Courtesy of the Hamilton Spectator
Photos by Tory Zimmerman, the Hamilton Spectator
Isho Shiba has emerged from a corner of his world – in Iraq – where fighting was life and death.
A scrawny immigrant kid, Isho Shiba has become a power-punching Canadian puglistic champ.
SPECIAL TO THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR
Isho Shiba Sr., a former Iraqi soldier, fled Iraq with his family after being abducted on leave.
The Hamilton Spectator (Nov 12, 2005)
There is little hardship a boxer endures in the ring that can compare to the harsh reality of daily life in wartime Iraq. Iso Shiba — three-time Canadian national amateur boxing champion and six-time provincial belt holder — and members of his family would likely not be alive today if his mother and father had not make the choice to risk everything in order to escape the chaos of their homeland.
The nicest way to describe the basement where the champ spends so much of his time these days preparing for his defence is to say it’s bursting with character. If you’re seeking other aesthetic high points, you’re on your own. Because five-star it ain’t.
Well-beaten heavy bags dangle from the ceiling. Posters and pictures dot the weathered walls. Mirrors are available for the examination of technique or just for a little self-admiration. A ring stands at the far end where customers can go to bleed.
There may be no gym in Hamilton hotter than McGrory’s Boxing Club. The place is sweltering.
Isho Shiba doesn’t mind. He likes it here. Besides, he knows a little about tough places.
These days, the 19-year-old’s a three-time Canadian national amateur boxing champion and six-time provincial belt holder with Olympic dreams.
But if his mom and dad hadn’t made the choice they did years ago, he’d have been conscripted into the army by now and possibly been killed. His older brother too. His dad almost surely would’ve been gone.
“It would be so much different,” Isho says. “No boxing. It would be so hard.”
Harder than standing toe-to-toe with another man who wants nothing more than to hurt you, that’s for sure. Because a boxing ring and life in Iraq aren’t comparable.
“I just remember hearing stories,” Isho says.
Incredible, unbelievable stories.
* * *
When Isho first walked into the gym, he said almost nothing. He was a tiny-but-chubby — and exceedingly shy — 80-pound teenager with no obvious boxing skills.
Hand-speed wasn’t his gift. Nor did he hit particularly hard.
He lost his first fight. But that’s not what the people around the ring remember about it. His trainer, Vinnie Ryan, says everyone was bemused by the fact that he smiled the whole time. Even when he was being hit, his face was locked in a weird grin.
“I got out of there and said, ‘that was so much fun,'” Isho says. “I wasn’t sad. I didn’t care (I’d lost).”
He showed up at the gym the next day and got right back to work. And the day after. And the day after that. By the time the provincial championships rolled around, a few months later, he’d transformed himself into a real fighter. In some ways, that made him just like the man he’s named after.
Seventeen years ago, his dad, Isho Shiba Sr., was a member of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army. He was on the front lines in the brutal Iran-Iraq war, which resulted in as many as two million casualties.
Amazingly, he wasn’t among them.
“Too many times I was in danger,” he says.
During one battle, he and several others were in a trench avoiding sniper fire. When his best friend poked his head up, he was shot between the eyes. Unable to escape, Isho Sr. spent the next three days crouched in the foxhole beside the rotting corpse.
Meanwhile, things weren’t a whole lot better far south of him in Baghdad, where Isho’s mom, Polin – pronounced Pauline – was trying to raise three children with essentially no money. While her husband made about $250 a month in the army, little of it made it home to his family. He simply couldn’t get home to deliver it. He couldn’t even make it back to see Isho during the first six months of the boy’s life.
“I had no money to buy them clothes,” Polin says of her then-three children. “Just for (powdered) milk.”
Things only got worse. While relaxing in the Kurdish area of Iraq during a rare sabbatical from combat late in the war, kidnappers grabbed dad. For three months — shortly before Saddam unleashed poisonous gas on the Kurds — he was their prisoner.
