By Sherman Lambert
For reasons unknown, Jews are often stereotyped as being non-athletic. Nonetheless, Jews have helped shape and at times dominated the tough sport of boxing. A number of Jewish boxers rank among the all time best in their weight divisions and quite a few are enshrined in the Boxing Hall of Fame. The founder of Ring Magazine, Nat Fleisher, recognized 7 Jewish boxers on his list of the all time best in the traditional eight weight divisions. You’ll find at least one Jewish boxer on almost any list of the 20th century’s top greatest fighters. There are Jewish boxers who fought over 200 times and one who had over 200 victories.
Most of the top Jewish fighters fought in an era of only 8 or 10 weight divisions and only one world champion. During the first half of the 20th century boxers were the highest paid professional athletes so the sport attracted the type of top athlete who would be playing professional baseball, football or basketball today. During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s several sport historians believe that over one third of the American professional boxers of that period were Jewish.
Most of the boxers on my list fought before my time but I received excellent advice from my father and uncle who grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan during the golden era of Jewish boxing.
The first issue that must be clarified, before ranking, is my criteria of a boxer’s Jewishness. Most of the Jewish boxers on the list would meet strict orthodox standards but a few important names have mixed parentage and were lax in religious practice. A Jewish self identity is the criteria used by the Jewish Boxing Alliance. They recognize Max Baer but leave out Jake LaMotta, despite the latter’s Jewish mother. Zab Judah, not on the Jewish Alliance list, calls himself Jewish but the Christian beliefs of his sect disqualifies him. The alliance does recognize Saoul Mamby and Muhammed Ali’s cornerman Budini Brown, a convert through marriage.
1) Benny Leonard, one of the best lightweights of all time, is at the top of the list. Leonard only held one title but went 19 years without a loss. He fought 210 times and his record is 99 (77 KOs) – 5 – 1. Leonard dominated many hall of fame fighters in no decision bouts. He lost to Jack Britton on a questionable foul in their title fight. He retired as champion but the stock market crash of 1929 forced him to return to the ring. He still won all his bouts until hall of famer Jimmy McLarnin ended his career with a six round knockout in 1931. Benny died in the ring suffering a massive heart attack while working as a referee in New York City in 1947.
2) Barney Ross held 3 titles including welterweight even though he never fought over 140 pounds. He had an outstanding record against other hall of fame boxers.beating Billy Petroille twice, Ceferino Garcia three times and winning two out of three from the notorious Jimmy McLarnin. His last fight, against a prime Henry Armstrong, he won the first four rounds then he suddenly aged. Barney finished on his feet but took a beating as bad as the one Jake LaMotta suffered from Ray Robinson. Ross’ only weakness as a fighter was failure as a finisher.
Barney Ross is the second best boxer on my list but nobody was tougher. Barney, the son of a rabbi, saw his father murdered in a robbery as a young teenager. He grew up in a tough Chicago neighborhood with many future gangsters. As a thirty year old Barney joined the marines and volunteered for front line duty. At Guadalcanal he earned the Silver Star for single handedly stopping an enemy advance spending over thirteen hours in a foxhole. He saved untold American lives and killed twenty two of the enemy. He went home torn by shrapnel, bullets and malaria. The damage led to an addition to pain killers. After kicking his habit cold turkey Barney helped smuggle weapons to fighters for Israeli independence. During his final days while afflicted with cancer Barney was still trying to volunteer for service in the Israeli army.
3) Ted “Kid” Lewis fought 280 bouts with a record of 170 (70 KOs) – 31 -13. This fine welterweight champion had a classic 20 bout feud with Jack Britton. Until the arrival of Ray Robinson, Ted Lewis was included on most all time top ten welterweight lists. He fought the top fighters of his era and was knocked out only 7 times. He began boxing as a 14 year old bantam weight. He eventually grew into middleweight and won the British light heavyweight title.
4) Abe Attel was featherweight champion for 8 years. He fought 165 times and compiled a record of 92 (51) – 10 – 18. He had 22 title defenses against real world class contenders such as Harry Forbes, Frankie Conley, Johnny Kilbane and Owen Moran. He tarnished some of his reputation because of his involvement with the 1919 world series scandal but Ring magazine still rated him the 3rd best all time featherweight in a recent almanac.
5) Maxie Rosenbloom was winningest light heavyweight boxer of all time. This champion fought 289 times with 210 wins (210 (18 KOs) – 35 – 23) despite his weak punch. He was knocked out only twice. He holds victories over John Henry Lewis, Ted Lewis, Tiger Flowers, Jimmy Slattery and James Braddock.
