. [My knee] is completely healed. It’s not in my head anymore. It’s not bothering me. It’s healed. And the Jewish community has been supportive. There is support, and there is hunger and motivation.”
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.