Boxing / Yuri Foreman Takes World Title With TKO

Rabbi-in-training is first Israeli champ

SAN FRANCISCO - Yuri Foreman late Saturday night became the first Israeli to claim a professional boxing crown when he defeated Daniel Santos of Puerto Rico to take the WBA junior middleweight (under-70 kilogram) title on points.

Foreman, a Belarus-born Israeli who has lived in Brooklyn for 10 years and is studying to be an Orthodox rabbi, won the 12-round bout by unanimous decision - 116-110, 117-109 and 117-10.

The 29-year-old Foreman was so excited after his victory that a few minutes after midnight he called his father in Haifa from his MGM hotel suite in Las Vegas to give him the big news.

"Before I entered the ring my wife, Leyla, told me: 'Yuri, can I ask you something? Do me a favor, finish it quickly with a knockout,'" he told his father. "I knew why she asked me this, I knew it's hard for her to see me in a fight long enough to take several blows. I also thought I wanted to end it with a knockout."

Foreman told his father how he prayed and said Pslams until he had his rival on the ropes, losing his balance. "I saw him wobbling," he said. "I knew another blow or two and I would send him to the floor and win with a knockout, but then the bell sounded, ending the round and saving him."

Foreman is a rare combination of power and smarts. He comes from a poor family that immigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His father works in Haifa as a mechanic, but Yuri moved to New York nearly a decade ago. A few years later, he began studying in a Brooklyn yeshiva to become an ordained Orthodox rabbi.

He has a very strict schedule, studying Torah in the morning and doing intense physical training both inside and out of the ring in the afternoon. He does a lot of weight lifting, running and fitness training.

The transplanted Brooklynite took a 27-0 record into the title fight, while Santos boasted a record of 32 wins - 23 by knockout, three losses and one draw. Going into the fight, Santos was considered a boxer with vision, power and great stamina.

Foreman said that in preparing for the southpaw he knew that if he could stand his ground, the Puerto Rican would not be able to knock him out. "So I worked hard for months to be at the peak of fitness," he explained. "They were very exhausting, difficult months to both study for the rabbinate and practice, but now I know the hard work paid off and proved itself."

Although Santos was the favorite to defend his world title, Foreman had the edge almost the entire way with fantastic legwork, showing that fitness and a lot of courage did not succumb to Santos' physical superiority.

"It's a fact we had 12 tough rounds, but thank God every time I got back into the ring for more I said prayers in my heart, and it worked," he said after the fight. "If you ask me what my strength is, I'll tell you it's in my brain. I run around the ring and keep thinking. I think I need to prove to everyone, not just myself, to the whole world that Jews know how to fight, that Jews know how to give a good fight and not surrender. I said it right after the fight, when they pushed the microphones at me and the cameras clicked. I said I wanted to prove that Jews are not a weak people that can be made to bend down and surrender, that Jews know how to fight and win. Actually, there are a lot of Jewish champions in the history of sports."

The place was packed, as the fight was on the undercard of the Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto title fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. With tickets, which were a minimum of $200, picked up weeks in advance, it's no wonder none of Foreman's yeshiva buddies made it to cheer him on. Moreover, the event was held just after Shabbat ended.

However, Foreman knew his friends would be following the fight and praying for him. "My wife Leyla spoke on the phone from Las Vegas to my rosh yeshiva in Brookyn before the fight began, and the rabbi told her that all the students were saying Psalms for me, and they paid a lot of money to see my fight on direct TV," said Foreman, referring to the $55 pay-per-view price of the fight.

In contrast to the usual arrangement where the winner of the world crown takes the lion's share of the winnings, Santos walked away with $123,750 while Foreman only took home $41,250.

"It was arranged before the fight that the champ would get 60 percent of the proceeds and I would get 40 percent," Foreman explained. "But it doesn't matter much because in the next bout I'll come into the ring as world champion, and then I'll get the majority and my rival will have to settle for a smaller share."

Foreman said after the fight that he was hungry, tired and just wanted to rest. "I want to forget about boxing for a few good weeks," he said. "Later we'll start planning the next move. Now I want to enjoy a little quiet when I can dedicate myself to my rabbinic studies and enjoy having a world crown." Barring any surprises, Foreman expects to finish his rabbinic studies within a year, at which point he will be ordained. "I think it would be most fitting for me to return to Israel and be a rabbi for a community there," he said. "I could leave Israel once in a while to box."