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Sunday, May 3, 2020

A Look Back: Ernie Fliegel

Since boxing matches have been postponed for the foreseeable future to staunch the spread of coronavirus-2019, The Jewish Boxing Blog is continuing a series called  "A Look Back" that initially ran from 2010-2013. "A Look Back" was an effort to link the past with the present, by producing a short biography of notable former Jewish boxers.

Ernie Fliegel was an immigrant who used boxing as a means to something greater.

Fliegel was born on May 11, 1904 in the eastern Romanian town of Barlad. His childhood home had a dirt floor, and there were no electric lights in town. Since the house didn't have running water, women went down to the river to wash their clothes. There were roughly 6,000 Jews living in the town which made up a quarter of the population. In Romania at the time, Jews couldn't attend public schools, had no political rights, and weren't considered citizens. An economic downturn hit Barlad just before Ernie was born. In 1907, antisemites destroy 80 Jewish shops in town. The Fliegels fled in 1910. They weren't alone; the Jewish population in Barlad had fallen to 5,000 when Ernie's family immigrated to the United States.

Fliegel was six years old when his family left for the U.S. After two weeks in steerage without any sunlight, the family arrived at Ellis Island. Speaking Romanian and Yiddish but no English, it took Ernie's mother six months to earn enough for the train ticket to Minnesota. The family settled in the Romanian Jewish neighborhood on 17th Avenue in Minneapolis. That's where Fliegel learned to fight. Bullies picked on his pudgy younger brother Joe, so Ernie learned to protect him. He became a newsie and had to fight to keep his corner.

Fliegel's father wasn't around that much, so little Ernie considered himself the head of the household that included his mother, sister, grandma, and Joe. His mother was illiterate because girls from Barlad didn't go to school. Ernie had to make money to support the family. After selling newspapers, he got a job working in a women's clothing shop, and that's when he started boxing. "We didn’t box because we liked to box," Ernie remembered years later, "We didn’t start to be professional fighters because we liked to fight. It was necessity."

Fliegel dropped out of high school when he was a sophomore, a decision he later regretted, "If I had an education, I wouldn’t have boxed." He turned pro in 1922 at the age of 18. At first he was moonlighting as a boxer. He made between $15-25 for a fight, which was about as much as he made in a week selling clothes. One day his boss gave Fliegel an ultimatum; he told Ernie that he couldn't come to work all bruised up, he'd either have to give up boxing or leave the clothing store job. Ernie responded, “I’m sorry! I’ll try not to get hit!” But he soon chose boxing.

BoxRec lists Fliegel as participating in only 32 fights beginning in 1923. Fifty years after his last fight, Ernie remembered it differently. He claimed to have boxed three or four times a week. He recalls starting his career in New York and fighting in Minnesota at the Gaiety Theater, the Elks Club, and the Athletic Club, none of which are listed in his BoxRec ledger. His fights on BoxRec mostly took place at the Kenwood Armory.

In his first fight listed on BoxRec, the 5'9" bantamweight scored two knockdowns in earning a points victory over Soldier La Boone at Fort Snelling in Saint Paul, Minnesota. During Fliegel's career, some jurisdictions didn't allow a decision to be rendered if both fighters remained standing after the scheduled rounds were completed. As a workaround, newspapers declared the winner. In 1924, Ernie split a couple of newspaper decisions with Jimmy Josephs, although the loss was disputed.

BoxRec doesn't have any fight listed from the second Josephs fight in March of 1924 until January of the following year for Fliegel. Ernie won three fights within five weeks in the winter of 1925 , before losing a disputed newspaper decision to Nick Olivia in a return bout. Ernie first fought in Denver that summer before continuing west to California. It was a successful road trip as Fliegel went 3-0-1 before returning to Minnesota for a fight in October.

By 1926, Fliegel moved up to the featherweight division. He drew with Pete Sarmiento of the Philippines in 1926 and with California Joe Lynch, who had also fought Ernie's old friend Dandy Dillon, who was also a Jew from Minneapolis. On August 23, Ernie finally lost a fight indisputably when Joey Sangor won a newspaper decision. Three months later, Ernie was stopped for the first and only time in his career, a fourth round technical knockout to Joey Clein. Two months after, Fliegel got his revenge with a  newspaper decision over his conqueror. In February. he beat Billy DeFoe and then Sarmiento again.  At this point his record according to BoxRec was 22-4-5.

Tuesday June 7, 1927 at the Municipal Auditorium in Minneapolis was billed as the "Greatest Boxing Event Ever Held in the Northwest" in that day's Star Tribune. The card featured "internationally known fighters." Tickets could be bought for $1.10, $2.20, or $3.30. Fliegel was to fight DeFoe once again in a ten-round featherweight affair. Ernie was disqualified in the first round because of what he euphemistically called "an accident. It impaired my eyesight." Fliegel apparently lost an eye.

In public pictures in his post-fight career, Ernie could unfailingly be seen donning sunglasses. Unable to box, he worked as a bootlegger for a bit. The 18th Amendment, passed in 1919, ushered in prohibition. Alcohol sales went underground. Fliegel's old trainer and buddy Benny Haskell was a big bootlegger whose enterprise was raided by officials. Haskell and some other bootleggers went legit after the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th in 1933. That year Fliegel and his partner Max Winter, who would later own the Minnesota Vikings, opened the 620 Club.

The 620 Club was a suave joint located at 620 Hennepin Avenue. While Fliegel never became a champion in the ring, his 620 Club did hold the title for most turkey sold in the United States. It eventually closed in 1965.  Fliegel also toiled as a boxing manager and promoter. He became longtime friends with former heavyweight champion  Jack Dempsey, who introduced Ernie to the woman who would become his wife. Another of Ernie's pals was Augie Ratner, a former featherweight boxer and one-time foe who owned a joint on Hennepin that welcomed Jewish gangsters as guests. Ernie was a silent partner with Winter in owning the NBA's Minneapolis Lakers. The sale of the Lakers that would initiate their move to Los Angeles happened at the 620 Club.

Ernie died of a heart attack on July 11, 1982. he was 78 years old.

Herşcovici, Lucian-Zeev. Barlad. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.
Lewin, Rhonda G. Interview with Ernie Fliegel. May 7, 1976.

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