Ro­man Green­berg went miss­ing in his last flight, and then miss­ing al­to­gether. El­liot Worsell in­ves­ti­gates

Boxing News - - Contents - RO­MAN GREEN­BERG

What­ever hap­pened to Ro­man Green­burg? We find out

SOME­BODY wins and some­body loses,” wrote W.C. Heinz in The Pro­fes­sional. “There’s as much of a story in a fighter los­ing as in a fighter win­ning, maybe more.’

This is the story of Ro­man Green­berg and it be­gins with a fu­tile Face­book search: R-O-MA-N. G-R-E-E-N-B-E-R-G. Cedric Boswell, an old ac­quain­tance, tried spell­ing the name myr­iad ways, had a root around In­sta­gram for good mea­sure, but could find no trace of Green­berg’s ex­is­tence. Re­signed to fail­ure, the Amer­i­can heavy­weight then be­gan think­ing how un­usual it was for a man in his thir­ties to eschew any form of so­cial me­dia pres­ence and re­placed ini­tial cu­rios­ity with a greater con­cern for his well­be­ing. He hoped he was do­ing okay. “I al­ways won­dered what hap­pened to him,” he told Box­ing News. “Couldn’t help it.” Speak­ing for so many of us, the last time Boswell saw Green­berg it was Au­gust 2008 and he was slumped against the ropes of an At­lanta box­ing ring hav­ing re­ceived a se­ries of unan­swered punches to the face. They were thrown by Boswell, thrown with­out a mod­icum of con­cern for Green­berg’s well­be­ing, and de­signed to get him out of there. Out of his way. Out of the ring. Out of the heavy­weight rank­ings. They were de­signed to erase him. Be­fore that mo­ment, Ro­man Green­berg was un­de­feated in 27 pro fights and seem­ingly on course to crack Amer­ica and cash in on his Jewish her­itage and no short­age of skill. Jews be­lieved he was des­tined to be­come their first world heavy­weight cham­pion [Max Baer held the belt in 1934 but his­to­ri­ans claim Baer was only a quar­ter Jewish], ex­citable pro­mot­ers tipped him to be­come box­ing’s first “bil­lion­aire heavy­weight”, and An­gelo Dundee, upon watch­ing him train, was re­ported to have la­belled him the fastest heavy­weight he’d seen since Muham­mad Ali.

Green­berg was in on it as well. Fif­teen years ago, fu­elled by this fer­vour, he was sit­ting ring­side at York Hall, Beth­nal Green in a long, black Ma­trix-like leather jacket re­gal­ing me with his plans to be­come Euro­pean heavy­weight cham­pion in 2004 and then “go on to world ti­tles”. He was just 21. “I think there is a good pos­si­bil­ity that will hap­pen,” he added, con­fi­dently, “and that is what we are all work­ing to­wards.” ³

When he said “we” it was meant in the team sense. He en­sured ev­ery mem­ber of this team – his “we” – was cor­rectly jot­ted down in my notepad, an in­deli­ble mem­ory from that night in the East End, and em­pha­sised their im­por­tance. There was Robert Waterman, his pro­moter, and Jim Evans, David Po­rat and Steve Ber­nath, his train­ers, all of whom took care of Ro­man when he’d ar­rive in Maiden­head five or six weeks be­fore a sched­uled fight. “My ca­reer has gone bril­liantly so far,” Ro­man said. “I couldn’t be hap­pier. Those guys are all do­ing their job, and I just have to do mine.”

For Green­berg, a man whose fam­ily left the former Soviet Union for Vi­enna, Aus­tria when he was six, only to then move to Is­rael four years later, a box­ing ring was al­ways a sym­bol of con­sis­tency, while trips to Eng­land of­fered the chance to spread his wings and es­cape a coun­try that made his fam­ily wait two years for cit­i­zen­ship. “With­out cit­i­zen­ship, you have no rights, noth­ing,” he said.

Born in Moldova, Green­berg, en­cour­aged by his fa­ther, took up box­ing at 11, won sil­ver medals for Is­rael at the Euro­pean and World ju­nior cham­pi­onships, but saw a 2004 Olympic dream dashed on ac­count of the Is­raeli sports au­thor­i­ties’ re­fusal to pro­vide enough fi­nan­cial sup­port. Waterman, the pro­moter who be­friended a 16-year-old Green­berg in Tel-aviv in 1998, tried to help fund the fighter’s jour­ney to Athens, but, in the end, the greater in­fra­struc­ture was lack­ing to make it fea­si­ble.

