On Saturday night in Las Vegas, Yuri Foreman became a world champion in boxing. Foreman, a Russian-Jew left Israel over a decade ago to pursue his dream in boxing. Now he is a champion, and soon he will become a Rabbi.
I met Foreman nine years ago and wrote this story:
By Ze’ev Avrahmi
Somebody had to die in order for Michael Kozlowski’s destiny to be born. Like most of ours, his life was also determined by his childhood: when Kozlowski was five, he watched, on the TV screen in the tiny living room of his family house in Kazakhstan, the funeral of a Russian general. “I remember watching all these people walking after his casket and the many people who crowded the road for him,” Kozlowski says today. “And right there I knew that this is how I wanted my funeral to look, that I couldn’t bear the thought that I would be buried with only two people around my grave.”
Half past eight on a cloudy Monday evening, in the time when winter slips into spring. Kozlowski, a 40-year-old boxing coach with blonde hair that tickles his shoulders and a face that hadn’t seen a razor for over a week, sits in his SUV and waits for his five boxers to finish their showers inside the Gleason Gym. They have just gone through two hours of grueling exercise. The air conditioning inside the car could cool Manhattan on an average August day, the speakers blast Sade. Kozlowski and his boxers have just burned another day on his way to becoming famous. Soon he will deposit his two female boxers at the nearby subway and continue with his three prodigies to their little home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. There, they will eat another low-calorie dinner, watch some boxing and go to sleep: the three youngsters in the bedroom, Kozlowski on the living room carpet.
Flashback, 20 years ago: Kozlowski, a young boxer, already knows that his ability won’t be enough to wrap fame around his memory, decides to become a coach. He starts to think of boxing as an art form, trying to measure it in terms of angles, velocity and distance. He is also in love. So much in love that he decides to prove his love by chopping off part of his left ear and sending it to the object of his affection. She doesn’t buy it, but a decade later, on the day his first daughter is born, he gets a phone call from her at his flat in Moscow. She tells him that he was the only one who ever really loved her and that she still keeps his chopped ear in a jar.
1995: Kozlowski, after establishing a coaching career in Russia, buys a one way plane ticket for himself, his wife and their daughter. They join the wave of many Russians who fled to Israel since the collapse of the iron curtain. Kozlowski, who is not Jewish but whose wife is, arrives in Israel with dreams of creating boxing champions. But he will find only disappointment.
“Ezer Weizman [then the president of Israel] was on the same flight,” Kozlowski says. “Upon hearing that I was on the plane, Weizman approached me and urged me to bring a medal to Israel from the Olympic Games. I remember that he kept posing with his hands to his face like a boxer, 70-year-old war hero, begging me to have the Israeli anthem played in the Olympics, promising to provide me with all the necessary tools to achieve that goal.”
A Promise, anywhere and in any language, can be a very deceiving word. It fills you up with hope and throws you down when it cannot be fulfilled. It has many meanings in Israel, a promised land, according to its residents. “Soon after I arrived, I went to learn Hebrew and found a job working as a physical education teacher in school. At night I worked in security inside a mall because I had to support my wife and our two daughters,” Kozlowski remembers. In the afternoons he would stroll around Haifa, the biggest city in northern Israel, pondering how he would import his boxing bible, the one that taught movement and vectors, velocity and center of gravity, to young kids in Israel. The first boxer he recruited was Yuri, a 15 year old who came to Israel from Russia when he was 11. Soon Kozlowski gathered together a group of young people who he believed would help him make good on his promise to Weizman.
Kozlowski, who describes himself as fanatic, has a mission. He believes that boxing is a way of life, an integration of education and physical activity, that boxing in the ring keeps youngsters from getting into street fights and into the crime world. He wants to relive the days when the Jewish population grew 93 world champions and shatter the myth that boxing and Jews don’t go hand in hand.
It wouldn’t look odd if it weren’t for the fact that Kozlowski has nothing to do with the religion, other than his having a Jewish wife. He had to come to Israel to see racism from up-close. He had to come to Orwellian Israel to attended boxing nights titled “the peace tournament,” where Arabs and Russians beat the crap out of each other in front of a joyful Jewish crowd. He led one of his boxers to the silver medal of the European Championship in 1998. “I remember stepping into the ring that night and hearing one guy telling his friend that he is in favor of my boxer because his opponent was black, and his friends answer calmly: ‘but he is Jewish.’” Kozlowski says. “Every where I went people called me ‘jude’. Finally I came one night to my surprised wife and declared: ‘yes, I am jude’”
Boxing. Everywhere and throughout history, it has been a sport for the poor, an escape gate from poverty, crime, immature death. It attracts those who are perceived to be worth less, the minorities. Kozlowski raised the Israeli flag in international competition when public opinion about the country had hit rock bottom. But it couldn’t help him: he wasn’t Jewish and his fighters were Arabs and Russians. Second grade citizens.
