When Jewish boxers ruled the world

A deep dive into the greatest age of an American pastime really packs a Semitic punch.

Benny Leonard, arguably the greatest Jewish boxer of all time (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Benny Leonard, arguably the greatest Jewish boxer of all time
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Boxing historian Mike Silver has built on his 60 years of knowledge of the sport to write an encyclopedia of the great Jewish fighters in Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing.
If you’re a fan of this fading American pastime, this hardcover panoramic opus is a great coffee-table read, chockfull of history, photographs and indexes that narrate the expansion and fall of the sport, predominantly from the perspective of Jewish boxers. But for those with little boxing knowledge, it may be difficult to get through. There is a lot of background, but the information is somewhat scattered, with discussions on everything from practice facilities to the rise of African-American boxers.
Which Jews have fought at Madison Square Garden over the last 90 years? (Answer: a lot from 1920 to 1950; just two since then). Who fought under Irish pseudonyms?
Silver’s colorful anecdotes are fun and engaging. Benny Leonard, arguably the greatest Jewish boxer of all time, hid his pugilistic passion from his parents until he no longer could. As a 15-year-old, he got a black eye during a match in his first year as a pro; when his mother discovered it, she cried. In response, Leonard pulled out the $20 bill he earned from the bout – it was as much as his dad made in an entire week working 12 to 14 hours a day in a textile sweatshop.
The book is divided chronologically, and Silver begins each section with contextual information about the era before delving more deeply into each individual athlete.
In the “Early Queensberry Era” (1892- 1919), he describes the origins and expansion of the sport in America. Veering away from the Jewish focus, Silver describes how the sport was developed, and helpfully indicates what a “no decision” meant and how many of the rules differ from the present day. In this era, if there wasn’t a knockout, it was ruled a tie. The NDs were decided by newspaper reporters the next morning.
After the initial setup, he dives into the Jewish boxers of those early decades. The greatest was Leonard, who posted an official record of 89-6-1 (ND: 96-16-7) and used his brain as much as his brawn to develop a fighting style that hadn’t yet been seen. Even with five pages devoted to Leonard, the most entertaining read in this section was about Leach Cross, known as “The Fighting Dentist.” He fixed teeth by day and knocked them out at night, and was known in the ring for his low crouch and strong right punches. In one of Cross’s fights, he loosened some teeth in the mouth of his opponent, “Knockout” Brown. The next morning, Brown went in search of a local dentist and, much to his surprise, found Cross peering into his mouth.
The longest section of the book is “Golden Age Gladiators” (1920-1940), which includes some of the greatest boxers of all time, including Jack Dempsey, who is said to have studied at a yeshiva before turning to boxing; Barney Williams, who won 196 fights; and Jackie “Kid” Berg, who won 157 rounds and once walked into the ring with a tallit and tefillin. In the 1920s, the audience was more willing and able to spend money on luxurious activities, and as a result, boxers were making more money than ever and more people were stepping into the ring.
As the section goes on – for too long – Silver explores the poverty of the Great Depression and the patriotism of dozens of boxers electing to serve in World War II. It is especially noteworthy that American boxer Max Baer – who had a half-Jewish father – didn’t identify as a Jew, while Max Schmeling – a German fighter – didn’t identify as a Nazi. However, their bout in 1933 became a symbol of the growing tensions that highlighted the beginning of the Nazi regime.
Baer won this duel, but Schmeling would go on to win 56 bouts in his career and become hailed in Germany as a hero and an Aryan. In June 1938, he fought Joe Louis to a crowd of 70,000 and a radio audience of 100 million. Louis won the match with a first-round knockout in 124 seconds.
The chapter on “War and Peace” (1941-1963) highlights a period when the popularity of boxing began to fade. The war had taken people from the ring into the trenches, and the growing middle class of America eliminated the lucrative attractiveness of boxing for many teens. Silver describes how the boom of television almost saved – and then ironically helped destroy – the sport. Promoters scheduled more fights to fit the demand of millions of Americans, but in search of getting as much money as possible, they overbooked. Young boxers were forced to fight too early, often getting beaten badly by the more experienced. The sport was losing its charm on younger athletes, and other sports including baseball, basketball and football took advantage.
Silver shares some of the surprising young men with Jewish lineage who took up boxing – or tried to – in their youth, including Woody Allen and Billy Joel. Luckily they both found other avenues toward fame.
The final section, “Not Your Grandfather’s Sport” (1960s-present) is written in a different style.
While in each prior era there were dozens of Jewish fighters to record, there have been precious few Jews to don gloves since the 1960s. Silver briefly skims over the careers of a couple of Jewish pugilists in each decade before deviating and discussing the corruption and greed in modern day boxing.
For an avid boxing fan, Stars in the Ring is a gold mine. For the Jew casually interested in his or her culture’s athletic achievements, it’s a bit too broad to be an offhand read.