In­stead, Green­berg, with the Star of David on his shorts, de­cided to turn pro in 2001. “I am a Jewish fighter who rep­re­sents all Jews,” he an­nounced. “It is im­por­tant for peo­ple to see there are Jewish box­ers. If I suc­ceed, all Jews suc­ceed.”

In six years, Green­berg won 27 con­sec­u­tive pro fights. He was heav­ily show­cased on the BBC, he boxed in Monte Carlo, Hol­ly­wood, Las Vegas and New York, and he reg­u­larly sparred the likes of David Haye and Michael Sprott, of­ten hold­ing his own. Yet there were sus­pi­cions even back then, even with mo­men­tum in full flow, that the hype out­weighed the sub­stance.

“Ro­man Green­berg is a neat, tidy boxer, but I’ve been hear­ing ru­mours Mike Holden has put him down in spar­ring, and it doesn’t look good,” Mark Pot­ter, a former Bri­tish heavy­weight ti­tle con­tender, told me in 2004. “He’s been kept away on din­ner shows and stuff, and it’s hard to keep an eye on him.”

Sim­i­lar tes­ti­monies were avail­able else­where, as will al­ways be the case when­ever a young fighter is pow­ered by hype, but there were no such con­cerns among the in­ner cir­cle. At least none made pub­lic. “The first time he boxed in New York we went to a press con­fer­ence and all the seats had a bit of pa­per on them,” said Jim Evans, Green­berg’s coach. “On the pa­per it said, ‘Ro­man Green­berg is ex­pected to be the first bil­lion­aire boxer.’ I had a row with Robert Waterman. I said, ‘Who put that on the bloody chairs?’ He said, ‘Well, be­cause he’s a Jew, some peo­ple think he is so mar­ketable he could be the first bil­lion­aire in box­ing.’ I said, ‘Robert, what are we do­ing putting all this pres­sure on this young kid?’” “I don’t think that both­ered him,” is Waterman’s take on the weight of ex­pec­ta­tion. “I think what both­ered him were per­sonal is­sues. I think he was in­cred­i­bly home­sick to a level we didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate. He came from a very dif­fi­cult fam­ily back­ground and there were al­ways is­sues that needed his at­ten­tion and were tough to deal with from afar. “I don’t think the pres­sure was a prob­lem, but I do think he was made to feel a bit of star. Be­ing young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced, he


didn’t live the life as a re­sult of that. Though in­cred­i­bly ner­vous, he be­lieved his nat­u­ral abil­ity and skill would see him through. If he didn’t train hard enough, he’d be saved on the day.”

Ten years ago, in what would prove to be his fi­nal fight, Green­berg, stunned in round two, was saved not by his own tal­ent but by Bill Clancy, a ref­eree. The only per­son who’d seen it com­ing was Cedric Boswell [in­set,

fac­ing page], the one re­spon­si­ble for it. “I’d never heard of him,” said Boswell, now 49. “When I saw the peo­ple he’d fought, I re­alised he hadn’t fought any­body. Also, where I’m from, I’d seen his style a mil­lion times be­fore. My own style is sim­i­lar to that. I knew he couldn’t show me some­thing I’d never seen be­fore. There was noth­ing to worry about. He didn’t have any power and I knew I was faster than him. If you’re fight­ing a heavy­weight with no power, what’s there to be afraid of?”

In ef­fect, Boswell skim-read the fawn­ing press re­leases and promptly dis­carded them. He then heard peo­ple speak glow­ingly on Green­berg’s be­half and deemed it not an in­di­ca­tion of a sup­port net­work but, rather, a sign of weak­ness.

“We did a lit­tle press con­fer­ence be­fore the fight and then went to a radio sta­tion and were sit­ting next to each other and talk­ing,” Boswell con­tin­ued. “He talked a lit­tle, but his man­ager was talk­ing about how he was go­ing to beat me and all this stuff. So, I told him, ‘You’re not go­ing to be able to fight for him. Ro­man’s got to get in the ring and do it him­self.’

“I looked at Ro­man and said, ‘Lis­ten, brother, I’ve seen a whole lot of things you’ve done, and you haven’t shown me noth­ing. When we get in that ring, I’m go­ing to beat your ass.’ I saw his eyes drop and knew right then I had him. He didn’t be­lieve in him­self.”

