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Friday, June 18, 2010

A Look Back: Benny Leonard

In an effort to link the past with the present, The Jewish Boxing Blog will present monthly a short biography of notable former Jewish boxers.

A hero to poor Jewish kids, the great Benny Leonard, nicknamed the Ghetto Wizard, is widely regarded as the best Jewish boxer of all time. Many consider him the best lightweight ever and he is often ranked as one of the top ten best fighters in the history of the sport. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Benjamin Leiner was born on April 7, 1896 in New York's Lower East Side to poor Russian immigrants. He fought under the name Benny Leonard so his Orthodox mother wouldn't find out that he was boxing. Leonard's debut came in 1911 at the age of 15, a match he lost on a 3rd round TKO due to a bloody nose. He didn't lose many more after that. From 1917-1925, Leonard held the lightweight title, the longest such reign in the history of the division. He retired as champion.

Renown journalist Arthur Brisbane claimed, "He has done more to conquer anti-Semitism than 1,000 textbooks." Leonard was known as a cerebral boxer, a master defensively, who developed power later in his career. A story about his wherewithal in the ring goes: after nearly knocking out contender Ritchie Mitchell earlier in the first round of their 1921 contest, Mitchell hit Leonard with a left to the midsection and a right to the jaw. Leonard went down and barely beat the count. At that point, he waved Mitchell in, which thoroughly confused the contender, and the chance to KO the champ faded. Leonard won a 6th round TKO.

As is the case with men who began their careers nearly 100 years ago, Leonard's official record is a point of contention. For starters, Leonard fought in an era when boxing was teetering on the edge of legality. By law, a winner was crowned only in the event of a knockout. To get around this restriction, newspapers often scored the fight and printed the results the next day. Leonard's record is approximately 91-5-1 with 71 KOs and perhaps 117 no decisions (he was apparently 93-14-10 in newspaper decisions).

In addition to his debut loss, he was stopped two more times early in his career. His next loss was a DQ for the welterweight championship against titlist Jack Britton about 10 years later. Britton was in control of the bout until Leonard nailed him with a left to the body in the 13th round. Britton went down. Leonard, the epitome of poise, then inexplicably ran over to a befallen Britton and whacked him causing the disqualification.

Seldom did Leonard ever lose control as he did in the Britton fight. Even his hair stayed cool. The Ghetto Wizard famously bragged that his slick-backed hair was never messed up during a fight. Ken Blady relays a story where an opponent, Leo Johnson, sullied Leonard's hair when they met in the center of the ring before their 1917 fight for the lightweight title in an effort to get Leonard out of his game. Leonard greeted the disrespectful gesture by knocking out Johnson in two minutes.

Benny Leonard lost his vast boxing fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. As a result, he set about on an ill-fated comeback. He won a number of fights, but only because his opponents took dives. He was fatter, slower, and even his trademark hair had receded. Leonard worked his way up to a fight with Jimmy McLarnin, one in which the former champion was beaten badly and stopped in the 6th round. Leonard then retired from boxing. He later contributed to the war effort in World War II, just as he had done during the first World War. Afterwards, he became a boxing referee and died in the ring on April 18, 1947 in New York.

Benny Leonard vs. Lew Tendler
July 27, 1922
Jersey City, New Jersey
Lightweight Championship

Blady, Ken. The Jewish Boxers Hall of Fame. 1988. pgs 109-128.
Bodner, Allen. When Boxing was a Jewish Sport. 1997.
Siegman, Joseph. Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Hall of Fame. 2000. pgs 57-58.
Sugar, Bert. Boxing's Greatest Fighters. 2006. pgs 17-19.

1 comment:

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