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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A Backwards Look at Charley Phil Rosenberg

Charley Phil Rosenberg died in New York on March 12, 1975 at the age of 72. Married to the same woman for a half century, Rosenberg retired after 30 years in the insurance business in the 1960s. It was a surprisingly quiet second act for the scandal-ridden former bantamweight champion of the world.

Before the insurance business, Rosenberg was a bootlegger. He had retired from boxing early in 1929 and needed to make a living. With Prohibition still the law of the land and Rosenberg's rough upbringing, it seemed like a natural enterprise for a tough street kid with a large family. Rosenberg had been friends with another illegal businessman, Al Capone. "Capone was a great host," Charley said. "After every fight, he entertained us royally." Rosenberg stayed in this line of work until Prohibition was repealed in December of 1933. That's when Charley transitioned to the far more legal insurance business.

On January 4, 1929, Rosenberg whipped former featherweight champion Johnny Dundee in a ten round comeback fight. "I didn't lick no Johnny Dundee," Charley admitted, "I licked an image of Dundee." Having been knocked down in the fight, he reasoned, "If a guy like Dundee, who couldn't punch, could knock me down, it's time to throw the gloves in." The 26 year old fought only twice more- both in February- before becoming a bootlegger.

Rosenberg lost the bantamweight title on February 4, 1927 despite defeating Bushy Graham. "I gave Graham a licking," Charley boasted of his fifteen-round rout of the challenger. But Rosenberg had come in four pounds over the bantamweight limit. Graham weighed in under the 118 pound limit, so if he had won the fight, he would've been champ, but since Rosenberg won, the title became vacant. Frustrated at losing his title, Rosenberg would have still continued his career, but the New York commission suspended him again, this time for a year. A supposed secret agreement between Rosenberg and Graham to come in over the weight was revealed in an investigation. "Graham did nothing wrong," Charley argued. "Graham come in under the weight." Rosenberg retired from boxing for a time due to the suspension.

After his first title defense resulted in his first suspension, Rosenberg fought often, but didn't defend his crown again for a over a year and a half because he had trouble making weight. A month before he finally defended his belt against Bushy Graham, Rosenberg fought Benny Schwartz, a fellow Jew and former world title challenger at flyweight.

On July 23, 1925 in Madison Square Garden, Rosenberg faced Italian Eddie Shea in his first title defense. Shea came out strong, but body work in the third turned the fight for Rosenberg, the champion. After scoring a knockdown in the fourth, Shea got off the canvas in time to absorb a tremendous right. Though Shea was knocked out cold, the New York commission saw something fishy in the fight and conducted an investigation. As a result, Rosenberg was suspended indefinitely but allowed to keep his title.

A month after winning the title, Charley fought in an over-the-weight non-title bout against Clarence Rosen in Toledo, Ohio. A fan standing ringside at the Armory kept screaming, "Kill the Jew bastard!" Charley went back to his corner after the round indignant at the abuse. "I turned around, took a mouthful of water and blood, and I spit it right in his face," he explained. The fan turned out to be Bernard Brough, who happened to be the mayor of Toledo. "I apologized," Charley continued. "I told him I didn't mean it. You see, out of town a Jew never stood a chance."

"Every town I went to I started trouble [on] account of the Jew situation," Rosenberg said.

On March 20, 1925, Rosenberg faced world bantamweight champion Cannonball Eddie Martin. Many felt Charley Phil would be in for a tough fight because he had to lose so much weight before the fight. Martin pounded Rosenberg for the first five rounds, but improbably Rosenberg turned the fight in the sixth and bashed the champion for the next nine rounds to take the title by unanimous decision. At 20 years old, Charley Phil Rosenberg was bantamweight champion of the world.

In the run-up to his championship bout against Martin, Rosenberg had to lose 36 pounds to make the 118 pound bantamweight limit. Ray Arcel and Whitey Bimstein whipped Rosenberg into shape. "I used to gain 15, 20 pounds every night after a fight," Charley admitted. "I was inclined to be heavy... I was a bantamweight in the ring but not outside. Outside I was really a heavyweight."

In those days, fighters dried out to make weight. For Rosenberg, he drank a cup or two of tea a day, but didn't drink any water; he only gargled it. "Making weight is what made me quit," he revealed. "I used to get up in the middle of the night and cry. I got up and cried many a night. Not pain. Thirst."

Rosenberg weighed 116 pounds, two pounds under the bantamweight limit, for his fight against Martin.

Between 1923 to 1925, Rosenberg overcame his early struggles and began dominating opponents. His style was come-forward all-action. One writer described him as a pint-sized version of welterweight champion Jack Britton. Charley explained, "When I was in there every fight was a war. People pay to see blood. Well, I either gave them my blood or somebody else's."

In 1923, Rosenberg was the idol of his Harlem neighborhood. He had defeated Harry London, a neighborhood rival, on September 22 at the Commonwealth Sporting Club by twelve round decision. "Then I became a neighborhood idol," Rosenberg declared. "I was a popular kid around New York."

It hadn't always been that way. Rosenberg credited Benny Valgar, a Jewish lightweight born in France, featherweight Joe Dellago aka Battling Reddy, Arcel, and Bimstein for teaching him how to fight. Rosenberg began to turn his career around and looked like he might make something of himself.  But prestige was never his aim. His goal was to make money for his family. "I wasn't it in there for no glory," Charley explained. "I was for dollars and cents, because I had a mother and eight other brothers and sisters. We all needed to live. We all needed to eat."

When he became a boxer, he changed his name to Charley Phil Rosenberg. The young pugilist struggled at the outset of his career. "I lost my first eight fights," Charley claimed. BoxRec researchers found a couple wins and draws in there, but the point remains. Rosenberg fought Olympic gold medalist and future flyweight world champion Frankie Genaro twice in 1922. "He gave me an unmerciful licking," Charley admitted. "In fact, he's the one that gave me a cauliflower ear."

At 15 years old, Charley Green delivered wet wash with a boy named Phil Rosenberg, who moonlighted as a boxer. Rosenberg fell sick one Friday, so Charley asked for Phil's boxing license to take his place. Charley needed the $15 the fight would provide. He had no experience outside of street fights, but the ruse worked, and after getting in the ring, Charley was hooked. "I was always fighting in the street. But they couldn't hurt you with the gloves," Charley said, so he decided to become a boxer.

"I was a rough kid in the street," Charley remembered. He worked when he could and stole when he couldn't work. His mother Rachel Green, a widow, couldn't feed her nine children. She placed three of Charley's brothers in an orphanage. Charley was too small at the time, so Rachel carried him as she pushed her peddler's cart trying to make ends meet. The family would move to Harlem when Charley was a boy.

Charles Green was born on August 15, 1904 on the Lower East Side. A few months before he was born, his father, a garment worker, had been crushed to death by an elevator. The family had been poor before the accident and with another mouth to feed on the way, the prospects for baby Charley's life appeared to be tragically bleak.

Blady, Ken. The Jewish Boxers' Hall of Fame. 1988.
Heller, Peter. "In This Corner...!" 1973, 1994.
Silver, Mike. Stars in the Ring. 2016.

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