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Benny Leonard: A Brief Biography
Benny Leonard, The Ghetto Wizard…“The Brainiest of All Boxers” Part 1
By: Monte D. Cox
Benny Leonard was not only one of the greatest lightweights of all time, he was one of history’s greatest pound for pound fighters. Benny, a Jewish boxer born Benjamin Leiner, turned pro at age 15. He won the World Lightweight Championship at age 21 and held it for nearly 7 years between 1917-1925 when he retired unbeaten as champion while at the peak of his power. His official record is 85-5-1 121 No Decisions with 69 knockouts. His record with newspaper verdicts, according to one source, is 180-21-6-6ND 69 Ko’s.
Al Bodner stated, "Leonard had a truly remarkable record. He was one of the greatest master boxers of all time."
The Ghetto Wizard was a fleet footed mobile boxer with a strong punch and liked to set a fast pace. He had excellent hand speed and was a clever two-handed hitter. He had a piston like left jab, a classic right cross and was an accomplished combination puncher. Leonard also loved to train and never entered the ring in less than top condition. He made a real science of the sport studying feints, shifts, and defensive moves for hours at a time in the gym. He was master who rarely lost a round in the vast majority of his fights.
Gilbert Odd wrote, “Leonard was coolness itself in the ring, finishing off a beaten opponent with cold fury, recovering quickly when hurt and talking himself out of trouble. Because he punched correctly he never suffered a hand injury; because he knew how to defend himself, he usually left the ring unmarked, because he kept himself in peak of condition he could travel ten fast rounds and look as fresh as when he started.”
His competition reads like a who’s who of the great fighters of the teens and twenties including; Johnny Dundee (Featherweight champion 1922-1923, 1923-1924 and Jr. Lightweight champion 1921-1923 and 1923-1924), the great rope fighter whom he met 8 times; Freddie Welsh (Lightweight champion 1914-1916) from whom he won the title, clever former champion Willie Ritchie (lightweight champion 1912-1914), Johnny Kilbane (Featherweight Champion 1912-1923), hard hitting Rocky Kansas (Lightweight champion 1925-1926) and the great southpaw Lew Tendler who is considered one of the best fighters to have never won a title. Leonard also defeated top lightweight contenders such as Ritchie Mitchell, Patsy Cline, Joe Welling and left hook artist Charley White.
Leonard was in many ways the Muhammad Ali of the 135-pounders, defeating what Nat Fleischer called, “a field of the greatest lightweights that ever appeared at one time in the division.”. When Leonard was fighting there were nearly 90 fight clubs in New York State and 20 fight cards a week in New York City. Boxing in the teens and twenties, along with baseball, was the most popular sport in America. There were more competitors and therefore a larger talent pool. Leonard came along when the lightweight division was stacked full of highly skilled fighters and punchers and he was the best among them. He fought them all and fought often. The year he won the title he fought 29 times. Leonard was a very smart, clever, and experienced fighter.
Jersey Jones agrees saying Ring Magazine Jul. 1947), “Leonard was one of the all time greats of the ring. A magnificent boxer, a deadly puncher, a brilliant ring strategist, and an extraordinary showman, Benny had to be a real champion in every sense of the word, to rule over the most formidable array of challengers in the annals of the lightweight division.”
One of Leonard's toughest opponent's was the great southpaw slugger Lew Tendler. On July 27, 1922, 60,000 screaming fans watched the two great fighters go at it in a 12 round non-title bout. In the first round a powerful left rocked Leonard. In the third Leonard's nose was bleeding. In the 8th Lew dropped Benny to one knee. Leonard was in trouble but Benny started talking to him and convinced him he wasn't hurt. Lew hesitated and Benny survived the round. It went the distance to a 12 round no-decision but Leonard would later say that Lew gave him "the worst licking I ever had in my life the first time we fought." In the rematch, for the championship the following year, Leonard proved he had learned his lesson.
Hype Igoe, wrote, NY World Jul. 25, 1923, “Benny Leonard is the brainiest of all boxers.” In the second Tendler fight, penned Igoe, "Leonard worked in circles around and toward the back of Tendler’s southpaw left so that Tendler was always shifting to get set again.” Leonard kept the southpaw off-balance and then countered effectively. “It was the finest job from any angle of boxing that this writer ever saw…and I don’t expect to see it duplicated.” Leonard easily won the 15 round decision and retained his title.
Ray Arcel, one of the greatest trainers of all time, concurs on Leonard’s ability to out-think his opponent’s, Peter Heller's In The Corner, “Boxing is brains over brawn. I don’t care how much ability you got, if you can’t think your just another bum in the park. People ask me who’s the greatest boxer I ever saw pound for pound. I hesitate to say, either Benny Leonard or Ray Robinson. But Leonard’s mental energy surpassed anyone else’s.”