With the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, and a knock­out win, Boswell now ques­tions the pace at which Green­berg was moved, con­demn­ing a record lit­tered with too many “tomato cans” and too many dis­tance fights. He won­ders whether Green­berg ever had to dig deep and show his met­tle.

“I saw in the first round he wasn’t re­ally there to im­pose his will,” re­mem­bered Boswell, who “thanked God” ev­ery night for land­ing the fight. “I was try­ing to pick up the pace and he was box­ing with a spar­ring part­ner’s men­tal­ity. He wanted to hold on and then break and be friends. I knew he wasn’t ready, men­tally, for a fight.

“I think he had po­ten­tial, though. I think he had a lot of po­ten­tial to do well in the heavy­weight di­vi­sion if they had moved him cor­rectly. But they didn’t move him right.”

That’s the sur­facelevel read­ing of Ro­man Green­berg’s demise. It’s one that deals in records and facts and footage of him be­ing over­whelmed against the ropes, and it’s one with which we are fa­mil­iar. Delve a lit­tle deeper, how­ever, go be­neath the hype and its sub­se­quent im­plo­sion, get to know the hu­man be­ing be­hind the per­sona, and you might dis­cover the root of the prob­lem.


In the case of Green­berg, the hu­man be­ing had hu­man prob­lems, chief of which was his mother’s can­cer di­ag­no­sis in the weeks pre­ced­ing his bout against Boswell. De­scribed as be­ing in a “ter­ri­ble state”, and con­stantly cry­ing in the gym, Green­berg was sent home by Evans, told to get his head straight, and re­turn to Maiden­head in five days. Evans said if he didn’t see him in five days, the fight was off.

Green­berg re­turned in the al­lot­ted time. Bet­ter for the break, bet­ter for hav­ing seen his mother, he was then in­formed by his coach he’d be picked up at 7:30 the next morn­ing for his first run back. “I went around his flat and he walked out look­ing like Quasi­modo,” re­called Evans, who learned Green­berg had some­how twisted his back and sent him for a 10-day course of phys­io­ther­apy.

“This was a pre­dom­i­nant fea­ture of the prob­lem,” Waterman con­firmed. “He’d be in fairly de­cent shape when he left but come back out of shape. We’d then be play­ing catch-up in train­ing and he would gen­er­ally get a nig­gling in­jury be­cause of this.

“In ret­ro­spect, none of us should have let him go through with that fight. It was he who wanted it. Pos­si­bly I wasn’t the best pro­moter or man­ager at the time. I take some re­spon­si­bil­ity for it.”

“I can­celled the fight in Amer­ica and they were go­ing mad at me,” Evans said. “They were telling me to keep it on. But I knew he was in a ter­ri­ble state. I said, ‘Look, Ro­man, ev­ery­body can see you’re in­jured. I don’t want you to fight.’ He said, ‘No, I want the fight. I want the money for my mum.’”

Real­is­ing the im­por­tance of the pay­day, Evans is­sued Green­berg an ul­ti­ma­tum. He told him to come back the fol­low­ing day, do eight rounds of spar­ring with Michael Sprott, the other heavy­weight in the Evans gym, and win ev­ery round. “To be per­fectly hon­est, he didn’t win the eight rounds,” said Evans. “He cer­tainly lost the first three.”

Even so, the coach had asked Sprott to “put him un­der the cosh”, trade ver­nac­u­lar for knock him out, and the ease with which Green­berg coped with the pres­sure, and nav­i­gated the eight rounds, con­vinced ev­ery­one watch­ing he de­served a chance. The next day, Green­berg coasted through 12 rounds and lost not one.

The even­tual fight, though, was another mat­ter. Look­ing back, Waterman con­cedes it was the wrong “cross­roads fight” to take and clas­si­fies Boswell as a “con­tender in the Who Needs Him Club”. But he also rightly points out that many heavy­weights have ex­pe­ri­enced losses like the one Green­berg suf­fered against “The Boz” and gone on to great suc­cess. “Wladimir Kl­itschko springs to mind,” he said. At first, it was just a de­feat.

A sur­pris­ing one, no doubt, but a de­feat all the same. It was the 26-year-old’s Ross Pur­rity mo­ment, to stick with the Kl­itschko theme, and only its blow­back, its grav­ity, could be un­der­stood, per­haps even fore­cast, by those ac­quainted with the hu­man be­ing. “Jim said to me, ‘He’s never go­ing to box again’,” re­called Waterman. “I said, ‘Give him six to eight weeks and he’ll be go­ing mad want­ing to.

