Foreman's traveled a tough road to ring

NEW YORK -- There is something to be said for the hunger that is manufactured inside a fighter when he grows up in an atmosphere of poverty. It makes sense that Manny Pacquiao is the search-and-destroy sort of boxer that he is once you comprehend that the Filipino's family was so poor that it resorted to eating the family dog after all other options were exhausted.

Yuri Foreman (28-0, just eight KOs), who will step up in class dramatically when he defends his WBA junior middleweight title against Miguel Cotto (34-2, 27 KOs) at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, didn't experience that level of poverty growing up. But the formative years of the young man who is studying to be a rabbi while he trains to defend his title do feature the sort of dramatic interludes that forge the willpower necessary to reach the top tier of prizefighting.

Foreman was born in Belarus where he started boxing. When he was seven, he was bullied by some older boys at a local pool. His mother took him to a local gym to learn how to defend himself. Two years later the family moved to Israel, relocating in Haifa, which is located in the northern part of the country and is Israel's third-largest city. Foreman joined a local boxing gym soon after moving to Haifa and was immediately thrown in the deep end of the pool, sparring-wise. The gym's roster was mostly Arabs, and there was tension.

"For sure, it was tense," the 29-year-old Brooklyn resident said. "They were not accustomed to seeing a Jew in the gym."

At 15, the 125-pounder was sparring with middleweights with much more experience. "After a few training sessions, I beat them up," Foreman said. "Some of them were trying to take my head off, but I was fighting back. And we became friends."

That all-in immersion into the game became a building block for Foreman, helped him know deep down that he could pass high hurdles when things would look bleak in the ring. His mental toughness was already in place, it seems, when he was kindergarten-aged.

Foreman recalls being worried about his mother after stories of women being accosted around the Belarusian neighborhood surfaced. He followed her on his bike when she went on errands. For protection, Foreman said he packed a Crocodile Dundee-style knife in his pants with the intention of scaring off any thugs who bothered his mother. Unfortunately, his fears came to fruition one day when the little bodyguard wasn't around and his mother was kidnapped. Foreman said she was missing for a week and was released only after a childhood friend of hers who had become a wiseguy did some digging and found her.

"The guy had a knife, and he told the guys who had her to release her," Foreman said.

They obeyed, and she was back home, reunited with her husband and her intense protector in short pants. She later died of natural causes in 1998. Foreman was only 18 at the time. The motivation for the abduction remains a mystery to this day.

"I think about it rarely," Foreman said with a shrug.

He has reached a level of acceptance that might mystify members of the United States' Oprah generation, who are prone to wallow in self-pity and past woes. The ability to use hard times as lessons rather than alibis is one reason that down-on-their-luck immigrants still rise up in the sweet science. This is not to say that only kids from ghettos grow up to be ace fighters. Muhammad Ali's upbringing didn't feature rotisseried family pets or other sad tales of want, but he turned out to be a fair fighter, right?

As we look ahead to the Foreman-Cotto clash, more and more analysts are piling on, calling for a Foreman upset win. Cotto is a slim favorite with the bookmakers, but it must be considered that maybe we have focused on the Foreman backstory, and the rabbi-to-be novelty angle, too much.

Foreman's two biggest assets are his legs and his ring generalship. He knows how to dictate the pace of a fight, and he stops moving only between rounds. He moves left, then right, keeping his foe off balance and doing a good job of using the entire ring with his movement.

"Yuri has an extremely difficult style for anyone," said Emanuel Steward, who will take the night off from his HBO analyst duties to train Cotto for the fight. "I was speaking to Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns recently and they said I got my hands full. I don't feel he has great punching power, but it is much better than people give him credit for."

Cotto isn't known for his superior mobility, so Foreman's movement is a concern to Steward. Foreman's sharp jab is another concern. If he can pepper Cotto from a distance, that will allow Foreman to pile up points for a decision. Cotto, who has been in wars with Shane Mosley, Antonio Margarito and Pacquiao, will be the toughest competitor Foreman has faced since turning pro in 2002.

Deciding on the Brooklyn-based boxer's best win is no easy task. His résumé was built early on with some easy fights. But promoter Bob Arum realized Foreman's story was getting old to fight fans. His compelling upbringing and novel dual-vocation storyline have basically been used up. It's time for Foreman to show he is a legitimate champion.

Cotto, who has gone the distance with Hall of Fame-level talent, offers Foreman the chance to prove he's worthy.

But the Crocodile Dundee knife won't be allowed in the ring.

Michael Woods is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com and ESPN The Magazine and editor of TheSweetScience.com.

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