Boxing: Greenberg bounces back off the ropes

New Faces For 2004: There is no great tradition of Jewish heavyweights but Russian may break the mould
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Roman Greenberg was just seven years old when the racists smashed the windows one last time at the family home in Russia. "We had to leave, what was there to stay for? Death?" Greenberg said.

The family moved to Austria and Greenberg added the German language to his native Russian, but after three years they were on the road again completing the inevitable exodus. Greenberg was 10 when he arrived in Tel Aviv with his mum, dad and younger brother.

Normally, Russian settlers in Israel are found houses but there was a problem with the Greenbergs' paperwork and for 19 days the homeless quartet lived on the street in front of the Ministry of Housing. It was not a demonstration, they had no money and nowhere else to go.

"It was not a problem. We had left Russia, we had left Austria and arrived in Israel with nothing. We had no roof to cover our heads and it was not such a hardship," Greenberg adds.

At 14, Greenberg was big and he inevitably found his way to one of the anonymous little boxing gyms that are buried among Israel's oldest streets. He started at the Kiriat Bialik gym in Haifa but moved to the Gordon's gym in Tel Aviv before returning to the Haifa gym. He developed alongside the Arab heavyweight Tofik Basisi and life was easy inside the small Israeli boxing world.

He did his national service and continued to box but his schedule caused the military some problems. He was eventually given an honourable discharge from the army and allowed to get on with the fighting in the ring. He won silver medals at the European Cadet Championships in Macedonia in 1997 and the European Junior Championships in Latvia the following year.

In 2000, he travelled to Budapest for the World Junior Championships and won another silver medal. It was shortly after returning to Israel that he met Robert Waterman, a British boxing promoter. A year after winning the medal in the Hungarian capital, Greenberg relocated to Finchley and turned professional. He was 19 years old at the time.

"At first a lot of people thought I was joking when I mentioned Roman's name because there is, let's face it, not a long line of great Jewish heavyweights," Waterman admits. "Max Baer was the last heavyweight champion of the world and that was for about five minutes 70 years ago."

In British boxing gyms few people had any respect for Greenberg because he was young and white and it was not easy in 2001 and 2002. By the end of 2002 Greenberg was unbeaten in six fights and had fought in Las Vegas and on undercards all over England, including three fights during one 23-day period.

In 2003, Greenberg fought eight times and stopped or knocked out all of his opponents with a casual ease that separates dumb heavyweights from real prospects. It is not hard for a good matchmaker to get a heavyweight a few easy wins, and for the heavy-handed heavyweight to clobber a willing fall guy, but Greenberg has advanced with a bit of style.

At the start of the year, he was too Jewish, too white, too short, too light, but as each opponent tumbled from stunning short hooks or discreet little uppercuts he suddenly grew increasingly serious. Greenberg is more than 16st and 6ft 2in tall, and being white is no longer a burden and being Jewish is, without doubt, a bonus. The simple fact is that heavyweights can either fight or they can't fight - and Greenberg can fight.

"He has fantastic hand-speed and timing. I like the kid a lot, I'd like to work with the kid," Angelo Dundee said after watching Greenberg in his Miami gym earlier this year.

Waterman has a deal with a Miami hotel and Greenberg fought there three times in 2003. He finished 2003 in front of 1,800 influential business leaders at the Philip Green charity night at the Hilton in Park Lane. CNN, the BBC and a documentary team followed him to the ring. The fight ended in round five with Mendauga Kulikauskas, the Scrabble champion of journeymen heavyweights, cut and bewildered. But Greenberg touched down in round two when he rushed forward, eager to please the cameras and the crowd, and left his chin open to a quick counter.

"All heavyweights get knocked down. That is a fact. I got up, looked at the corner, kept cool and slowly finished the fight. I think it is essential that heavyweights are knocked down. It teaches them a bit of respect," Greenberg said at the Hilton. He has added English to the Hebrew he learned when he moved to Israel and is now fluent in four languages.

After the win at the Hilton, he flew to New York for the Vitali Klitschko and Kirk Johnson fight at Madison Square Garden. The fight was a farce but for Greenberg, being at the ancient venue was enough of a treat and also hearing so many thousands of Klitschko fans on the night speaking Russian left him dreaming of a big night in the future.

"When I fight for a major title I will have the Union Jack on one leg of my shorts and the Star of David on the other. I feel like a British fighter, I am a British fighter and that is good," Greenberg said. He is still only 21.

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