This Rabbi-To-Be Knows How To Throw A Punch The World Boxing Association's super welterweight champ has an unusual resume -- he's a New Yorker by way of Israel, and he's spent the past four years studying to be a rabbi. Yuri Foreman takes a cerebral approach to the game, favoring tactics over knockouts. And that's limited his appeal to some boxing fans -- who'll be watching when he defends his title Saturday night against big puncher Miguel Cotto at Yankee Stadium.
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This Rabbi-To-Be Knows How To Throw A Punch

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This Rabbi-To-Be Knows How To Throw A Punch

This Rabbi-To-Be Knows How To Throw A Punch

This Rabbi-To-Be Knows How To Throw A Punch

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/127410369/127411071" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Yuri Foreman (right) beat Daniel Santos last November in Las Vegas to win the World Boxing Association super welterweight championship. Foreman will defend his title Saturday against Miguel Cotto at Yankee Stadium. Jae C. Hong/AP hide caption

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Jae C. Hong/AP

Yuri Foreman (right) beat Daniel Santos last November in Las Vegas to win the World Boxing Association super welterweight championship. Foreman will defend his title Saturday against Miguel Cotto at Yankee Stadium.

Jae C. Hong/AP

Yuri Foreman, the World Boxing Association’s super welterweight champion, will defend his title against Miguel Cotto Saturday at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Boxing in a baseball stadium is rare enough -- the Yankees haven't hosted a fight (inside the ring, at least) since 1976.

But Foreman brings an even more unusual aspect to the match. He’s a 29-year-old New Yorker by way of Israel, by way of Belarus when it was part of the Soviet Union -- and for the past four years, he’s been studying to be a rabbi.

This makes for a scintillating biography, but Foreman's fighting style has been holding him back from wider acclaim. Even his manager admits he’s not a knockout machine.

So in the weeks before the fight, the undefeated boxer has been working crowds both familiar and not in an effort to broaden his appeal.

'He Loves His Country'

Luckily for Foreman, he's a hugely appealing fellow. One may come away with the wrong impression of Foreman if you judge him by the angry scowl he wears on posters that adorn New York City subway platforms. At Demarco's Boxing Gym on Staten Island, Foreman was giggling and grinning as he signed autographs and sparred with preteens.

The story of boxing is the story of the underclass and the immigrant. There were a number of Jewish boxers when many Jews were new to this country a century ago. From 1910 to 1940, there were 26 Jewish world champs, including the great Benny Leonard (above). Hank Kaplan Boxing Archive, Brooklyn College Library hide caption

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Hank Kaplan Boxing Archive, Brooklyn College Library

Normally, the sparring at Demarco's doesn't occur in a ring decorated with Israeli flags. And this sweat-drenched space, a floor above Ace Auto Styling, isn't usually populated with officials from the Israeli Consulate. Joel Lion is one -- and he says Foreman offered himself up to the consulate as a goodwill ambassador. It was Foreman's idea, Lion says, to set up events like the Staten Island boxing clinic in the name of Israeli national outreach.

"He was the one who said that's he's ready to do it," Lion says. "His country loves him and he loves his country."

Two weeks after the Demarco's event, Foreman sat in the grand marshal chair in the Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Word spread through the crowd that this was a Jewish world champion and he was observant and studying to be a rabbi. That combination thrilled onlookers like Samantha Rubenstein.

"I think it's amazing to have an Orthodox, religious Jew as a boxer -- as a champion boxer," she said. "I think it's awesome."

Foreman embraces the responsibility.

"I'm Israeli citizen, but besides the 5 million Jews that live in Israel, there are a lot of Jews that live outside Israel," he says. "So I represent Jewish people."

A Tactician, Not A Knockout Puncher

Foreman has been studying with Rabbi DovBer Pinson ever since he heard Pinson use a boxing analogy in a talk without knowing Foreman's background. Pinson says studying the Torah contributes to Foreman's calm, equilibrium and presence.

"I think that's a very Jewish idea, about being present in the moment and by studying and living as an observant Jew, I think you always have to be on top of your heels at every moment," Pinson says. "Because every moment is an opportunity to do a mitzvah [good deed] and to connect."

The Israeli flag provided a fitting backdrop for Foreman's championship celebration last November. Al Bello/Getty Images hide caption

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Al Bello/Getty Images

The Israeli flag provided a fitting backdrop for Foreman's championship celebration last November.

Al Bello/Getty Images

But it is Foreman's inability to connect in the boxing sense that has held him back a bit. Foreman is technically adept, athletic and smart. But he is not a big puncher. He's undefeated in 28 professional bouts, but he has only eight knockouts. By contrast, his Yankee Stadium opponent, Miguel Cotto, is 34-2 with 27 knockouts.

"Yuri is not a knockout fighter," concedes his manager, Murray Wilson. "Yuri is a true boxer and you have to have an appreciation of the sport to appreciate Yuri Foreman."

Many fight fans like their boxers more rabid than rabbinical. But it is this very style that has convinced Pinson that boxing is a skill and a sport and not just the application of "just raw brute power," which was his misimpression of the sport in the years before he started teaching Foreman.

Pinson has contemplated the ethics of Foreman's profession at length. He gives weight to the fact that boxing is consensual and says it's his understanding that the infliction of pain isn't the main point of the sport. Also, Foreman was already a boxer by profession when he met Pinson, and Pinson thought it was wrong to tell a person to give up his job to study to be a rabbi.

Toughest Match Of His Career

In his quest to achieve championships and spiritualism, Foreman has already touched the lives of Israeli children who send him letters. He's equally inspired by the wishes he's received from some of his former opponents when he was an amateur in Israel.

"When I won the world title, I receive many e-mails from Arabs from the West Bank," Foreman recalls. "And that was amazing to receive those congratulations from Arabs. And I am a Jew."

Saturday’s match will not take place until well after sundown to allow Foreman time to observe the Sabbath. Then a police escort will whisk him from his Manhattan hotel to the stadium in the Bronx where he'll face the toughest opponent of his career.

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