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Friday, August 19, 2022

Jack "Kid" Berg: Limitless Energy

Jack "Kid" Berg, a charismatic ladies man out of the ring, fought with sustained fury inside it. The common denominator was unbounded energy. Nicknamed the "Whitechapel Windmill," he harnessed his raw ability to capture the junior welterweight world championship and beat some of the best fighters the sport has ever known.

Born Judah Bergman on June 28, 1909 in a Jewish neighborhood in east London, England, Berg grew up in a big family. His parents were immigrants, either from Poland or Russia. Though not an orthodox Jew, his father was religiously strict. Jack would later take after his mother in one regard; she was very superstitious. From a young age, Berg couldn't sit still. He described himself as "a little rough-neck," always getting into trouble. By his teenaged years, he spent nights away from home, sometimes with an older girlfriend. An athletic kid, he eventually tried his hand at boxing after a particularly nasty street-fight and proved to be a natural because of his relentless style.

Having turned pro in 1924, a few weeks shy of his fifteenth birthday, Berg was a raw fighter and didn't receive proper training until Alec Goodwin took him on. Goodwin had guided Berg's idol, Ted "Kid" Lewis to the welterweight title a decade before. Berg spent the next few years navigating the politics of the British boxing scene and chasing the British lightweight championship. Save two losses to Johnny Cuthbert and one to Harry Corbett, Kid won all of his early fights in London, most of which took place at Premierland. But he could never get the British lightweight champ and fellow Jew, Harry Mason, into the ring.

Berg traveled to the United States in 1928 and was an instant hit in Chicago and an even bigger sensation in New York the next year. He hadn't been appreciated by British boxing experts, but New York fans fawned over him. There, he linked up with manager Sol Gold and legendary trainer Ray Arcel. Arcel said, "I came to love him as my own son. I took him into my own home as a member of my family." He also said, "Training him was one nightmare after another."

Berg spent much of his time in New York chasing women. He bragged about attending brothels. "When he wanted to be- a gentleman out of Emily Post," Arcel explained. "But on the loose, a wild man who made Harry Greb and Battling Siki look like ministers by comparison." The Gotham fans loved him for his exciting 1929 trilogy with Bruce Flowers. During that time, he also beat junior welterweight champion Mushy Callahan in an over-the-weight bout.

After taking a split decision win over Tony Canzoneri, Berg fought Callahan again, this time for the title. On February 18, 1930 at Royal Albert Hall back in London, Kid scored a tenth round TKO over Callahan to win the junior welterweight world title. Brits finally accepted him as their own. Today, Berg is given full credit as a world champion, but in those days, the 140-pound title was considered a minor one, not recognized everywhere as legitimate. Berg longed for the world lightweight championship.

A fighting champion, Berg held the title for fourteen months. He beat the legendary Kid Chocolate and avenged a defeat to Billy Petrolle among his many defenses during that time. But successive world lightweight champs, Sammy Mandell and Al Singer, wanted nothing to do with him. Tony Canzoneri finally gave Berg a shot. With both titles on the line, on April 24, 1931 at Chicago Stadium, Jack couldn't replicate his earlier win over Canzoneri. He was KOed in three.

Berg's career would gain momentum and then stall, gain again, and stall again. He fought until 1945, quite successfully, but never got back into world title contention. He could no longer fight constantly for three minutes of every round. Instead, he showed flashes of his windmill style.

During the end of his boxing career, he served in the Royal Air Force during World War II as a boxing instructor. After his first engagement broke off and his first marriage ended in divorce, Berg eventually did settle down with one woman, Morya Smith. He spent his post-boxing life working as a stuntman in movies for three decades.

All the while, he never sat still, right up until the day he died on April 22, 1991 at the age of 81.

Blady, Ken. The Jewish Boxers' Hall of Fame. 1988. Pgs. 277-282.
"Five Star Jewish Boxers Fight to Help the Palestine Relief Fund." The Jewish Boxing Blog. July 31, 2022.
Harding, John with Jack Berg. Jack Kid Berg: The Whitechapel Windmill. 1987, 2019
Silver, Mike. Stars in the Ring. 2016. Pg. 115-120.

Top: 1938 Churchman Cigarettes card of Berg (author's collection)
Middle: a drawing of Berg (Harding, page 94)
Bottom: a photo of Berg (left) and Canzoneri before their first fight (Harding, page 114)

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