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Monday, August 16, 2021

Boycotting the Olympics: Three Jewish Boxers who Protested the 1936 Games

"This is a matter of principle," proclaimed a 21 year old Jewish man from Washington, D.C.

Born on the final day of 1913, Lou Gevinson didn't just beat his amateur foes, he punished them. The southpaw featherweight pounded his way through tournaments separating his opponents from their senses. He won the D.C. Golden Gloves early in 1936 on route to a spot in the "Olympic Boxing Tryouts" held in Chicago's Amphitheatre in Chicago, Illinois.

Just as he had throughout much of his fighting career, Gevinson knocked out his first two opponents in the tournament. In the semifinal, however, Gevinson stumbled. Ted Kara, whose plane would fatally plunge into the Pacific Ocean during World War II, had won the Chicago Golden Gloves. A clear underdog, Kara bested Gevinson in the semifinal round at the Tryouts. Kara went on to represent the U.S. at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Gevinson's amateur run featured so much destruction of the opposition, he was chosen as an Olympic alternate instead of Joseph Church, who fell to Kara in the finals. But Gevinson declined the opportunity because of the Nazis' treatment of his Jewish brethren.

"Can we forget the way the German government is treating the Jewish boys in Germany?" wrote two Canadian boxers in their early 20s, "The German government is treating our brothers and sisters worse than dogs."

Benjamin Norman Yakubowitz was born on December 25, 1915 in Kiev, Ukraine. By the time of the 1936 Canadian Olympic trials, he was known as Baby Yack. He had grown up in a Toronto slum where he learned to fight. Baby Yack rose to become the Canadian amateur bantamweight champion and earn a spot on the Canadian Olympic team.

"Being Jewish, there was no question about us going to Berlin," recalled the other boycotting Canadian.

Born on May 14, 1916, Sammy Luftspring experienced the same tough upbringing in Toronto as Baby Yack. Luftspring became the Canadian amateur welterweight champion in the run-up to the 1936 Olympics.

Yack and Luftspring agreed to participate in the People's Olympiad, an alternate to the Olympics, which was to be held in Barcelona, Spain. After securing funding, the two boxers sailed to Europe for the first time in their lives. They boarded a train headed for Barcelona but were held up on the Spanish border. There they learned the People's Olympiad had been canceled. The Spanish Civil War broke out.

Gevinson, Yack, and Luftspring all turned pro shortly after their Olympic boycott. Gevinson had his debut in November. He became an extremely popular attraction in the D.C. area. Lou was matched tough early hindering his career's trajectory significantly. The southpaw puncher fought the likes of Joey Archibald, Petey Sarron, and Lou Feldman: all losses. Gevinson fought in his last pro bout in 1939. He joined the U.S. army during World War II and worked for them until 1957. He passed in 1976.

Baby Yack turned pro in September after the Olympics. He rose to become a top ten bantamweight in the world according to The Ring. Thrown in tough early as well, he won the Canadian bantamweight title in his eighth pro fight and secured at least three successful defenses of the crown. Baby also retired in 1939 after fighting the likes of Indian Quintana and Harry Jaffre. He went into the Canadian army and later became a bookie and entangled with the mob. He subsequently worked as a cab driver. He passed in 1987.

Luftspring debuted on the same card as Yack on September 23, 1936 at Maple Leaf Gardens. At his peak, The Ring rated Sammy as a top ten welterweight in the world. In 1940, he was set to face Henry Armstrong for the world title, but in a tune up fight against Steven Belloise, he was thumbed in the eye and sustained a horrific eye injury that forced him to retire.

Luftspring fell on hard times emotionally for a while before working as a host at a nightclub. He also got back into boxing as a prolific referee and judge. In a match in 1970, Humberto Trottman took umbrage with Sammy's officiating and attacked him. The ex-welterweight punched back, and Trottman lost two fights that night. Luftspring refereed the last two bouts the night George Foreman fought five men consecutively. Sammy refereed until 1984 and judged until 1991. He passed in 2000.

Christy, Jim. Flesh & Blood: A journey into the heart of boxing. 1990.
McDonald. Norris. "When Murphy Met Baby." Toronto Star. December 22, 2012.
Povich, Shirley. "A Boxer, and a Fighter for a Cause." The Washington Post. November 22, 1997. Pg. D1.
Povich, Shirley. "D.C. Native, Fought 3 Champions." The Washington Post. March 22, 1976. Pg. C4.
"Sammy Lufspring." Ontario Jewish Archives.
Silver, Mike. Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. 2016.
Woolsey, Garth. "Retired Toronto boxer will always wonder what might have been." Toronto Star. August 8, 1992.

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