Roman Greenberg was tipped to become boxing’s first billionaire heavyweight before he suffered his first loss and disappeared. Elliot Worsell investigated
“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-M-A-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,” Boswell told
Boxing News. “Couldn’t help it.”
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.”
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, 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
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 surface-level 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
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 seven-thirty 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
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
“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.”
John Gichigi/Getty Images
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
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
Having had a decade to reflect, Waterman doesn’t
“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 hundred and 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
one-time 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.”