UPDATE: With the local crowd behind him at the Barclays Center, Fleischer scored a quick knockout Saturday night against Kareem Milner in his second professional fight.. Fleischer’s fast hands and aggressive style pushed Millner to the ropes right away. After barely a minute, with Milner seemingly about to keel over, the referee stepped. Fleischer’s record now improves to 2-0.
It’s half-past ten in the morning and one of the most promising young boxers in the country is ringside at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn’s once-gritty Dumbo section.
It just so happens his last name is Fleischer and he is the latest Jewish pugilist to dream of winning a championship belt.
Gleason’s is already bustling with hungry bodies. In a far ring, two women amateurishly spar as their trainers shout tips; in another, a giant man shadowboxes while yelling ‘sha, sha’ with each sharp jab combination; all around, speed bags rattle, heavy bags thud, treadmills hum, weights clink; every few minutes, a bell buzzes loudly.
It’s an organized chaos, and impossible to ignore. But 25-year-old Dustin Fleischer seems stubbornly unaware of his surroundings. He weaves bright red tape between his fingers and over his wrists. He ties a faded American flag bandana around his blonde hair. He starts to stretch. The cameras click loudly.
On Saturday night, about a mile away at the Barclays Center, he’ll take the ring for his second professional bout. He’ll be wearing white tiger shorts with an embroidered Star of David, and a gold Chai necklace that belonged to his grandfather.
A few hours later, win or lose, he and a few million others will watch Miguel Cotto take the same ring to defend his title against Daniel Geale — the same Cotto, who beat then undefeated Orthodox fighter Yuri Foreman at Yankee Stadium. But today is Fleischer’s first ever media workout. Shortly, he’ll take the ring surrounded by a sea of cameras, and throw punches at his trainer’s focus mitts. Hopefully, a critic will write up a pre-fight preview, and hopefully the promoter will sell more tickets.
He doesn’t look too concerned.
“Everything I do is to be a world champion,” Fleischer tells me. “It’s what makes me happy. It’s what I think about when I go to bed at night. I have the ability to pursue my childhood dream. Not everybody gets that you know.”
Fleischer pulls of his T-shirt, revealing a tattoo of tiger stripes around red boxing gloves covering his left peck, shoulder, and bicep.
He isn’t the first Jew with big boxing dreams. There was Sephardic prizefighter Daniel Mendoza, England’s heavyweight champion from 1792 to 1795, who transformed boxing from a stand-still punch-swapping ordeal into a tactical dance with his unprecedented “side-step” technique; there was Barney Ross, born Dov-Ber Rosofsky, who, instead of becoming a rabbi as his father wished, became a world champion in three different weight divisions; there was six-time world champion Abe “The Little Hebrew” Attell; there was Benny Leonard, considered one of the top ten boxers of all time by most lists. These days, there’s the Orthodox Yuri Foreman and Dmitry Salita, though both are at the tale ends of their careers.
And now there’s Fleischer — he’s doing jumping jacks now — who has somehow still managed to carve out his own Jewish niche. According to his media bio, he is “on a quest to become the first grandson of a Holocaust survivor to be crowned world champion.” That may sound a bit gimmicky, and it may well be a bit gimmicky — but it’s no shtick to him.
Fleischer, who grew up in Monmouth Beach on the Jersey Shore, can recount his grandfather’s tale of survival in dark detail: how he hid in the attic while the Nazis murdered his family; how he was shot three times while trying to escape a concentration camp; how the gun jammed and he was left to die in the heart of winter; how he miraculously survived and slept between horses to stay warm; how he joined the Jewish resistance.
“As far as a fighter, it gives me so much strength in the ring to have his bloodline run through me,” Fleischer says later. “To know that he could survive something like that. It pushes me to reach my goal of becoming a world champion.”
Phil Fleischer sits nearby watching a trainer lace his son’s white gloves up. A pair of gold gloves hangs from a chain around his neck, a vestige to his own short-lived professional boxing career back in the day. He speaks about Dustin like any proud father might, listing off an impressive resume: An amateur record of 118-12; the youngest graduate of the U.S. Olympic Education Center; the No. 2-ranked junior fighter in the country.
Fleischer comes from a working-class Reform household and goes to synagogue a few times a year. His mother converted to Judaism and is noticeably absent from the media workout.
“I’m sure my mom would prefer I do something else. But she’s happy for me.”
Phil puts it more bluntly: “She deals with it.”
Finally, Dustin jumps in the ring. Cameras flash. He’s connecting hard with his trainer’s mitts. Ya ya. Pivoting, jabbing. Ya, ya, ya. Bouncing. Ya.
He lets go a rapid-fire combo. A guy in a cowboy hat taps Phil on the shoulder.
“Nice fast hands on this kid,” he says.
Phil smiles. Afterwards, Dustin’s red shirt is drenched. He admits he was a little nervous.
“It was cool. I mean it was different. It gives me a good vibe,” he says. “I just came a long way from the amateurs. And now my second pro fight I have a media day. You know, a lot of people don’t get that. That exposure.”