Nobody in Israel may have heard of him, but one of the most promising middleweight boxing prospects in the world is a 23-year-old from Haifa by the name of Yuri Foreman. His anonymity outside of the boxing community here is yet further proof of the difficulty top sportsmen and women face in Israel.
Foreman, who immigrated to Israel from Belorussia when he was 10 years old is now one of the jewels in the crown of leading New York boxing promoter Lou DiBella. With an amateur record of 75-5 and a pro record of 11-0, including six knockouts, Foreman is one of the hottest names around.
"In Israel, people only care about football and basketball," says the four-time Israeli youth champion who used to have to travel 40 kilometers to Arab villages to find somewhere to box. "I went to the Haifa Municipality and begged them to find me a ring to train in, but they told me go to the Arabs. I very quickly found out that they are the only ones in Israel who take boxing seriously."
In Israel, boxing is an esoteric sport that is the sole premise of the Arab and Russian communities, and doesn't receive much press coverage. In the United States on the other hand, boxing is still a major sport; and in recent months, Foreman has been the subject of plenty of media attention.
Last week, the New York Daily News devoted a piece to Foreman and said that he could soon be challenging the likes of IBF champion Winky Wright, Shane Mosley, Fernando Vargas or even WBC champion Oscar De La Hoya.
When he was 19, Foreman understood that if he wanted to achieve his dreams he had to leave Israel for the U.S. Nobody was waiting for the Israeli junior champion, however, and Foreman had a tough time before gaining recognition.
"I worked at anything I could - cleaning, moving, whatever. I used to turn up for training completely beat," he says.
But Foreman's dedication soon paid off, and the fair-skinned boxer started to pile up wins in a sport dominated by blacks and Hispanics. In his first professional fight last January, Foreman knocked out Israel Felix in 2:25 minutes.
"That was the first time I saw him in the ring," recalls DiBella. "I had already seen a few video tapes of him in action, but his ability amazed me. What really surprised me though was that after the fight, a group of Hasidim smothered him. Straight away, I realized there was something special here. Don't get me wrong, Foreman's Jewish roots are an advantage here in New York, but this is no gimmick. We're talking about an enormous talent with the potential to make it to the highest level."
DiBella isn't the only one to be excited about Foreman's prospects. Ron Hard, the owner of the boxing.com Internet site, sees Foreman as a fantastic prospect. "He's tough and he has speedy hands. The fact that he has been signed by a promoter like DiBella will also help him. Dibella has patience and he won't push Foreman before he's ready. I don't have a problem saying that Foreman has a chance of being world champion one day," Hard says.
All the experts say that in the last year, Foreman has improved his style. "Even though Foreman learned to box in Israel, his style is classical Russian," says DiBella. "That means a stiff posture and robot-like movements. One of the big challenges was to make his style more American. I spotted the problem the first time I saw him, but he's a young guy and I said we can fix those problems. What surprised me was the pace of his improvement."
A few months ago, Foreman started training with Tommy Brooks, who replaced Michael Kozlowski, an amateur boxer who discovered Foreman in Israel and moved with him to the U.S. Kozlowski lived with Foreman and worked with him in a textile factory, but relations between the two deteriorated after Foreman married a Czech immigrant.
Kozlowski was offered the position of number two trainer alongside Brooks, but he turned down the offer and he and Foreman are no longer in touch.
Brooks is full of praise for his prize student. "Yuri is progressing unbelievably. He's a quick learner. He knows how to take punches, how to attack and how to react. He's on the verge. He has all the aspects. He's got speed, power and character."
Foreman, who fights with a Star of David embroidered on his pants, calls himself "a Jew with a lion's heart".
DiBella says that in recent years, many Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have taken up boxing and that after several generations, we are witnessing a return of Jews to the ring.
If the enthusiasm Foreman has generated is justified, perhaps he will carry on the line from the golden age of Jewish boxers in the first decades of the last century, when "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom, Benny "The Ghetto Wizard" Leonard and Ruby "The Jewel of the Ghetto" Goldstein were among 25 Jewish world champions from 1903 to 1938.