Yuri Foreman: Against All Odds (Part One)
INTERVIEW By Jason Petock (April 29, 2006)  
Photo © Marty Rosengarten/ HoganPhotos.com
Light Middleweight Yuri Foreman, 20-0 (8) had anything but an easy and carefree childhood growing up. While most American kids complain because they didn’t get the latest video game or present that they wanted for their birthday, Yuri had to deal with far greater issues as a boy living in Belarus. He grew up fast and learned quickly that it was his personal fortitude and determination that he could rely on to survive. Trivial matters were of little importance those days for young Yuri, and he realized that he could soon use this drive and channel his energies into boxing. Moving to Israel at the age of 11, he also had to face further hardships and trials living as a Russian Jew and not being accepted by his Israeli Jewish counterparts although they shared the same beliefs. The fact that he was Russian was a point of contention with his Israeli schoolmates and led to several fights and disagreements.

Yet it was in Israel that boxing first touched young Yuri’s soul and gave him the outlet that he needed. Since he was a very young boy he had dreams of becoming a professional boxer. This was far from an easy goal to obtain in Israel however, where boxing wasn’t one of the country’s main sports. So Yuri and a group of his friends who were interested in boxing sought out a man who could teach them the basics of boxing that they so eagerly wanted to learn. There was no equipment accessible to them and they learned the ABC’s of boxing in a dirt lot. Sweating it out in that lot, Yuri built a strong foundation of boxing fundamentals that developed in him the core of a fighter which started him on his way to a boxing career. What is even more astounding about Yuri Foreman is that having no one to spar with or fight he protested to his local authorities about the lack of adequate conditions and they told him to go fight the Arabs. And guess what? Yuri did just that. Astoundingly with the courage of a lion, Yuri walked into an Arab gym and made his bones, not only earning the other fighters respect and admiration but also crossing boundaries and breaking age old prejudices and animosity in the process through his iron will and resolve.

Upon learning of Yuri’s incredible story and trials in life, I jumped at the exclusive chance to interview him recently. I would like to thank wholeheartedly writer Nat Gottlieb for introducing me to Yuri Foreman and opening the door for me. Nat’s brilliant writing also exposed me to the history of Yuri and the information that I used for the introduction part of this interview is directly in reference to an article Nat Gottlieb did about Yuri for Boxingranks.com on August 18, 2005. Through his selflessness, I was able to contact Yuri as well as secure an interview easily with this courageous, determined, thoughtful and genuinely kind fighter. Of course I would also like to extend my sincere gratitude to Yuri Foreman for taking the time out to grant me an interview with him because without him this would not be possible of course. Yuri has already begun to make his mark in boxing and he will continue to do so, you can count on it. This is the first installment of an ongoing interview that I have been doing with him and here’s what he had to say.

JP: You had an interesting childhood growing up, could you please elaborate on what life was like for you in Belarus?

Growing up back in Belarus, it was still the USSR and I have only positive memories of Belarus. We were a typical Soviet family, my grandmother, my parents and me all in a one bedroom apartment, along with my dog “Rocky”. My grandmother was working as a train conductor on the Gomel-Moscow line for 30 years. Once in awhile she would take me with her to Moscow. For me it was an awesome time, because I loved to travel. I remember when she took me to the Red Square, and then to the Lenin Mausoleum where they had the mummified dead body of Lenin (the father of Communism in Russia) lying. It was a little creepy.

Oh, and I remember when the first McDonalds in the USSR was opening. I don’t remember exactly when that was but maybe around 1989 or 1990, and my grandmother promised to take me there. I couldn’t wait. So when I asked my parents what is “McDonald’s”, they said it must be the best food on Earth, and like I said I couldn’t wait. So on the next trip my grandma took me to Moscow again and right after we arrived I dragged my grandma to McDonald’s. When we got there, there was a line maybe a mile long. People waited for hours to get in. It was a tragedy for me and I was ready to wait until the end, but my grandma didn’t want to hear about it. It was after 10 years before I went to a McDonald’s in New York and I was very disappointed.

JP: How did you first get interested and involved in boxing?

When I was 7 years old my mom took me to a boxing gym. I was swimming before and a few times I was bullied in the city’s swimming pool. She wanted me to be able to defend myself and get more mature. It was during that time that I first saw a boxing match from the USA. The fighter was Mike Tyson and he was fighting “Razor” Ruddock. I had never seen anything like that in my life and Mike Tyson became my hero and boxing my #1 sport. My father told me that there is another great fighter called Muhammad Ali, but I didn’t know anything about him, I was 8 or 9 years old at the time.

JP: What was it like for you and your family in Israel and what made your family decide to move there?

In 1990, my parents started to think about immigrating to the U.S. because life got tougher in the USSR, but right before getting the answer from the US Consul, they closed the USA for Soviet immigrants. So my dad and mom thought about moving to Israel. It took another 10 months to file and send all the papers and documents. In the end we got the green light. We were happy!

Well then a couple of days before the departure I met all my friends and family and said goodbye to them. It was a little sad because I didn’t know when I would see them again. Also, I have to mention my grandma; it was particularly difficult for me to leave her behind.

I was 10 years old when me, my parents, and my dog “Rocky” arrived in Israel. I clearly remember as soon as I stepped from the plane I felt the heat and a very fresh air. I thought we arrived in paradise.

We moved to a beautiful city called Haifa in north Israel. My parents sent me to school and my father started to clean offices for a very low pay. My mother was very depressed for a long time and she wanted to go back. But my father was explaining to her that back there is no future for us.

I remember the first day at school I was introduced to the class, of course I didn’t know what everyone was saying but everyone smiled. It was a very warm feeling. I was quite happy because it was the first time I changed school so it was a big thing for me. The second day of school wasn’t warm at all. Don’t forget, we were all kids, all kids from a different country who dressed and talked different. They let me know pretty fast that I don’t belong there. It was after school when all the kids were going home and some bully approached me and was screaming to my face aggressively. I couldn’t understand what he was saying but my gut was telling me that it wasn’t any good.

I was very involved in my family things, so after school I would help my father to clean offices. On my birthday I refused to accept gifts because I knew that my parents were struggling to make a living. During the summer break I was working on construction sites with Arabs when I was already 13 years old. I was picked up at 6 in the morning and finished working at 6 in the evening. I was giving all the money I was making to my parents. We were living in a one room basement apartment.

(Stay tuned for future installments of this compelling interview with Yuri Foreman as they unfold…)
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