Arcel continued, “Benny Leonard was a picture. He was the one fighter who I felt could name the round with anybody. He could make you do the things you didn’t want to do. If you were a counterpuncher he would make you lead. If you were aggressive he would make you back up. He knew were to hit you…If you look at his record you will see he always fought good fighters. If you didn’t know how to fight, nobody would match you with Benny Leonard” .
Nat Fleischer agrees, "Leonard had a hair-trigger brain. As he shifted about the ring, the fans could almost read his thoughts as he mapped out his plans of attack. An opponent had to be ever on the alert to avoid a quick knockout. Leonard knew his trade; knew it so thoroughly that almost invariably he could "call his shots," if and when the occasion warranted."
Bob Mee adds, "Benny was a master boxer, a genius who completed his art and yet still went on re-inventing it. His simple message was "Think. Learn how to think!"
Benny Leonard, The Ghetto Wizard…“The Brainiest of All Boxers” Part 2
By: Monte D. Cox
No opponent could ever make a mistake with Benny, for one mistake often meant a sudden end. Leonard in a bout against Featherweight champion Johnny Kilbane noticed in their first meeting that, “Johnny’s a great boxer, tricky as they make them. But I know just how and when to beat him. He has a double feint shift, but he leaves himself open for a flash of a second and that’s when I’ll get him.” Benny nailed him in the third and took Kilbane just as he predicted. It was the first time the clever Featherweight champion had ever been knocked out.
What Leonard could do when he turned on the heat was aptly demonstrated in his bout with Leo Johnson, one of the best black lightweights of the era. Leonard took a lot of pride in going through an entire bout without ever having his hair messed up. Someone suggested to Johnson that he go right up to Leonard and put his hand on his head and mess up his hair in order to infuriate him and get him off his game plan. Johnson did just that as the fighters met at ring center. When Johnson recovered consciousness he was told that it was one of the quickest knockouts of Leonard’s career.
One time heavyweight threat Harry Wills said, Ring Magazine May 1948, “Benny Leonard was the best little man I ever saw. He liked to show his speed and outbox the other fellow. He also had a natural right hand… I picked Benny to beat Freddie Welsh, who was a very clever boy, Benny woke up to his right that night and knocked Welsh out.”
Many of his opponent’s commented that they were surprised by his hitting power. He won the title against Freddie Welsh on a 9th round knockout. It was the only time in 167 pro fights that Welsh was ever knocked out.
Perhaps his epoch battle against Richie Mitchell best defined his career. Leonard went right after Mitchell flooring him 3 times in the first round. Leonard, perhaps understandably, was a bit over-confident and let his guard down. Mitchell nailed him with a desperate, hurricane of a left hook right on the button. Benny crashed to the canvas. Leonard was hurt and barely beat a ten count. Richie moved in for the kill, but Benny covered up and rolled with the punches and survived to the bell.
Budd Schulberg described what transpired in the next round as Mitchell attacked Benny who was still hurt and on his bicycle. “As he retreated his was talking to Mitchell (shades of Ali a half century later!), “Is that the best you can do? I thought you hit harder than that? I’ll put my hands down, what do you want to bet you can’t hit me? Come on if you think you got me hurt, why don’t you fight? You look awful slow to me Richie”. Mitchell swung wildly missing and began to wear down by rounds end. In the fifth Leonard was up on his toes snapping Mitchell’s head back with left jabs and right crosses. Leonard floored Richie at the end of the round. In the following session Leonard gave Mitchell quite a beating and knocked him out to retain his title.
Leonard also challenged fighters above his normal weight winning a newspaper verdict over welterweight Ted “Kid” Lewis and challenged for the welterweight title against Jack Britton in 1922 flooring the bigger man in the 13th, and then in his eagerness knocked out Britton while he was down, thus losing on a disqualification.
Benny retired as lightweight champion in 1925 having bested all the topflight fighters of his class. The stock market crash of 1929 hurt his investments and he was forced to make a comeback in 1931. He won 18 in a row with only one draw when he ran into the young, fast and hard-hitting future welterweight champion Jimmy McLarnin who stopped him in 6. It was his last fight.
Leonard died on April 17, 1947 while refereeing a boxing match in New York. Gerald Suster wrote a fitting epitaph when he said, “He left behind him an astonishing legend of hard punching and ring cleverness. Decades went by in which aficionados argued over whether Benny Leonard or Joe Gans was the greatest pound for pound fighter of all time.”
Nat Fleischer considered Benny Leonard the # 2 all time lightweight in 1958. Charley Rose rated him # 1 in 1968. Herbert Goldman rated him # 1 in 1987. Cox’s Corner rates him at # 2 among all time lightweights.