“Because of my schedule I slept maybe two hours a day. I earned $1000 a month from all three jobs, but I didn’t care. I had a mission,” Kozlowski says. “I remember that Russia built its intimidation upon two factors: strong army and superiority in sports. Israel had the army already, I took the charge for sport and Olympic medals.”
The authorities closed the door on him before he had the chance to plead his case. The Jewish authorities asked him to go and request money from the Arabs. The Arabs kicked him back. A Russian minister in the Israeli parliament reminded him that he wasn’t Jewish. Haifa’s mayor told him, in January, that there was no budget for him. But Kozlowski, true to his training, never gave up. He took his head down and decided to bang, again and again, against the wall. “There’s a sentence in Russia that states: ‘hope dies last,’” Kozlowski says.
First he took his fighters to a deserted basement whose walls were covered with posters of Israeli bombers and tanks, but he was kicked out. Then they all moved to an open yard in Haifa. On rainy days they would gather inside his apartment and box. Some of the boxers stayed over and slept on his balcony. The struggle started to show its effects: Kozlowski began to chain-smoke; his wife decided that she had had enough, took their two daughters and fled the apartment, the promising country, the fanatic husband, to relatives in Brooklyn. Kozlowski, like a boxer waking up after losing consciousness, was the last to find out that he was finished. He, who programmed his boxers to go on until their central nervous systems broke down, found, after a short journey in Israel, that he was the one lying in the ring, defeated.
Kozlowski decided that he had one last resort: he would begin a hunger strike in front of Israel’s presidential residence. He hoped that Ezer Weizman would remember him.
He punches as hard as George Foreman, he intimidates opponents like Foreman, grills a mean chicken like Foreman, and he even shares a last name with the boxer turned pitchman. But Yuri Foreman really dreams about becoming Muhammad Ali.
Foreman, the first boxer who joined Kozlowski in Israel, used to run miles upon miles before he discovered about Kozlowski’s training. Foreman had to run. He had to escape from the estrangement by the Israeli kids, from the stigmas thrown at Russians by Israeli society (“Russians are either mobsters or whores, usually both.”), from a mother who was so sick she had been hospitalized 16 times in two years, from the humiliation of his father, an engineer who had washed floors since their arrival to the promised land. When he joined Kozlowski, Foreman dreamt about a medal, international recognition, or maybe just about a teacher who would come and encourage him for the first time since he landed in this foreign promising country.
In June of 1998, Foreman won a silver medal in an international competition in Italy, an achievement that gave him a pass to the 18 and under world championships in Argentina at the end of the year. Upon his return to Israel he was stopped at the gate. Foreman, a blonde with blue eyes and an unscarred face, was stopped for questioning by the Israeli security. It didn’t help that he was wearing the official uniform of the Israeli boxing team. Neither did the silver medal around his neck. Foreman went home, found a note from his father on the kitchen table, put on his walkman and did his daily routine: a run to the hospital, five miles away. Only this time she was already dead.
Now it was like the ring: Foreman was down already, but the boxer within him was fighting out of his personal pool of motivation, a motivation fed by a collective measure of pain, rage and humiliation. Foreman, 154 pounds distributed perfectly on his six-foot frame, went to his last fight. He waited for five days on the steps in front of Haifa’s mayor without anybody attending him. He threatened the mayor’s deputy that when he won a medal, he wouldn’t forget to mention everywhere how unsupportive they were. “You will never be a champion,” the deputy responded.
At the same time, Kozlowski arrived at the president’s house. He asked to speak to the president and threatened to start a hunger strike. The security guy laughed at him and suggested that Kozlowski join the homeless at the corner who sleep there for months at a time. Kozlowski waited there until a TV crew came to document the scene. Faster than a Foreman jab, he was ordered inside. Promises were made. Kozlowski left without ever seeing Weizman again. After two months and when all the promises had been broken, Kozlowski packed two suitcases, folded an Israeli flag and joined his wife in Brooklyn.