But these abductors were motivated by money, not politics. Eventually, Polin managed to borrow nearly $10,000 from family and friends to buy his freedom.
Thing is, when he hadn’t returned from his break months before, his superior officers simply assumed he’d bolted. That was a sure death sentence if he was caught.
So, now free, he kept a low profile, called Polin, told her to meet him in northern Iraq where he remained in hiding, and started looking for help.
Carrying Isho and leading her other two children, Polin left with nothing but the kids and the clothes on their back, a few reusable diapers and the family Bible.
At each checkpoint, the soldiers would examine her meagre belongings.
They’d even check inside Isho’s diaper to make sure she wasn’t smuggling money or documents.
Meanwhile, dad had managed to find someone who’d get them all out of Iraq for $2,500 each. Another huge loan found their way to the right pockets and the plan was put in place.
Silently, under cover of darkness, they began to make their way through the mountains toward Turkey. Dad walked. Mom and the kids rode on horseback. Isho was bound to her back so her hands could be free.
“I was so tired all the time,” Polin says.
They travelled along narrow pathways through the mountains. In some places, the drop-off on one side was so sheer that anyone who took a wrong step would’ve had no chance. The horses didn’t like it any more than the people and often spooked, doing the same to their riders.
By day, the group hid in caves.
At night, when the temperatures dropped well below freezing and the rain began to pour, they’d travel.
Always dressed in Kurdish clothing in case someone spotted them.
For days this went on, until they finally crossed the border.
After changing into Turkish clothes, someone drove Isho, his mom and siblings hours away to a safe house.
Five anxious days later, the family climbed aboard a sweltering bus that would take them 22 hours to Istanbul.
To prevent anyone from knowing they were Iraqi, nobody could say a word.
Problem was, the two older kids’ stomachs were gnarled with the flu and were vomiting constantly. Mom had to press her hands over their mouths to keep them quiet and protect the secret of their escape.
By the time they reached another safe house, they were finally able to relax.
The month-long break that followed was nice. Because when they left again, things got really bad.
Some parents would be reluctant if their son or daughter said they wanted to start boxing. Faces get punched. Noses get broken. Boxers get hurt.
Dad never had a problem when a scrawny 13-year-old Isho said he wanted to give it a try. Dad thought it was a great idea.
“Sport is good for the kids,” Isho Sr. says.
After all, what’s the worst that can happen? A bruise or two? Life has bigger risks than that. Just sit with mom and dad and listen for a few minutes if you’re not convinced.
They left Istanbul on foot. For four hours in darkness, they ran through corn fields towards the river. Mom and dad took turns carrying young Isho, all the while being careful not to make any noise that would attract the attention of the soldiers who seemed to be everywhere. Considering the thousands of mosquitoes eating away at them, silence wasn’t easy.
Eventually they jumped into a small boat that ferried them across the river.
“It was so black,” mom recalls.
Waiting on the other side was a truck piled high with hay bales. In the middle was a specially designed space big enough for a dozen or so passengers to ride in secret. While it offered protection, it lacked any real ventilation. The only fresh air came from a single hole slightly larger than a loonie in one of the walls. And on this run to freedom, the cargo area was packed.
“All the time, people would come up and take deep breaths,” mom says. “Everyone was throwing up because they couldn’t breathe.”
When you can’t get air, your oldest son has asthma and is nearly passing out, the inescapable smell of vomit is nauseating, there’s nothing to eat or drink, and you don’t know if you’re being followed, eight hours goes on forever.
By the time the driver began pulling into the city of Salonica, he was barking orders at them. The instant the truck stopped, they were to pile out and run as fast as they could to the nearby train station where they could get a train to Athens.
“There we were finally safe,” Shiba Sr. says. “People there think we are tourists.”
And for the first time in their lives, the entire family Shiba was free.
No looking over their shoulders.
No worrying about food.
No fear of someone being killed.
