Tough Frummes – religious Jews making a career in the ring
Last week, a rabbinical student named Yuri Foreman became a world boxing champion.
Jewish boxing champions are nothing new. Daniel Mendoza, often known as the father of scientific boxing, and English champion in the late 18th century, was a Sephardic Jew.
In fact, in the first half of the 20th century, the American boxing scene was littered with fighters of Jewish heritage. Max Baer and Barney Ross were arguably the most famous of these. Baer was a bona fide world heavy weight champion in 1930s, who wore trunks with an embroidered Magen David. Ross (born Dov-Ber Rasofsky) was also a bona fide world champion in the 1930s in the lightweight welter-weight divisions. Ross was born into a religious family, apparently grew up with the ambition of becoming a Talmudic scholar and teacher. However, the murder of his father in an armed robbery saw him turn his back on Orthodox religious life, and instead he became a man of the streets, rather than a man of the books.
Even in Australia, there have been some Jewish boxers of some note, such as David Oved and Henry Nissen.
However, until relatively recently, there have not been any professional boxers to my knowledge who could be described as frum, or devoted to their religion, at least not during their boxing careers.
Born in Belarus, raised in Israel, and currently residing in the USA, Yuri Foreman has become only the second Israeli ever to win a world boxing title. The only previous Israeli world boxing champion, Johar Abu Lashin, won his title in a lesser rated boxing association. While Abu Lashin’s achievement should not be minimized, it is fair to say that Foreman’s title is a greater achievement, having been won through the top-flight World Boxing Association (WBA).
Dmitry Salita is another Baal Teshuva fighter born in a former USSR country. From Odessa in the Ukraine, Salita became frum after moving to Brooklyn. Entering the ring with Yiddish rap song playing, he apparently attracts a large following of Chabadniks who come along to watch his fights, chanting “Dima, Dima…” In what will inevitably be described as a promoter’s dream, the undefeated junior-welterweight will next fight Amir Khan (British Muslim) for the world title. At the press conference to announce this fight, Salita wore standard Charedi garb of black suit, white shirt and a black yarmulke.
Uriel Ben-Hamo has been Charedi his whole life, which in some ways makes his story more remarkable than either Foreman’s or Salita’s, even though his achievements as a fighter have not been as notable on a world stage. Ben-Hamo, a reigning Israeli kick boxing champion, was born into a Charedi family in Israel, and still attends Jerusalem’s Magid Mesharim Yeshiva on a daily basis. Ben-Hamo is studying to be a sofer stam (scribe), but at the same time has aspirations toward winning a world-title.
I would conclude the article here, but possibly someone is out there thinking: “How can you write a story about religious Jews who are professional fighters without mentioning the great Zab Judah?” Judah (as is was once described as “the greatest Jewish boxer of all time.” Judah is from a Black Hebrew Israelite family. However, Judah (at least as of 2006) has apparently moved away from the faith of his father, and instead moved closer to Yehoshua. Yes, while our Zabdiel could duck and weave with best of them, it appears he perhaps could not stand up to the quiet onslaught from the Jews for Jesus crowd.