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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Review: The Great Benny Leonard

The Great Benny Leonard: Mama's Boy to World Champ
By John Jarrett
Pitch Publishing, 2021

Even now, over seventy years after his death, Benny Leonard is a revered figure among Jewish boxing fans. In a tradition popularized by Budd Schulberg, we typically include "The Great" before uttering his name, an honorific akin to referring to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as "Mahatma." John Jarrett has created a book worthy of our idol.

Racing through his childhood and skimming his post-career life, Jarrett's work primarily focuses on Benny the boxer. Rather than providing strict chronologic coverage of each fight, Jarrett presents the hot debates that marked Benny's career:

-Who really taught Benny to throw that concussive right hand?
-How much did Benny love his mother? (Spoiler: A lot!)
-Was Benny a better lightweight than Joe Gans?
-How did he out-think Ritchie Mitchell in the first round on that fateful night in 1921 and trick the Milwaukee bruiser out of the world championship?
-And how did he do a similar thing to Lew Tendler in the eighth round of their fight the following year?
-Why did Benny hit Jack Britton when he was down and all but out, thereby losing his claim to the welterweight crown?

As a writer, Jarrett is humble. He leaves the storytelling to Damon Runyon, Heywood Broun, Nat Fleischer and the like, quoting firsthand newspaper accounts and later biographies at length. The introduction is almost exclusively an extended quote from Allen Bodner's When Boxing was a Jewish Sport. The fear in heavily quoting various sources is a disjointed work, but Jarrett blends these diverse voices like a maestro brings together different sections of an orchestra. Sometimes the writers seamlessly piggyback off one another and at others they engage in riveting debates about Benny's career. The few times Jarrett describes the fights with his own fingers, his words fit in well with the old masters.

Benny's life and career aren't treated as a philosophical muse here. Nor are they really put in a wider context either. His role as a symbol of his people is kept to a minimum. This book is more like a straight shot of Benny told directly by those who covered him. One of the most striking aspects of that coverage was the quickness in which questions surfaced about whether Leonard's talents had deteriorated. The questions arose almost immediately after he lifted the lightweight title from Freddie Welsh in 1917. And those criticisms never relented. As is often the case, the myth only grew in time.

The Great Benny Leonard is for all Jewish boxing fans. Those who don't know much about the legend will learn of all the key moments in his career, and those who are intimately familiar with perhaps the greatest Jewish boxer, and certainly the most popular, ever to lace up the gloves will still glean much from this book.

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