6) Battling Levinsky fought at least 274 times and compiled a record of 66 (23 KOs) – 19 – 13). Levinsky held the light heavyweight title for 8 years. He fought all the top fighters of his times and was knocked out in only 4 bouts. During his early years he fought under the name Williams. Some boxing historians believe Levinsky may have actually fought over 400 bouts.
7) Joe Choynski, “Chrysantium Joe”, never got a chance at a title but he fought a 20 round draw with Jim Jefferies and knocked out a young Jack Johnson. Fighting in the late 19th century his record is incomplete. One source shows 80 wins (50 KOs) and another source records 50 victories (25 KOs). Both sources agree that he lost 14 and drew 6. Many observers felt he won no decision bouts with champions O’Sullivan, Fitzsimmons and Corbett. Choynski weighted only 160 -170 pounds when he fought heavyweights. Had Choynski received the opportunity he deserved his name might be at the top of this list. Choynski was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1960.
8) Lew Tendler was a great lightweight but he could not beat Benny Leonard for the title. He barely lost a 15 rounder to welterweight champion Mickey Walker. He fought 168 times with a record of 59 (37 KOs) – 11 – 2. Many consider Tendler to be the best southpaw of his day in any division. Despite no title Nat Fleisher had Tendler ranked in his top ten all time lightweight best. He was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1961.
9) Daniel Mendoza fought in 17th century England. He stood 5’ 7” and weighed 160 pounds. His stretchy record shows only 11 official bouts (7 – 3) but this Hall of Fame Pioneer champion deserves recognition of any list of great Jewish boxers.
10) Jackie Fields was an Olympic Featherweight champion and a World Welterweight Champion. This Hall of Fame champion had a record of 72 (29 KOs) – 9 -2. His only knockout loss was to the tough Jimmy McLarnin.
11) Jack “Kid” Berg helped bring respectability to the Junior Welterweight title. Jack Berg held his own against the best of his time including Tony Canzoneri, Kid Chocolate, Billy Petrolle and Sammy Fuller. His 192 bout record is 157 (57KOs) – 26 – 9. Despite almost 200 fights he was knocked out only 8 times.
12) Al McCoy held the World Middleweight Championship from 1914 -1917. He had 144 bouts for a record of 50 (28 KOs) – 5 – 7. He was only knocked out twice; both times by Mike O’Dowd. His resume includes no decision bouts with Harry Greb, Jack Dillon and wins over George Chip.
13) Louis “Kid” Kaplan outgrew his World Featherweight Championship but the top lightweights refused to fight him. His 127 bouts include 96 wins (21 KOs) 13 losses (only 3 by knockout) and 10 draws. One of those knockouts was by Jimmy McLarnin.
14) Max Baer needs no introduction. This Hall of Fame Heavyweight Champion had a very dangerous punch. Fifty two of his 70 win were by knock out. Only three of his losses were by knockout. The death of Ernie Schaaf undoubtlably affected Baer’s later performances. Orthodox Jews won’t accept his paternal Jewish linage but Max was in his prime during the rise of Nazi Germany. Max Baer proudly wore the Star of David at a time when anti-Semitism was common, acceptable and government policy in Europe.
15) Victor “Young” Perez came from Tunisia to Paris and became World Flyweight champion. Perez fought 131 times and earned a record of 92 (28 KOs) – 26 -16. He beat Frankie Genaro and lost to Panama Al Brown in close battles. Perez died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. He has long deserved recognition in the Boxing Hall of Fame.
16) Charles Phil Rosenberg was the World Bantamweight Champion from 1925 to 1927. Rosenberg had to loose 39 when he won the title and relinquished the belt for failing to make weight. His 65 bout record is 36 (7 KOs) – 16 – 6. He was never knocked out. His last fight was a victory over Hall of Fame Featherweight John Dundee.
Although my list is done I have hardly exhausted the list of Jewish world champions. Robert Cohen, Alphonse Halimi, Mike Rossman, Abe Goldstein, Dutch Sam, Waldemar Holdberg, Corporal Izzy Schwartz, Al Singer, Saoul Mamby, Solly Kreiger and Bob Olin held world titles. Leach Cross (who led to way for Benny Leonard), Al “Bummy” Davis, Abe Simon, Pedro Montanez, Dana Rosenblatt, Ray Miller, Charlie White, Benny Yanger, Young Monreal, Kingfish Levinsky, Sid Terris (outstanding lightweight) and Maxie Shapiro were serious contenders. Although there are fewer American Jewish boxers today, Israel and Eastern Europe have some prospects. Some of the new Russian immigrants can now openly recognize their Jewish backgrounds.
Sherman Lambert is a life-long boxing fan and an amateur boxing historian and used to regularly attend shows at Madison Square Garden in the 1960’s where he watched guys like Harold Johnson, Willie Pastrano, and an up and coming Joe Frazier. Please e-mail comments to [email protected]