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Thursday, April 7, 2022

Review of The Cambridge Companion to Boxing

The Cambridge Companion to Boxing
Edited by Gerald Early
Cambridge University Press, 2019.

The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, edited by Gerald Early, covers a wide range of topics about pugilism, beginning in the ancient world, through the bare-knuckle era, and then examining the sport's modern stars such as Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali. Featuring articles from great boxing intellectuals, this book also looks at women's boxing, the history of Latinos in boxing, and the issue of race in the sport. This review will focus on the two chapters about Jews in boxing.

Professor Steven A. Riess contributes a chapter called "Jews in Twentieth Century Boxing." Reiss is a retired history professor from Northeastern Illinois University and has published numerous books about sports including editing and contributing to the book Sports and the American Jew. A respected scholar, Riess is right on the mark with "Jews in Twentieth Century Boxing."

Riess hits the highlights in tracing the history of Jews in boxing. By mentioning Daniel Mendoza and Joe Choynski, he gives important context. Brief overviews of Abe Attell, Benny Leonard, and Barney Ross, and Maxie Rosenbloom show that Jews consistently reached the top of the sport during the first forty years of the twentieth century. Riess notes the percentage of Jewish world champions and top rated fighters at a given time to show how prominent they were in the sport. He shows the decline of Jews in boxing during the latter portion of the twentieth century. Even Jewish nonparticipants are covered.

The only issue I have with the chapter is the line, "Today there are virtually no Jewish boxers." While the line is technically correct, the mission of The Jewish Boxing Blog is to show that the story of Jewish boxers is still being written. But Riess is right, boxing will almost certainly never be as significant to Jews as it once was. For those who don't know much about the history of Jews in boxing, "Jews in Twentieth Century Boxing" is an excellent overview. The writing is accessible, and it's a great starting point to learn more about the topic.

Tony Gee's chapter "A Surprising Dearth of Top English-Born Jewish Fighters in the Bare-Knuckle Era" is misplaced here. Gee, a former kickboxer, is clearly an expert on the subject, but the chapter belongs in a book on bare-knuckle boxing and not in a general boxing anthology.

The title suggests you thought there were a lot of top English-born Jewish fighters in the bare-knuckle era. I don't know you, but I bet you didn't. I'm not an expert, but I have studied the subject a bit and must admit I was not at all surprised by the small numbers of top English-born Jewish fighters during this era. I'd bet most Jews would find it surprising that there were any Jewish bare-knuckle fighters, let alone top English-born ones. The title implies the chapter was written for a very specific and quite narrow readership.

Given the title, you might expect to read about the cultural factors that limited the number of top English-born Jewish fighters in the bare-knuckle era or about the role of anti-Semitism in preventing English-born Jewish fighters from reaching the top. Neither is covered.

Instead, this chapter focuses on technical reasons as to why there is a surprising dearth of top English-born Jewish fighters in the bare-knuckle era. They might have been born elsewhere, their mothers might have had a questionable link to Judaism, they might have had success in the U.S. or Australia instead of England, or there isn't enough documentation to determine if they were top level. As a result, there is very little interesting information here.

Writing preference is subjective, and this chapter is for those who prefer winding sentences that include many clauses. Awkward and outdated terms such as "Jewess" do not help matters. Editor Gerald Early should have recognized the shortcomings of this entry. An overview of bare-knuckle fighters with Jewish heritage would have been better suited for this book.

Despite this missed opportunity, Early, who possesses one of the most important voices on American sports and culture, includes many renown authors such as Randy Roberts, Colleen Aycock, and Kasia Boddy- just to name a few- that makes this collection a worthy read.

1 comment:

  1. You certainly are an expert in the field and I enjoy your blog.