“But I to­tally mis­read it. I ac­tu­ally think we all mis­read Ro­man, Jim in­cluded. We all thought Ro­man was in­cred­i­bly cool and calm and, if any­thing, too laid-back. But I think it’s a bit like the ducks swim­ming across the lake. Every­thing is serene and calm above the wa­ter but be­neath the wa­ter those feet are go­ing like crazy. I think Ro­man was like that. He was in­cred­i­bly ner­vous. His so­cial back­ground, what he’d been through, and be­ing the Rus­sian man, meant you had to be strong and not both­ered vis­i­bly. But I would say, as a re­sult of that loss, he had a bit of a break­down.”

A dis­traught Green­berg re­turned to Eng­land the day after the Boswell fight and then left for Is­rael on the Tues­day. Jim Evans, the man from whom he rented a flat, the coach he con­sid­ered part of his team and there­fore part of his ex­tended fam­ily, would never hear from him again.

“I couldn’t tell you where he is or what he’s do­ing,” said Evans, whose late wife, Ge­orgina, was “ab­so­lutely heart­bro­ken” when it be­came clear Green­berg, the young boxer she loved like a son, wasn’t likely to re­turn. “Over 10 years now and I haven’t heard a word from him. That was the end of Ro­man Green­berg. He just van­ished off the face of the Earth. It’s ab­so­lutely crazy.”

Evans ad­mits he’s partly to blame for the com­mu­ni­ca­tion break­down. Old-school in his ap­proach, he has long held the be­lief that a fighter should con­tact the coach if they want to main­tain a re­la­tion­ship and ar­gues it’s not the job of the coach to pester the fighter, ac­tive or oth­er­wise. “The trou­ble is, I never chase any­body,” Evans said, al­most apolo­get­i­cally. “You could be the best boxer in the world liv­ing next door to me and I wouldn’t go after you. You have to come and see me.

“My box­ers, I don’t even ring them. If they don’t turn up to the gym, that’s their prob­lem. I tell my other train­ers, ‘Don’t you ring those blink­ing box­ers up. If they can’t ring you and tell you they’re go­ing to the gym, don’t worry about them. They’re grown men.’”

“Jim doesn’t know how to reach him,” said Robert Waterman. “I have – a few times. I’ve even vis­ited him a few times.”

Two years ago, Waterman and Green­berg con­vened in Haifa and over din­ner the former fighter re­vealed box­ing pro­fes­sion­ally, the whole process, had been one of the big­gest mis­takes of his life. He told Waterman his ma­jor re­gret was that he never took it se­ri­ously, and then, to his old pro­moter’s sur­prise, hit him with the kicker. “He said I made his life too easy,” Waterman ex­plained. “That was some­thing I had to think about.”

Den­nis Hob­son, Waterman’s co-pro­moter at Fight Academy, had of­ten wanted to warn the team be­hind Green­berg – the men once scrib­bled down in my notepad – about the per­ils of pam­per­ing but never felt he had the li­cense to do so.

“I saw the po­ten­tial,” he said, “but the dif­fer­ence was they were in love with him. They were blinded by love, es­pe­cially Robert. He was in love with him be­cause he’s Jewish him­self. He thought he had the golden goose on his hands. “But it didn’t re­ally do Ro­man any good be­cause he was there wip­ing his back­side at ev­ery whim. Some­times you have to say to them, ‘Hold on, you’re tak­ing the p**s now. You have to go and do that for your­self.’ You’ve got to take them out of their com­fort zone, so they’re not fazed when the go­ing gets tough.

“It’s like hav­ing a beau­ti­ful girl­friend and not be­ing able to see past the good looks. I thought he had ab­so­lutely every­thing – mar­ketabil­ity and abil­ity – but when he stepped up, when he got hit on the chin or isn’t hav­ing a good day, could he hang in there? Ul­ti­mately, that’s what found him out. I don’t think he had the tenac­ity and the des­per­ate hunger to achieve.”

Hav­ing had a decade to re­flect, Waterman doesn’t dis­pute this.

“Peo­ple used to say I was too nice,” he said. “Ev­ery­one was look­ing after Ro­man like he was a mem­ber of their fam­ily. If he needed to get some­where, he had a car. If he needed to go some­where, he had a ticket. If he needed to stay some­where, he had a bed­room. He never had any is­sues. He never lived the life.”

