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Sunday, March 6, 2022

Former World Champion Robert Cohen Passes: A Life Well Lived

Robert Cohen died on Wednesday, March 2, at the age of 91. Cohen held the French, European, and world bantamweight championships during his professional career, which spanned the 1950s.

"One of my heroes," recalls Jewish boxing expert Ron Schneck, who alerted The Jewish Boxing Blog of Cohen's passing. "In his prime, he was an absolute terror in the ring."

Robert Cohen was born in Bone, Algeria, which was a French colony at the time, on November 15, 1930. "There was no trouble between the Jewish community and the Arabs in my town, Bone. We all mixed and there were no problems," Robert told The Jewish Chronicle in 2012. "But I was short and all the bigger boys used to pick on me. That made me aggressive, and I began boxing. "

When Algeria fell under the authority of Vichy France in 1940, Cohen and his fellow Jewish countrymen lost their citizenship. Countless anti-Jewish laws were passed during the war years. But the Cohens were lucky; the family survived the Holocaust intact.

Cohen was a successful amateur in Algeria, but moved to France for his pro career. His first 14 fights and 25 of his first 26 fights took place in France, mostly in Paris. In that time, Cohen lost only once.

Standing a couple inches above five feet, Cohen had a come-forward buzzsaw style in the ring. He often cuffed with an open hand, but his best punch was a tight left hook on the inside. He was always willing to fight through injuries.

On November 6, 1953, Cohen won the French bantamweight title with a fifteen-round points victory over Maurice Sandeyron. On February 27, 1954, Cohen captured the European bantamweight crown by flooring John Kelly of Northern Ireland five times in the second round. The sixth knockdown, coming in the third, would end the fight.

On September 19, Robert challenged Chamroen Songkitrat for the vacant world bantamweight title after the previous champion chose to retire rather than face Cohen. In Songkitrat's home country of Thailand, Cohen won a bruising split decision.

"The French saw me as 'the little Algerian'. When I won the French title I became 'the little French boy from Algeria'. When I won the world title, they adopted me completely," Cohen told The JC.

Cohen's world title reign bordered on the bizarre. He retained the belt after his first defense ended in a draw. Many felt Cohen deserved the victory against the South African challenger, Willie Toweel, in Johannesburg. Robert suffered a broken jaw in a car accident. He was TKOed in a non-title bout against fellow countryman, Cherif Hamia. Cohen ultimately lost the title to Mario D'Agata in a rematch in 1956. With the win, D'Agata became the first deaf world champion.

Cohen was a religiously observant Jew who kept kosher wherever he traveled despite fighting in ten different countries during his pro career. Before his fights he prayed in synagogues regardless of where in the world he was. His last bout came in 1959, a decision loss in what was then called Northern Rhodesia.

"Cohen was maybe the best of all the really good Jewish fighters who came out of North Africa after World War II," Schneck believes.

After his career, Robert briefly lived in Belgium and the Congo before spending most of his post-boxing life in Capetown, South Africa in the textile business. At 91, he was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, living former world champion at the time of his death.

"He was a real mensch all of his days," Schneck says. "No higher praise in my humble estimation."

Blady, Ken. The Jewish Boxers' Hall of Fame. 1988.
Silver, Mike. Stars in the Ring. 2016.
"When a Cohen was the World Champion Boxer." The Jewish Chronicle. February 16, 2012. 

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