It was just like how several attendees said they hoped the old days had been: A real crowd gathered at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn this morning to see Yuri Foreman, the junior middleweight belt-holder, train for his fight against Puerto Rican sensation Miguel Cotto on June 5 at Yankee Stadium. While ordinary decent folks hit the bags, shadow-boxed, and took lessons elsewhere in the gym, dozens of reporters, hangers-on, and plain old fans watched Foreman, the 29-year-old Belorussian who in his spare time is studying to be an Orthodox rabbi, rev himself up for the biggest boxing match involving a Jew in quite a few decades.
Foreman was a man of few words this morning. He moved from jumping rope—for like ten straight minutes!—to the ring, where he first shadow-boxed and then sparred with a pads-wearing trainer, and then finally to the speed bag. As a sport, boxing tends to enforce a dialectic between competition and spectacle: The more competitive a bout gets, the more spectacular it is; the more lop-sided, the more boring. Training is a little different, though. The most important part of this morning for Foreman, it was clear, was his time in the ring, but the segment that made for the most exciting viewing was the speed bag. I can’t quite ascertain its practical value—if a boxer ever tried to hit another boxer with that sidehand, up-down motion, he would certainly get pummeled by a hook to the body to be followed by a definitive opposite-hand uppercut. But it sure is cool to see as stunning a physical specimen as Foreman hit the bag in a speedy blur.
Foreman at the speed bag.
Foreman wasn’t taking much in the way of questions, but I did get a chance to chat with legendary promoter Bob Arum, the old Jewish guy behind the young Jewish guy. Arum also promotes Cotto and, most notably, the world’s greatest fighter, Manny Pacquaio. (I of course asked him whether we are going to be treated to the fight everyone wants to see: Pacquaio vs. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. He said it was too soon to tell.)
Arum spent a great deal of time going after the “naysayers”—specifically ESPN.com’s Dan Raphael, one of the most widely read boxing journalists. “He didn’t like Yuri’s style,” Raphael charged, “and he took it upon him himself to try to ruin his career.”
Being a promoter, Arum predicted “a tremendous fight.” I asked him, naturally, about the Jewish angle. After noting that he grew up in an Orthodox household, he explained, “The Jewish community is relearning this. In the old days, they were the most ardent fans of boxing. But they haven’t had a rooting interest in awhile.”
Arum’s original Great Jewish Hope was Dmitriy Salita, last seen in December getting crushed by Amir Khan in England. Only later did Arum come across Foreman, and realize he had the real deal—“and what a nice kid he was,” Arum added.
“It’s gonna be a terrific fight,” Arum predicted. (Well, of course.) “I think if Yuri fights his fight, he could—as relentless as Cotto is—hold him off.”
I ran into Douglas Century, the author of Nextbook Press’s Barney Ross, a biography of the great Jewish welterweight of the 1930s. We were both surprised—and thrilled—by the turnout.
Boxing has been, if you’ll forgive me, on the ropes for seemingly forever. And Foreman vs. Cotto, even at Yankee Stadium, is not going to single-handledly jolt it back to vibrant life (though Pacquaio-Mayweather very well could). Still, though. A big crowd at a gym on a weekday morning. The first fight at Yankee Stadium since Ali fought there in the ‘70s. A Jewish underdog. Something is different and exciting.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.