Nobody could ask for better.
* * *
Isho’s typically a slow starter in the ring. The first round is almost always his worst. But at last year’s national championships, he came out flatter than ever. Two minutes in, he was behind by ludicrously 12 points.
In his corner during the break, Ryan was barking instructions, pleading with his protege to start fighting. Isho just grunted. Over and over again.
Then something changed.
“His face was totally blank, except his eyes got glazed over and he knew he had a mission to do,” Ryan says.
By the end of the second round, he was down by just nine points. And by the time he walked back to his corner for the third, he’d whittled the lead to three.
“Then he wiped the guy up in the final round,” Ryan laughs.
There’s no secret to why it happened. Isho’s a fighter. Fighters dig deep when things get tough. No matter how bad things get in the ring, they don’t quit.
They never quit.
And in the end, they’re often rewarded for that. Especially fighters who’ve gone through what he and his family have.
“That life has made him tougher,” Ryan says.
If freedom was sweet, arriving in Canada was a full-blown sugar buzz.
It didn’t matter that their apartment on Barton Street was hardly beautiful. It was small, roaches and earwigs and mice were everywhere, and the kids got a mysterious rash shortly after moving in. Money was a problem, too.
“We had nothing,” mom says. “We were sleeping on the floor.”
Yet even when dad was laid off from his good job at National Steel Car, the family didn’t complain. There was no war. There was food on the table.
And Isho was bringing the family glory in the ring. He won his first provincial title by default when organizers couldn’t find another competitor small enough to fight him. Even when other boys did step up, he dispatched many of them. Before long, he’d won six of those provincial belts and three national championships.
He still doesn’t hit hard. But his hands are now fast. His brain is faster. And his heart is huge. Even during a devastating seven-match losing streak, he worked with the same intensity every day to snap out of it.
“It’s inner strength and he wants to be the best,” Ryan says.
What he really wants is to fight in the Olympics. If his dream comes true, he’ll be in Beijing two years from now wearing the red and white, since he’s now a Canadian citizen.
Of course, making it happen will require a lot of work and a little luck, but Ryan says there’s no question it’s possible. The trainer says he’s seen the competition and nobody’s unbeatable.
Nobody’s even substantially better.
Fifty-five years in the fight business and Ryan says Isho’s among the top 10 he’s seen. Particularly in heart and desire.
Of course he’s biased. But he’s sure selling the vision with conviction.
* * *
If the Canadian dream is arriving here with nothing and doing what’s necessary to make a good life, the Shibas are living it.
The family lives in a beautiful home on the mountain that they’ve worked hard to afford. Dad now drives a taxi six days a week. Isho’s older brother, Ashur, works as a plumber. His sister, Dalia, is recently married and living in Toronto. His little brother, Zak, who was born here, is now the same age Isho was when he walked into the gym for the first time.
The entire family can’t quite find the words to express how happy they are that Saddam’s no longer in power. Because of that, dad was able to return home recently to visit his mother before she passed away. A couple years ago, that trip would’ve got him killed.
And Isho is grinding hard every day in the gym to complete the dream. Working on technique. Getting stronger. This year he’s moved from the junior division to the senior level. That means better, harder-hitting, and more experienced opponents. There are no more easy fights against eager but overmatched beginners.
It means that when he steps into the ring at the end of this month in Sarnia, for the provincial championships, he’ll be an underdog for the first time in ages.
And when he taps gloves at the nations in St. Catharines on Jan. 6, nobody will expect him to win another belt.
He’s not too worried. Especially not even about the results of the regular club matches in which he often fights.
As long as they make him better.
“My dad always tells me, if I lose, don’t worry, don’t worry,” Isho says. “Just keep training for the Olympics.”
Hey, you only get one chance. Making the Games is what it’s all about for him. The hardships. The rough times. The work. Making it is everything.
“I have to,” he says. “I have to make it.”
Ironic really, since he already has.