Benny Leonard vs Lew Tendler, Lightweight Championship, 1922
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--------------------------A SPECTACULAR Bump For POET-------------1916-03-31 Benny Leonard ND10 Freddie Welsh [Madison Square Garden, New York, NY, USA]
1916-04-01 New-York Tribune (New York, NY) (page 14)
Leonard Whips Welsh in Whirlwind Battle
All But Knocks Out the World's Champion Lightweight.
TITLE HOLDER HAS HARD NIGHT'S WORK
Crowd Equal in Size to Moran-Willard Gathering Sees the Contest.
By W. O. M'GEEHAN.
Bennie Leonard, Harlem's favorite son, knocked everything but the lightweight title out of Freddie Welsh at Madison Square Garden last night. Compared to Leonard, the man from across the sea looked like a novice. The little Harlem Hebrew outfought and outboxed the champion in every round. And Welsh tried, too--tried as he has not tried for years.
It was probably the best fight that Welsh has put up in a long while. He wanted to "show Leonard up," but instead he was shown up himself, as a champion about to pass.
Leonard had the fire of youth, in addition to a knowledge of boxing more brilliant than that of any lightweight since Gans. Ring generalship was the only thing that saved Welsh from a knockout and the loss of his title.
The proof that Welsh tried was a cut over Leonard's eye, the first visible injury he has received in over 250 fights. In return Leonard started the blood from Welsh's nose in the fifth, and in the eighth he cut a gash over the champion's eye.
It was one of the fastest and most spectacular battles ever seen at the Garden, and decidedly the cleverest. Welsh put up a game and aggressive fight. If he had battled that way before last night he would have been the most popular of the lightweights. In addition, the veteran used every trick of blocking and holding, but the clear-eyed Jewish boy found openings, and landed with precision.
It was Welsh, the old fox, the veteran, who missed. When the champion tried to mix it Leonard ducked and had him looking like a novice. The crowd was half delirious as the pair flashed around the ring like a couple of lithe young panthers. Not since the days of the very great ones has there been such a battle.
When he found himself outpointed in the first few rounds Welsh grinned sarcastically; but later his mouth dropped with worry. Once or twice he showed flashes of real anger, but Leonard subdued him with tantalizing jabs and right uppercuts.
Toward the end Welsh's face was gray with anxiety. In the seventh round the champion was visibly in a bad way. Leonard shot a left to the body and Welsh bent over. His face twitched with pain.
The champion's worry increased when he saw that the younger man was watching for a chance to land the knockout. Leonard had ceased to jab. He flitted about peering through his narrowed eyes for the chance to send home the blow that would bring him the championship.
It was then that experience came to Welsh's aid. He covered up well. He built for his body a defence like that of the turtle, making a shell of his arms.
In the eighth round Welsh took a desperate chance and swung to the head with his left. The blow should have dazed the Jewish lad, but it did not.
Welsh's face had become tragic. It was the one fight he wanted to win, and he had no chance. The yells of the crowd told him that the "king of lightweights" was very dead in popular favor. They also hailed Leonard as the king to be.
If the fight had gone longer, or if there had been a decision, Welsh certainly would have lost his title. And he would have lost it to a better man than he has ever been. For this Harlem Jewish boy has everything--the knowledge of boxing, the punch and the courage. Also, and most important, he has the fire and enthusiasm of the comer.
In the first preliminary Terry Edwards resigned his position as antagonist to George Brown in the third round. Brown jabbed Edwards into a state of bewilderment with his left. In the second bout Joe Smith outpointed the Corona Kid, a pocket edition of Jim Flynn. Larry Murtha, a little black Irishman with a fine left hand, outpointed Charlie Treybull, of Chicago, in four rounds.
In the semi-final event Johnnie Drummie, the Jersey Humming Bird, outpointed Kid Boonton in six rounds. Drummie was seconded by Joe Shugrue, who was clad in a wallpaper shirt that made even Billy Roche's official coat-of-mail look subdued.
The crowd began to gather early and filled all but the far section of the first balcony. Numerically it was equal to the crowd that saw the Willard-Moran bout.
Leonard entered the ring first, attended by Billy Gibson, his manager, and his fighting brother, Charlie. Harlem's favorite son wore a snow-white sweater and a smile of serene confidence.There was a little delay and the crowd began to kick up the dirt of the Garden. The floor had been removed and the air was full of dry dust. The crowd became impatient as Welsh lingered in his dressing room, resting and picking up weight. It always was part of Welsh's ring strategy to take his time coming into the ring.
The Welsh procession finally entered the ring late. The great tangoist and vegetarian was closely followed by 'Andsome 'Arry Pollok. The band struck up "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Welsh looked very fit. He had worked for this bout. The weights were announced as Welsh 136˝ and Leonard 132. Bennie got the louder cheer and Freddie looked a bit peeved. A moment later the fun began.
