The Secret Jewish History of Boxing
A version of this piece originally appeared in Plus61J.
Boxing and I have a love-hate relationship. A keen tournament competitor as a kid, I was besotted with the fighters and wallowed in their stats, especially those of the Jewish boys. Later I shrank from the corruption, the sleaze and brutality of most of it. But I still read about it, and treat boxing as a metaphor for many things — like the Jewish posture myth and the ‘muscular Judaism’ concept discussed in previous essays in this series. You may deplore the sport, but significant historical, ethnic and cultural aspects of life are involved.
Georgian England was a time of Polish, German and Portuguese migration, mainly lower class workers and peddlers. London’s Pierce Egan (1772–1849) was a brilliant journalist and sportswriter. His Boxiana, published between 1813 and 1821, remains a classic of the ‘milling game’ and of the social times. He venerated and extolled ‘Mendoza the Jew’, the ‘Light of Israel’ as he was nicknamed. Of Portuguese marrano descent, Daniel Mendoza (1764–1836) didn’t want to be a hawker — and became heavyweight boxing champion of England between 1792 and 1795, albeit weighing a mere 160 pounds (72.5 kg), as opposed to Muhammad Ali’s best weight of 236 pounds (107 kg). A scientific boxer, the first of that kind, he perfected defence. Egan wrote:
The name of Mendoza has been resounded from one part of the kingdom to the other… yet he was that Jew, the acknowledged pride of his own particular persuasion, and who, so far interested the Christian that, in spite of his prejudices, he was compelled to exclaim — ‘Mendoza was a pugilist of no ordinary merit!’
Dutch Sam, London-born Samuel Elias, was another famed fighter of the early nineteenth century. “The Terrible Jew” was renowned for his devastating punching and his invention of the right-hand uppercut. His blows, wrote Egan, “were dreadful to encounter.”
Fast forward just over a century to two Jewish fighters of esteem: Harry (“The Human Hairpin”) Harris, who claimed the world bantamweight title in 1901, and the man known as “Chrysanthemum Joe,” Joe Choynski, who weighed a mere 80 kg (176 pounds) but fought mostly as a heavyweight. American heavyweight Samuel Berger won a boxing medal at the 1904 Olympics. 20 years later Jackie Fields (née Jacob Finkelstein) won the featherweight gold, then became world welterweight champion in 1929 and again in 1932.
In this golden era, Jewish boxers won something like 27 world titles between the start of the century and WWII. To use the title of a less than good book by Allen Bodner, that was When Boxing was a Jewish Sport (1997). The facts and figures are good but unlike the African-American historian Jeffrey Sammons — in his Beyond the Ring (1990)— Bodner doesn’t do justice to the social and political milieu of a vigorous American anti-Semitism and poverty of the times.
The Jewish playwright Clifford Odets did it well in his esteemed 1937 play, Golden Boy. Although the protagonist is Joe Bonaparte, an Italian, the underlying essence was based on Odets’ Bronx years: Joe, or as likely a Judah, is a keen violinist, propelled into boxing by the Depression, ever anxious to protect his hands until he could earn enough to play and not fight. Another Jewish writer understood the ethos — Budd Schulberg, author of the book (and movie), The Harder They Fall (1947), essentially about the gross exploitation of the Italian giant heavyweight Primo Carnera and corruption in the fight game.
Ten Jews are in the World Boxing Hall of Fame, and dozens more are in the Jewish Boxer’s Hall of Fame. Inevitably, there are good guys and bad guys, but these online resources say nothing about their characters. Abe Attel, world featherweight champion from 1906 to 1912, lost only nine of his 172 fights. A friend of the notorious gambler and gangster Arnold Rothstein, ‘The Little Hebrew’ was said to have been mixed up in the Chicago White Sox baseball scandal of 1919, and accused all too often of using drugs and fixing fights.
