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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Look Back: Joe Benjamin

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.

Rated a top Jewish lightweight of all time by Allen Bodner, Joe Benjamin was known for being a playboy, a man with a quick temper, and an action fighter. He cavorted with Hollywood and boxing royalty though he was never crowned champion himself.

Joe Benjamin was born September 7, 1898 in Portland, Oregon. The family later moved to Spokane, Washington. Benjamin's true occupational goal was to become a cowboy and he ran away from home a couple of times during his teens in pursuit of his goal. At 16 years old, Benjamin became an amateur boxer.

Benjamin made his debut in a four-round affair late in 1914. During this period, California had outlawed boxing except for four-round bouts, so whenever Benjamin fought in the state, he had only four stanzas to dismiss his opponent. Moving down to Los Angeles, Benjamin became the trainer of actor Douglas Fairbanks and was friendly with Charlie Chaplin. The boxer also made appearances in movies. By this point, Benjamin was already friends with Jack Dempsey, having met the future heavyweight champion while the men were riding the rails.

Benjamin was also chummy with writer Damon Runyon, who nicknamed the lightweight "The Sheik of San Joaquin." In 1918, Benjamin fought four-rounders in San Francisco against the likes of Frankie Farren and Joe Duffy. The Sheik, who was known as a smart boxer, could punch. Unfortunately, he had brittle hands, which hurt his chances at obtaining a title shot. Benjamin was also known to use gambling and drinking as training methods.

In 1919, Benjamin fought the great Benny Leonard in a four-round loss. Leonard's team was hoping to nurture Benjamin so he could replace Leonard when the great champion retired. Joe was poised for a shot against Leonard after defeating Joe Welling in November. But a month later, Welling won the return bout.

In 1920, Benjamin had set himself up again for a title shot. But a loss to Richie Mitchell in Milwaukee derailed those plans. The Sheik lost twice to Joe Tiplitz and once to Johnny Dundee. But Benjamin was able to defeat his old nemesis Phil Salvadore (who he fought a total of five times according to BoxRec) on multiple occasions to work his way back. He defeated Jack Silver in 1925, giving him a chance to fight for the title. Instead, he took an interim bout against Ace Hudkins. It would be Benjamin's last. Hudkins beat up Benjamin and the latter retired for good.

After the fight, Runyon wrote:
Two hundred Queensberry tussles
And some of them mighty tough-
But the secret to my success was-
I knew when I had enough.

BoxRec has Benjamin's with only 100 bouts, but Ken Blady argues that the West Coast lightweight champ had over two hundred. He was KOed just once. Benjamin went on to act in movies and run a liquor store. He dated scores of women, even punching out movie star Grant Withers and Dempsey over them.

Joe Benjamin died on July 6, 1983 in San Francisco.

Blady, Ken. The Jewish Boxers Hall of Fame. 1988.
Bodner, Allen. When Boxing was a Jewish Sport. 1997.

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