In the late 40’s, after the world war, when the country committed itself to the notion of independence, there were more boxing clubs in Israel than soccer clubs. Boxing symbolized the courage of the new Jew. At the end of the millennium, when Jewish settlers violently and without provocation overturned Arab merchants’ baskets of fruit, boxing was pushed to the corner. The best boxing coach in Israel fled the country, Israel had no boxers at the last Olympic Games in Sydney, and Weizman, Israel’s hero during the 1948 independence war, was thrown out of office when it was discovered that he was accepting bribes from businessmen.
For ten months, Kozlowski worked at a garment factory in Queens and looked for training facilities where he could teach his kind of boxing: psychological boxing over physical technique, a method that urges you to make sure not to get hit first and then to find the opportunity and go in for the kill. When he found Gleason’s Gym, he went home and called Foreman.
Three months later, Foreman won the bronze medal at the Golden Gloves tournament in Michigan. From there they drove to Chicago for another tournament, but somebody told the organizers that Foreman was an illegal alien and he was kicked out after he won two rounds. Upon their return to Brooklyn, Kozlowski’s wife took him to the kitchen and presented him with an ultimatum: it was her or Yuri. Kozlowski packed his suitcases, folded the Israeli flag and moved with Foreman to a new apartment, two blocks away.
Foreman found a job at a store in the garment district in Manhattan. He’s a stock boy who works from nine to six, six days a week, for $200 a week. He passes $180 of his salary to Kozlowski for rent, food, gas and other expenses. $17 goes to his subway card. Foreman, 20, has three dollars a week for spending. He doesn’t go to bars, he’s never had a date, and he doesn’t go to the movies. Hell, he doesn’t know what a slice of pizza tastes like. Three times a week, in order to save some cash, he runs from his work to the gym, a five mile stretch that allows him to think about the promise he made his mother to become a boxing champ. When he runs he listens only to rap music. But he doesn’t listen to Eminem. “He’s just a white boy who tries to invade the ghetto culture,” Foreman says, too young and too naïve to understand the absurdity of his words.
Gleason’s Gym is located in one of the most photogenic neighborhoods of New York City. It sits in the second floor of a building that stands on the waterfront, facing Manhattan’s skyline, with the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges creating a huge ‘v’ over it.
“I took notice of them at the beginning because I knew about their incredible story,” says Christina Beckles, the gym owner’s personal assistant. “But soon it was all about boxing. Michael’s training methods are very unique, unlike anything I’ve seen here before. The American coaching is very loose while Michael is very structured. He’s almost like a scientist who creates robots: all of his boxers look the same and move the same in the ring: one second they are in front of you, shocking you with a combination, the other they are across the ring.
“Many boxers come to me and ask me to assign them to Michael, but he doesn’t want to accept anyone. He’s very selective. Look at them, they’re like a cult,
Foreman is the first to exit the building, followed by Jill Emery, who joined Kozlowski only eight months ago and was in May the first female boxer voted Boxer of the Month by Boxing magazine The last two boxers to climb into the car are Mammon, an Israeli-Arab, and Etgar, a Russian, two sixteen year-old boxers who left their families back in Israel and joined Kozlowski, hoping to get ready for the 2004 Olympic games.
The four men live in an apartment where the term “emptiness” is redefined every time they open the fridge. They all must take their shoes off before they step into the apartment. The walls are plastered with pictures, medals and trophies, the bookshelves crowded with books and videocassettes about boxing. The western wall of the living room is naked but for the Israeli flag that Kozlowski unfolds first thing every time he moves to a new place. Once a week, his wife comes over. Kozlowski gives her a hundred dollar bill that he keeps inside the Hebrew Bible he reads every night before he goes to sleep. And then she leaves. They don’t exchange a word.
“Boxing is a patriotic sport,” he says, mixing Russian, Hebrew and English. “It’s not about money, it’s about soul, and my soul dreams how I bring a medal to Israel and how Israel’s Prime Minister welcomes me back as a hero, as the last patriot.” Kozlowski looks at his boxers like an artist who looks on his works and says: “I am the Van Gogh of the boxing world. He might have been crazy but everyone knows him. My students are my works and soon everybody will know me.”
He and his boxers will wake up at six o’clock. The boxers will stretch and clean the two rooms. Then the younger ones will run two miles, grab their bags and leave for school– although neither of them understands English yet. Foreman and Kozlowski leave for work. Hope dies last