Waterman es­ti­mates he has met Green­berg on “prob­a­bly five or six” oc­ca­sions since Boswell spoiled the fairy tale, and says that Green­berg, racked with guilt, once told him he had been mean­ing to call Jim Evans, but that the pass­ing of time made it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult. He said he only had him­self to blame, yearned to turn back the clock, and had even ex­plored the pos­si­bil­ity of a come­back. Waterman, in re­sponse, as­sured him it wasn’t too late.

“The prob­lem was he now had com­mit­ments with fam­ily and couldn’t fund


the process,” he said. “My col­leagues and I were happy to help, but we weren’t happy to fund the whole process. He wanted to have enough of a salary to be able to look after his fam­ily, which we all agreed on. I took my hat off to him for that. It showed he was tak­ing care of his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. The sums just didn’t add up in the end.”

In the in­ter­ven­ing years, Green­berg, a 36-year-old fa­ther of three, has worked se­cu­rity of the anti-ter­ror­ism va­ri­ety – “I don’t mean deal­ing with drunken brawls,” Waterman clar­i­fied – and has now given up any hope of re­turn­ing, much to Waterman’s re­lief.

“My gut told me if we had got it restarted we’d have found out he wasn’t a changed man in re­spect to his dis­ci­pline,” he said.

“On one occasion in Is­rael he picked me up from the air­port and took me to a ho­tel. I said I’d be leav­ing in a few days’ time and he said, ‘Let me take you to the air­port.’ I told him it was go­ing to be early in the morn­ing and that it was no prob­lem. I knew he wasn’t great in the morn­ing. But he said, ‘No, I in­sist.’

“Any­way, he never showed up and wasn’t avail­able on the phone. A few days later, he reap­peared on the phone apol­o­gis­ing.”

Jim Evans, de­spite 10 years of si­lence, holds no ill feel­ing. “Such a nice bloke,” is how he de­scribes the ab­sent fighter, be­fore say­ing he pos­sessed the best “heavy­weight box­ing brain” he’d ever known. Waterman, mean­while, reck­ons the man who speaks flu­ent Rus­sian, He­brew and English, with a cock­ney ac­cent, as well as Ger­man and Span­ish, might have been “too smart” for box­ing.

“I know this will sound a bit pa­thetic, but I think I grieved,” Waterman ad­mit­ted. “I didn’t grieve the loss of a box­ing ca­reer, I grieved the loss of rel­a­tive. To me, Ro­man was like a mem­ber of my fam­ily. Ev­ery­one loved him. He came to my fam­ily for Passover and my par­ents’ house for Fri­day night din­ner, which is quite a big thing among Jewish peo­ple. In fact, his first car was given to him by my fa­ther.

“From my fam­ily’s per­spec­tive, no­body has a bad word to say about him. It was up­set, not anger. Com­mer­cially, peo­ple may have felt let down by him, but, in ret­ro­spect, he had to make the de­ci­sions. As long as he made them for the right rea­sons – health and hap­pi­ness – I don’t re­ally have a prob­lem with what’s hap­pened.”

Cer­tainly, com­mer­cially speak­ing, Green­berg lost out. Though never des­tined to be­come box­ing’s first bil­lion­aire, there was once a three-mil­lion dol­lar of­fer to fight Mike Tyson, just be­fore Tyson was shocked by Danny Wil­liams in 2004, as well as a three-hun­dredand-fifty-thou­sand dol­lar of­fer to face Vi­tali Kl­itschko in 2007. “You can take this as gospel,” said Evans, “be­cause I’m telling you.”

More re­cently, five or six years ago, a Green­berg link from the good old days con­tacted Evans with a dif­fer­ent kind of propo­si­tion. The voice on the phone be­longed to Is­raeli David Po­rat, the heavy­weight’s one­time tech­ni­cal coach, who said, “I’ve got a cou­ple of twin broth­ers in Haifa and I want you to sign them.” Evans could only laugh. “Not for me, mate,” he replied. “I’ve had enough of these for­eign box­ers.”


BE­FORE IT WENT WRONG: [l-r] Po­rat, Evans, Green­berg and Waterman


EARLY PROM­ISE: A right hand jerks back Jur­czyk in 2003


IN CON­TROL: Green­berg out­points Michael Simms in New York

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