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Another report of the fight, ------------------------------------------1916-04-01 The New York Times (New York, NY) (page 10)
LEONARD DEFEATS WELSH WITH EASE
Vim and Aggressiveness of Harlem Lightweight Too Much for the Champion.
Benny Leonard, the aggressive little Harlem boxer, took his place in the front rank of the world's lightweights at Madison Square Garden last night when he defeated Freddie Welsh of England, the title holder, in a rattling fast ten-round bout which kept the big, crowded arena in an uproar from start to finish. Leonard was the aggressor all the way, and the boxing skill of the phantom-like Briton was overshadowed by the persistent, ready-punching power of the younger boy.
The generalship and experience of the champion saved him from bad punishment, for many of Leonard's short-choppy jolts were cleverly blocked when they were directed to the point of Welsh's jaw. It was a case of a youth charged with fight from his toes to his head pitted against a veteran ring master whose long sojourn in the ring is counting against him--for the old-time skill of Welsh is plainly on the wane.
Leonard carried the fight to the champion from the first round, and there was no time during the bout when Welsh was able to measure up to the aggressive fistic campaign which Leonard waged against him.
There were more than 9,000 men and women in the Garden last night, and they showed more enthusiasm in one round than was demonstrated during the whole ten rounds of the Willard-Moran engagement. It was the largest gathering that has witnessed a lightweight bout here since the Frawley law went into effect. The house was with Leonard, although at times the most partial Leonard enthusiast could not help cheering the masterly defense of the agile, foxy Welsh.
In the crowd were many of New York's best known citizens, and a large number of women occupied seats in the arena boxes. It was a good bout to watch, as it teemed with action all the time, and there was hardly a moment when young Leonard was not carrying the fray to the champion, trying to make him mix it up, when it was plain that Welsh had no such desire.
For a boxer so new to the game, Leonard's showing was remarkable. He was as cool as an old-timer, and not once did he lose his head or get wild. His smashing right-hand punch, on which he relied to batter down the champion, did not get in its most effective work, as the defense of Welsh was so good that the power behind the blow was usually smothered.
When the bout was over Welsh's face showed plainly that the youthful Harlem boxer's blows had hurt. The champion's left eye was cut and his nose was swollen and bleeding. While Welsh used every trick in the game to protect himself from Leonard's fast attack, the shower of blows came so fast at times that his defense was battered down and he had to take a punching in spite of all his cleverness.
Leonard was the first to appear in the ring, and he got a reception which made the big amphitheater resound. Welsh kept him waiting for several minutes, but if the champion imagined that Leonard would get nervous he was much mistaken, as the latter was the cooler of the two men when the gong started the first round.
As quick as a flash Leonard put three light jabs on Welsh's face and surprised him. Welsh kept backing away and covered himself effectively, but Benny got in an occasional smash which set the crowd cheering. When the first round was over and it was seen that Benny had a safe margin the hosts from Harlem stood on their chairs and threw their hats into the air in glee.
In the third round just before the bell Welsh endeavored to force the boxing and drove Leonard to the ropes. Leonard fought his way out and drove the champion back into the centre of the ring under a shower of punches.
In the fourth round, when Welsh began to dance out of the way, he found out that Leonard could step even faster. Leading with his left to the face, Leonard followed up this lead with an occasional right hand jolt to the face which made the champion blink. In this session Leonard planted one right to Welsh's jaw which rocked his head and his smile became somewhat forced. Many of Benny's blows bounced off Welsh's gloves, but although the champion was effective at blocking, he failed throughout to take the upper hand and carry the fighting to Leonard.
In the fifth a quick left stab flattened itself on Freddie's generously proportioned nose and drew first blood. Leonard's hands worked in and out with great rapidity, and Welsh found it a hopeless task to try to stop all the blows. In the later rounds of the bout, Welsh began to practice the best of his ring tricks, but he found himself tired and made little impression on the energetic youth from Harlem.
The sixth round found Welsh tired, and the youth and stamina of Leonard began to take effect. Welsh, with head down, came at Leonard with a rush, but a stiff uppercut brought the English boxer's head back with a jerk. Welsh didn't bore in head first after that.
After the seventh round Welsh often ran into clinches and covered up to protect himself. At infighting Benny ripped uppercuts through Welsh's guard and landed on his body and face frequently. It was only occasionally that Welsh's quick left jab, which in the past has worked like a piston against the faces of his opponents, landed on Benny's face. When Welsh was trying to cover up in the eighth round Leonard rushed at him and sent his head back with rights and lefts which made the champion think that Leonard had called several extra mitts into action.
A smashing glancing left hook to the face opened a cut under Welsh's left eye in the ninth, while the only mark on Leonard was a slight scratch at the side of his left eye. The last two rounds showed Leonard's decided advantage, for he ripped his blows against the champion's body and head with great apparent ease. It was Leonard's bout from bell to bell.
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