Have news relating to Jewish boxers? Email the editor here!

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

A Look Back: Nat Arno

Sidney Nathaniel Abramowitz, born April 1, 1910 in Newark, New Jersey, spent his childhood fighting. Almost by accident he found himself on an amateur card when the promoter was in need of a boxer. Abramowitz acquitted himself well in his first sanctioned fight and took up the sport.

Sidney loved boxing so much he dropped out of school to pursue a career in the trade. Needing money, he turned pro two weeks before his 15th birthday. In early fights, he earned $10 or got a wristwatch that he pawned.

Sidney used the nom de guerre Nat Arno to hide his new profession from his parents. It was a wise move, because when Harry and Bertha found out, they barred their son from boxing. The ban worked for six months. Arno ran away from home at the beginning of 1926, hitchhiking to Florida to restart his career. His parents didn't even know if he was alive for over a year.

He fought in Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, and Daytona Beach among other Florida cities. After over 40 fights in Florida- dropping only two of them- he returned to New Jersey to fight in  February of 1927. Far more muscular than when he left, Nat thankfully made up with his dad upon his return.

Newark had been a bustling city, but by the 1920s had turned into a rough place. The city saw a rise in corruption because of prohibition. Newark boasted more illegal speakeasies than Manhattan. Probably some time in 1928 in an effort to supplement his income from prizefighting, Arno began working for Longie Zwillman, the mob boss who controlled bootlegging in Newark and beyond. Arno became an enforcer for Zwillman's gang. He helped usher illegal alcohol to its destination.

Newark's preeminent boxing venue during Arno's career was Laurel Garden, often called "the bucket of blood." Arno fought there at least eleven times. He split two bouts in the spring of 1929 with Benny Levine, a future fellow Newark Minuteman. After dropping an eight round decision to Levine in March, Arno opened up a bad cut over his friend's left eye forcing the referee to stop the April rematch in the third round.

At 5'5", Arno began as a lightweight, but by the 1930s, he had grown into a welterweight. He often wore a Star of David on his trunks intertwined with the initials NA. His last bout occurred on September 30, 1932, a ten round decision loss to Lope Tenorio of the Philippines. Arno, who changed his surname to Arnold, weighed in at a career high 149 pounds for the contest. The 22 year old retired when he realized he wouldn't become champ and understood working for Zwillman fulltime constituted a more lucrative opportunity. Arno's career record was something like 81-23-13 (1 No Decision), including ten newspaper decisions, with 21 KOs. In 118 fights, Arno was stopped once, against Young Zazzino on cuts in 1930.

On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment passed, which repealed prohibition. Zwillman's bootlegging operations were rendered moot and Arno's career as a mob enforcer was suddenly in jeopardy. A void briefly entered Arno's life.

But in that same year, the Friends of New Germany gained influence in the United States, particularly in Newark. Fascism became a genuine threat in the U.S. Combatting fascism's rise gave Arno a new sense of purpose.

Arno chose to confront Nazism the best way he knew how, through violence. He pelted one Friends of New Germany meeting with stink bombs, and as American Nazis fled, they were beaten up by pipe-wielding Newark Minutemen. Zwillman chose Arno as the commander of the Minutemen, a group of Jewish toughs- many former boxers- whose mission was to thwart a troubling increase in anti-Semitism. Nat often carried a gun and had no problem using his trained fists to bludgeon Nazis. He also survived an assassination attempt. In the summer of 1934, Max Feilshus was wounded in both legs in a drive-by shooting while standing next to Arno. By the end of 1935 though, Hitler had rejected the Friends of  New Germany and it essentially closed down.

But a new group took its place. The German American Bund, led by Fritz Kuhn, embraced violent anti-Semitism even more than its predecessor. With Father Charles Coughlin spewing his anti-Jewish bile to millions on the radio, the German-American Bund gained a foothold in the minds of too many Americans. But Arno, by this point a stogie-smoking, three-piece suit and fedora-wearing gangster, was ready. He and the Minutemen physically challenged the American Nazis at every meeting.

At times, the press criticized the Minutemen's violent ways and defended the American Nazis' right to free speech under the First Amendment. This of course minimized the American Nazis' own violent impulses. Because assault was part of his job description, Arno often found himself arrested. But thanks to Zwillman's connections to Newark's top brass, Arno never stayed behind bars for very long. Nat led the Minutemen until 1940.

Arno enlisted in the Army in 1941, before the United States entered into war with Nazi Germany. He saw action in the European theater and was wounded at the Battle of Normandy in 1944.

When he came home, he found himself lost once again. He turned back to crime to make a living and got in trouble with the law. Zwillman helped his old friend out once again. In 1948, Arno went out west to run a liquor store and later worked in the furniture business. After moving to California, he became a member of a noble organization, Disabled American Veterans. He stayed out of the spotlight becoming a family man and aiding fundraisers at the local synagogue. Arno died on August 8, 1973 in California of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 63.

In the early 1960s, the American Nazi Party held a rally in Los Angeles. Sidney Arnold listened intently in the audience. When a speaker spouted something anti-Semitic, Sidney conjured up the dangerous alter ego he had laid to rest decades earlier. "Nat Arno" resurfaced and pummeled the Nazi as if it had been the '30s all over again.

Barry, Leslie K. The Newark Minutemen. 2020.
Donahue, Greg. The Minuteman: The Forgotten Legacy of Nat Arno and the Fight against Newark's Nazis. 2020.
Grover, Warren. Nazis in Newark. 2003.
Silver, Mike. Stars in the Ring. 2016.

No comments:

Post a Comment