Chicago cabby remembers reign as Iraq's boxing champ

May 11, 2012

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A few weeks ago, a funny thing happened on the way to the theater. As much as it pains me to pun so shamefully, it's true: I was in a hurry to get downtown to see a show with some friends. We knew we were in for a night of entertainment, we just didn't realize the main attraction would turn out to be the cab ride over.

Before Estaifan Shilaita became a cab driver in Chicago, he was Iraq's national boxing champion. He reigned in the ring from 1968 to 1976. And, he's quick to tell you, he was the goalkeeper for Iraq's football team. But he's also a Christian, which meant he could never represent his country on an international stage. So he left—and Greece gave him the opportunity his own country would not: He lived and boxed in Greece as Saddam Hussein came into power, at which point Shilaita applied for political refugee status.

He arrived in Chicago in 1979 at age 30. More than one person told him to hang up his gloves but he felt at home in the ring. Shilaita fought just seven times–five wins, two losses–in his brief U.S. boxing career. Ever since, he's happily spent 12 hours a day driving a cab and beguiling passengers with his story.

On that note, turns out I'm not the only passenger who felt like sharing. After riding in Shilaita's cab, filmmakers Brett Garamella and Patrick McGowan spent 11 days shooting a short film about Shilaita called The Chosen Champion. They hope to get the film into some festivals soon. For now, here's the trailer:

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