Rooting for Yuri Foreman is cheering on greatness
LAS VEGAS – A fighter's "entourage" has been a part of boxing as long as gloves, a mouthpiece, shorts and a spit bucket. Fighters are legendary for surrounding themselves with a traveling herd larger than the population of many towns across America.
Muhammad Ali's entourage became so renowned that brilliant writer Gary Smith did a profile of it in Sports Illustrated in 1988.
But for Yuri Foreman, former world champion boxer and soon-to-be rabbi, there is no entourage. There isn't even one other person with him.
He traveled to Las Vegas from his home in New York toting a battered, green suitcase that once belonged to his mother-in-law in Hungary. She gave it to her daughter, Foreman's wife, Leyla Leidecker, who had long since lost track of it.
Leidecker was shocked when she discovered that her husband brought it with him to Las Vegas, where, on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, he'll fight Pawel Wolak in the co-main event of a Showtime pay-per-view card.
Foreman, though, doesn't understand why it would make sense to ditch the old suitcase and buy a new one.
"What would be the point? I can put my clothes in it and bring them with me. It does the job it was intended to do. It's perfectly fine."
Listen to the 30-year-old, who was born in Belarus in the former Soviet Union, and you marvel at how exceedingly normal he is. He's not just normal in relation to the narcissism that pervades professional athletics. He's as down-to-earth and as genuine as any man anywhere, virtually absent of any ego.
He protests when someone remarks about his lack of ego and how he's so different from most every other athlete.
"I have to be honest with you," he says, leaning forward in his chair and tipping his newsboy cap up away from his face so it's easier to look into his eyes. "I'm getting a little bit spoiled."
You wonder: What did he do? Did he buy a $6,500 Louis Vuitton suitcase or a $10,000 Rolex watch?
No big purchases, but he does frequently speaks to Jewish groups in New York and sheepishly admits he's begun to rate the food at his various stops. At some appearance stops, the food is tastier and more abundant than it is at others.
"Here in America, at the Shabbos dinner, you'll say, 'What's on the table today? What's there to eat?' " Foreman said. "In Russia, for example, you're happy if you have some bread on the table and some vodka and maybe a little bit of meat. People are happy with that.
"I want to be down to earth, and I try hard to be that way, but I have to admit that I'm getting a little spoiled. Sometimes, I catch myself saying, 'Well, the food is not as good as before.' I'll catch myself noticing that at a place I go one week, there is an abundance of food and at the place the next week, there is less. And that would make me think, 'Oh, they're not cooking that well here.' I once had very little [in terms of food and personal possessions] and now that I've been given so much, I catch myself getting a little spoiled."
We should all be so spoiled.
Foreman received very little notoriety for most of his boxing career and many journalists would shudder when he was put on a card, not pleased with his defensive style. But Foreman routed Daniel Santos to win a world championship on Nov. 14, 2009, earning a measure of respect from those who had routinely ignored him.
But it wasn't until he faced Miguel Cotto and fought until he could barely stand in the final rounds on June 5 at Yankee Stadium that Foreman was truly appreciated in the boxing world.
"If anybody had any questions about this kid's heart, or his guts, or his desire, they were answered after what he did in the Cotto fight," promoter Bob Arum said.
Foreman entered the fight wearing a brace on his right knee, which he said occasionally gave him minor pain.
The knee was never quite normal after he injuring it in a bicycle accident at age 12. The family didn't have the money for surgery, and Foreman just shrugged off the pain and lived with it.
But in the middle of the biggest fight of his life, on the night that he says surpassed the wildest of dreams he ever could have had, the knee gave out again.
It was the worst possible time. Foreman was 28-0 and defending his belt against Cotto, a likely Hall of Famr, in the main event before a huge throng in NYC.
It was a surreal moment for him to see his larger-than-life face on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard and to gaze around and see all the people in the seats who had come to watch him fight.
Foreman began to box when he was 7, when he came home from a day at the pool in Belarus and was bullied by some older boys. His mother took him the next day to a boxing gym to learn how to defend himself.
Two decades later, he was fighting in the midst of one of the year's most significant bouts and acquitting himself nicely when disaster struck. When his knee gave out, he fought on one leg. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament and stretched the meniscus in his right knee and underweight surgery a few days after the bout.
"A fight like that, you just don't get ready for it just in the preceding three months, when you're doing your preparation," Foreman says. "I'd been getting ready for that fight for my whole life."
But he knew fairly quickly he was going to have problems. Foreman isn't a huge puncher by any stretch, but with a right knee that made it impossible to walk without a limp, let alone plant it, push off and throw a punch, he became like a gunfighter without any bullets.
He didn't want to quit, even when his trainer, Joe Grier, threw in the towel in the eighth round. His wife had been urging the corner to stop the bout and was angry with referee Arthur Mercante Jr. when Mercante threw the towel back and forced the fight to continue.
"You kind of need your legs to box," Foreman says. "I understand why they wanted to stop the fight. My wife, she wasn't happy. If I was in her place, I would have had the same opinion if she were fighting. My trainer, I know he was looking out for me. How can I be angry at someone who is looking out for my best interest and trying to protect me?
"But in that moment, as a fighter, I didn't want to quit. When the referee said I could continue, I was happy. Stupidly, maybe, I thought I still had a chance. I thought of that movie about the [1980 U.S. Olympic] hockey team, 'Miracle on Ice.' Maybe I could have gotten a right hand in, one of those big punches and had it land on the chin. It would have been 'The Miracle in the Ring.' As a fighter in the middle of the competition, that's what I hoped for, because you never want to quit. But I understand why they wanted to stop it."
His manager, Murray Wilson, who had been a father-figure to him, was disappointed, too. Foreman recalls a story written about him after the fight, in which Wilson expressed disappointment in the turn of events that led to the end of the fight.
"He said [in the story], 'He did me proud,' " Foreman said, grinning. " 'He did me proud.' That was just Murray. I could hear him say that."
Wilson, who believed in Foreman when no one else did, who championed Foreman's cause with passion, won't be ringside on Saturday when Foreman returns to fight Wolak.
Wilson unexpectedly died in October, leaving a void in Foreman's heart.
"I was bathing my son, Lev, when my friend, Jerry, who was the doorman at Murray's building, called me," Foreman said. "I didn't want to interrupt Lev's bath, so I continued and figured I would call him back later. When I listened to the message, Jerry was speaking in a very low voice and he said, 'Yuri, call me right away. It's Murray.' I knew something was bad."
They were an unlikely pair, the reserved soon-to-be rabbi and the 72-year-old wisecracking restaurateur, but they had a bond that is not easily explained.
Not long before Foreman walked to the ring to meet Cotto, Wilson stood behind the media section and gazed around. Everybody told the kid he wouldn't amount to anything, Wilson said to a reporter. He smiled wryly, as he often did, and said, "I guess they were wrong, huh?"
They were wrong. Foreman not only turned out to be a better fighter than anyone could have predicted, he became one heck of a human being.
If you're a father and you have a son like Foreman, you're likely on your knees daily, giving thanks.
If you can't find it in yourself to root for Foreman, you must have ice in your veins.
They don't make many like this kid.