The Boxing Scene: Benny Leonard
02.11.03 - By Keith Terceira: Roman Greenberg has drawn quite a bit of attention lately and the interest is in part from his expertise in the ring, partly because the Heavyweight ranks are beginning to swell with the next generation of fighters, and lastly because of his heritage. Not since the beginning of the century have fighters of the Jewish faith been subject of focus. Dmitry Salita and Roman Greenberg are just two of several Jews currently rising in popularity. They follow a long litany of Legends , Joe Choyinski, Kid Kaplan, Benny Bass, Izzy Schwartz, Battling Levinsky, Maxi Rosenblum, Bob Olin, Mike Rossman, Eddie Shapiro, Marty Goldman and dozens of others though many were prior to the 1950’s in America.
Article posted on 02.12.2003
One of the greatest books on the subject of Jews and boxing was written in 1997 by the son of boxer/promoter Leo Bodner. “When Boxing was a Jewish Sport” by Attorney Allen Bodner is a must have for any serious fight fans library. Interviews with Vic Zimet, Allie Stolz, Charlie Gelman, and others really dig deep into the Golden Age of Jewish Boxing in America. The cream of the crop in my opinion has to be Benny Leonard (Benjamin Leiner) alias the Ghetto Wizard, born on the lower East Side of Manhattan, April 7, 1896, during a time when ethnic gangs roamed the streets, and rap was what you got on the noggin if caught alone by a rival group. Lead pipe law ruled and hands were either weapons or the masters of music and the sweat shop in the Jewish community. While Irving Berlin was working as a singing waiter and wrote the first of thousands of songs Benny Leonard was fighting to survive in the pre- melting pot ghetto. Most worked the garment industry and just tried to survive.
To put in perspective just how hard life was in the Lower Eastside of New York at the birth of Benny Leonard one need only to rent the movie “Gangs of New York”. In 1913 the New York City authorities estimated that in a district of 1 square mile stood 200 brothels, 200 pool halls (gambling joints) and 336 gang hangouts. East village and the lower eastside was the most densely populated area on earth. Many families slept with as many as 15 people to a room.
On the streets where Benny trained and grew were the likes of Monk Eastman (Edward Osterman) , Owney Madden and the Eastmans. The five pointers, Dusters, Gophers, and other gangs that were the inspiration for the movie mentioned above . Lepke Buchalter, Mendy Weiss and Abraham Reles moved Murder Inc. from the lower eastside to Harlem during the Leonard years there. Other infamous neighbors of Leonard were Little Augie Orgen, Big Jack Zelig, Dopey Benny Fein, Jacob Shapiro, Nathan Kid Dropper Kaplan. Craig Thompson and Allen Raymonds “Gang Rule in New York” reported that “the Lower eastside of Manhattan in the first 20 years of the twentieth century was the greatest breeding ground for gunmen and racketeers that this country has ever seen”.
Bodner in his book points out that “ The Jewish Press tended to ignore boxing in its reporting and for many Jews boxing was shameful.” In fact on of the subtitles in a silent film made on the life of a Jewish Boxer in 1924 says “ For this we came to America? So that you should become a Box-fyteh? Better you should be a gangster or even a murderer. The shame of it. A Box-fyteh”
In August of 1916 when Benny Leonard faced Frankie Conifrey at the Star Ac in Harlem the tensions and rivalry between the Irish and the Jews was so intense that Hoodlums and backers of Conifrey sparked riots and started fights at ringside when Leonard forced Frankies corner to throw in the towel with a massive barrage of punches in the seventh.
In all Benny fought 24 matches in 1916, the turning point in his career is reported to have been his bout in October against Ever Hammer in Kansas City. Earlier that year though he had twice fought Hall of Fame Johnny Dundee and in 25 rounds he had no decisions. Again in November he would match-up with Dundee and again no ruling. Seven fights and 61 rounds with Dundee all without a decision. Benny Leonard in fact fought 211 bouts ending his career 88 (70 KOs) -5-1 , that leaves 117 bouts of no ruling.
While the Leonard life in the ring is well documented and can be found anywhere. His the contributions to the sport ,out of the ring that are so amazing. What Benny brought to his community as far as positive sentiment concerning the Jew during a time when so many were ruining it. Though a case can be made in favor of his involvement in the shady side of boxing with his DQ against Britton during the 1922 fight for the welterweight title. Critics find fault with the normally cool Leonard blatant punch while Jack was down from a borderline low blow. With this finding people start to scream fix. But what many do not report is the bad blood between the two stemming from some pretty dirty work by Britton in their second fight in June 25, 1918 when a better Leonard beat Britton but was awarded a NC in payment. Then you need to go back to the first 1917 when again Leonard beat up a dirty fighting Britton for 10 rounds and again No Contest. In both the 1917 and the 1918 fight Leonard was awarded a newspaper victory.
The legacy Leonard left to Boxing is noticeable in every match today. The modern head weave, the left jab as a weapon instead of a only a set-up punch, he perfected the jab followed by a hook, he stylized the boxer-puncher in history. His body work is studied even today . He analyzed fighters and used scouts in gyms at a time when brawn ruled brains in boxing. If not for the Crash of 29 on Wall street he would have been the only boxer to stay a multi- millionaire in that era.
Ray Arcel once told me that many of the fights that Benny Leonard fought during his come-back were offered by promoters and fighters as a way of gratitude for the aging broke Leonard. No controversy there it still happens today when a fighter tries to return to the ring. When you watch the style of Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson, or Mayweather Jr. , remember that it all began with a 5’5 139 pound Jewish kid from the Lower Eastside of Hell.
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