Abraham “Al” Singer, known as “The Bronx Beauty,” was world lightweight champion in 1930, an interesting man because he wasn’t born to poverty but to the mobile middle class. His two brothers were connected with Abe (“Kid Twist”) Reles, chief hitman for Murder Inc, and Al wasn’t all that far off with Mob connections and the Jewish criminals dubbed the “Kosher Nostra.” Abraham (Avram) Davidoff was a street-smart tough guy guarding bootleg booze in Brooklyn. Mama Davidoff called her “nize boy” Vroomeleh, a diminutive of Avram; the boxing fans called him “The Brooklyn Bum,” hence his moniker of Al “Bummy” Davis. Win some, lose some, as the saying goes.
The inter-war years were heady with Jewish champions: Barney Ross and Benny Leonard (“The Ghetto Wizard”) were hailed as two of the best of all time; Judah Bergman, aka Jacky ‘Kid’ Berg, the Londoner who was world welterweight champ of the 1930s; featherweight Louis ‘Kid’ Kaplan, Ukrainian born, who had to fight all his early bouts under the name Benny Miller because mama wouldn’t have a boxer in the family. Another ‘Kid’ was the English welterweight, twice world champion, Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, born Gershon Mendeloff, rated as one of the top 50 boxers of all time. Lewis and Barney Ross are rated as among the ‘ten top Jewish sports stars in history’ (Sherman Lambert, Boxing Scene, Oct 2008). (The others are baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax, motor racing driver Jody Schechter, swimmers Jason Lezack and Mark Spitz, gymnast Agnes Keleti, rugby player Joel Stransky, soccer player Johan Neeskens [who certainly is not Jewish], and athlete Harold Abrahams.)
Many Jewish champions had improbable names like Mushy Callaghan (Vincent Scheer) and Al McCoy (Alexander Rudolph). And there were those quite overtly Jewish: Corporal Izzy Schwartz, Al Singer, Georgie Abrams, Lew Tendler, Battling Levinsky and even Kingfish Levinsky (from a family of fish-mongers, what else?). Memorable was “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom, so named for his clowning style. World light-heavyweight champion from 1932 to 1934, he lost his title to another Jew, Bob Olin. With good sense, Maxie went into the movies and television.
Max Baer held the world heavyweight title in 1934 after beating Primo Carnera (“The Ambling Alp”). Fascinating history here. In 1933, Baer, who always wore a Star of David on his trunks, beat Germany’s hero, Max Schmeling, world champion from 1930 to 1932, before 60,000 fans in New York. Schmeling was told by Hitler in a private meeting to make it known abroad that there was no antisemitism in Germany, and he did make a few such speeches there. Schmeling was to have two legendary fights with later world champion, African-American Joe Louis, winning one, losing one. Never a Nazi, Schmeling saved two Jews during the Holocaust and is acknowledged by Israel’s Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile. (That Max also went into the movies.)
Two Goldsteins: Abe, world bantam champion in 1924; and Reuven (Ruby), “Jewel of the Ghetto,” a hard-punching welterweight of the 1920s and 30s, but with a glass jaw. Ruby became a famed referee, in charge of 39 world title bouts. While Reuven was refereeing, two Jews were organizing, promoting and controlling boxing: Mike Jacobs in New York, from the early 1930s to 1946, and Jack Solomons in London, from the ’30s until the 1960s. Czars of the sport, both are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Whitey Bimstein was the undoubted emperor of all trainers. Nat Fleischer was the dominant boxing writer for several decades, editing The Ring (magazine), and penning badly written books about men like Jack Dempsey, Benny Leonard, Joe Louis, and “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. I devoured the lot before and after breakfasts and dinners.
Like other sports, boxing has gone through ethnic cycles. African-Americans were barred as contenders until the incomparable Jack Johnson arrived here in Sydney in 1908 to win the world heavyweight title, appropriately on Boxing Day. Jews and Blacks shared center ring for a goodly period, followed by African-American domination. Then, with more civil rights and social mobility, they found other professions, leaving the tarnished sport to Hispanics seeking a living, followed nowadays by Russians, Poles, Mexicans, Japanese, Cubans, Kazakhstanis and Black Britishers.
Australian Jewish boxers have been obscure, at least until Henry Nissen, flyweight and featherweight champion in the 1960s and ’70s, was recently inducted in the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame. Nissen is also celebrated by the acclaimed writer Arnold Zable in a new book: The Fighter — A True Story (2016).