Heavyweight boxer Roman Greenberg’s record reached 15 consecutive wins last week at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. The 6-foot-3, 227-pound Israeli pugilist with a Star of David on his shorts took on New York’s Jason Gethers in the ring, scoring a technical knockout — better known as a TKO — in the sixth round. Greenberg, 21, dominated the fight from start to finish, out-thinking and out-punching his opponent. The packed crowd — which included the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jimmy Hoffa Jr. — buzzed with excitement.
Greenberg boxed steadily and intelligently throughout the match, but it was not until the sixth round that he floored Gethers with a flurry of quick, powerful punches. Hit by a crushing straight right, Gethers went down — and out for the count. (On the same card as Greenberg was his friend and countryman, super middleweight Yuri Foreman, who won his 14th consecutive match.)
Following the fight, Greenberg was mobbed by his new fans. Signing autographs and posing for pictures, the boxer was living out his dream.
“I love New York,” he said, “and I want to fight here again soon, but next time I want to fight for the world championship at Madison Square Garden.”
Among the many fans who see a bright future for Greenberg is Angelo Dundee, the legendary trainer of Muhammad Ali. Dundee calls Greenberg “the fastest big guy I’ve seen in years,” and speaks of someday working with the young boxer.
Over dinner at the Prime Grill in Manhattan a few days before the fight, the Forward sat down with Greenberg, who spoke of his life’s highs and lows, inside and outside the ring.
Even before he started boxing, Greenberg’s life was a bruising one. His family left the former Soviet Union for Vienna when he was 6. “Russians, it is well-known, don’t like Jews, and so we went to Austria for a better life,” he said. Four years later, his family moved to Israel. But Greenberg’s memories of the Holy Land are not fond ones. “I hated Israel,” he said. “It took us two years to get our citizenship, and as you know, without citizenship you have no rights, nothing.” To keep him out of trouble, Greenberg’s father encouraged him to take up boxing. He launched his career shortly after his bar mitzvah at a local gym in Kiryat Bialik, just outside Haifa, and soon emerged as one of Israel’s top amateur boxers. With that came the chance to represent the country he once hated.
By 2000, Greenberg had won two silver medals for Israel at the European and World junior championships held in Latvia and Hungary. After serving seven months in the Israeli army, he was awarded an honorable discharge, a favor often granted to talented athletes. But the Israeli boxing authority’s refusal to provide enough financial support knocked out Greenberg’s dream of fighting for Israel in the Olympics. “They only helped me financially once I came back with a silver medal from the European championships,” he said with apparent bitterness. “I am just sorry for all the young boxers in Israel who have potential but will not be able to achieve it, due to the lack of funding.”
With the Olympics out of reach, Greenberg turned professional two years ago, a move he wryly termed “a kind of mistake.” Even so, he has nothing but praise for the promoter who represents him, Robert Waterman. “He is more than a promoter,” Greenberg said. “He’s a great friend too. He’s done a brilliant job with me.” Waterman first spotted Greenberg at a Tel Aviv gym and offered him a contract a few months later. Since there is no professional boxing in Israel, Greenberg replanted himself in England. Today, he lives southwest of London in Maidenhead, where his trainer, the well-respected Jim Evans, has a gym. Greenberg still goes back to Israel to train with his Israeli trainer, David “Tolek” Porat.
Waterman tells of how Greenberg recently walked out of a meeting when a potential sponsor asked him if he would take the Star of David off his trunks.
In an accent betraying more London than Haifa, Greenberg declared: “I am a Jewish fighter who represents all Jews. It is important for people to see there are Jewish boxers. If I succeed, all Jews succeed.”
In Britain’s Jewish community, he is fast becoming a celebrity. Greenberg has a formidable physical presence in and out of the ring. According to Waterman, Greenberg is very popular with women: “When we were in Miami, Roman was swamped with amorous invitations from female admirers.” Greenberg — who has a girlfriend — stands poised on the brink of boxing stardom. He has been touted by many as a sure bet to become the first Jewish heavyweight champion since Max Baer wore the belt in 1934. (Some boxing historians claim Baer was not Jewish.)
Clive Bernath, editor of the influential boxing Web site SecondsOut.com, hails Greenberg as the finest young talent he’s seen in heavyweight boxing in 20 years. Waterman said: “I believe he has the ability to make it to the top, the only person who can stop Roman is Roman.”
Greenberg’s impressive victory last week could vault him into the big-money world of American boxing, with its ceaseless hype and pay-per-view cable broadcasts.
With his current record, Greenberg is a boxing promoter’s dream. Plus, he’s a Jewish heavyweight with intelligence, good looks and fluency in English, German, Russian and Hebrew. An avid chess player who enjoys studying history in his spare time, Greenberg — after his recent win — is back in England, getting ready for his next fight, which will take him to South Africa in June.
“Jews have been fighting for thousands of years to survive,” said Greenberg, “and we are here, successful. And I want to be successful in what I’m doing. No matter what, I won’t be stopped.”