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Monday, December 12, 2022

The Long, Eventful Life of Izzy Zerling

Izzy Zerling, born Srol Tzerlin on November 22, 1914 in Valga, Russian Empire, lived a long, eventful life. Valga, called Walk in German, remained under the talons of the Russian czar until Estonia declared independence in February of 1918. After the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, Estonians fought the Reds from 1918 until 1920 for their independence.

Leaving from Libau, Latvia on the aptly named SS Estonia, nine-year old Srol set foot on Ellis Island in New York on December 1, 1923. He arrived with his mother Lea, a 36 year old housewife who could read and write in German, and his seven year old brother, Elie. Their closest relative in the U.S. was Lea's sister Sara Pavlovsky.

Srol grew up in New York's Lower East Side. At some point he changed his name to Isidore, Izzy for short, and the family's surname became Zerling. The change would have happened while the family had been living in New York, because names were not changed at Ellis Island. According to esteemed historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., the notion that any names were changed upon arrival at Ellis Island is a myth. Immigrants Americanized their own names.

At 16 years old, Izzy applied to become an amateur boxer. He had been training at Stillman's Gym since he was ten. The doctor found a heart murmur and rejected his application. Over the next two years, Zerling returned frequently, over a dozen times, and each time the doctor refused him. Izzy participated in over fifty bootleg bouts before finally gaining an amateur license around 1932.

Sporting blond hair and blue eyes, Zerling stood 5' 6.5" and began as a flyweight before moving up to the bantamweight division. "My first fight, I lost a close fight," Izzy said of his amateur career. "My seventh fight, I had a winning streak. I fought the [future New York] Golden Gloves champion, Johnny Cabello."

Against Cabello, Zerling shook hands and then went back to his corner. When it was time to fight, he inexplicably tried to shake hands with Cabello again and got hit for his trouble. He lost that fight by first round KO but won the rematch convincingly. As an amateur, Zerling twice beat another New York Golden Gloves champion, Davy Crawford.

Izzy turned pro in 1934 and fought mostly as a featherweight. He was knocked out in the third round of his debut. "I forgot to duck," he joked. His heaviest weight for a fight was just over the lightweight limit. BoxRec lists 22 fights during his three-and-a-half year career. Elsewhere, he's given credit for "around 37 fights."

Zerling fought in four and six round affairs as a pro. He lost all his six-rounders. Izzy fought in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx in such venues as St. Nicolas Arena, New York Coliseum, and Broadway Arena. BoxRec lists his record as 14-6-2 with 3 KOs.

Izzy Zerling in 1936

Zerling applied for American citizenship in 1936. He lived at 216 Clinton St. in Manhattan at the time. The following year, he founded G&S Sporting Goods, which was located at 43 Essex St., less than a half mile from his home. He manufactured and sold boxing equipment and other sporting goods.

In 1940, Zerling married Rebecca "Betty" Seidenberg, a 20 year old immigrant from Poland. The couple lived in an apartment above Zerling's store with Betty's dad, mom, and younger sister. His citizenship application was approved shortly after his wedding. The couple would have two daughters and a son.

When the United States entered World War II, Zerling hoped to join the Army. He tried to enlist, but Betty wouldn't sign the papers. So he waited until he was drafted. "I wanted to be in the Army because [heavyweight champion] Joe Louis and all of my friends who were fighting, they were all in the Army."

Instead, Izzy served in the Navy aboard the USS Booth beginning in the middle of 1942. Zerling was the fitness coordinator on the ship. It was his job to whip the sailors into shape. The Booth docked in Casablanca and Italy during the war. Zerling was occasionally challenged to a boxing match by unsuspecting sailors who didn't know he was a former pro. He decided to show up his challengers by utilizing his defensive skills rather than hurting the poor saps. Eventually, Zerling was asked to represent the Booth in boxing matches for the enjoyment of the sailors. Weighing 160 pounds at the time, he fought bigger men. Izzy was honorably discharged at the end of the war with a bad back. His brother, who served in the Army, spent a year as a prisoner of war in Germany.

After the war, Izzy continued to train fighters while running G&S. He was one of the first coaches to work with female fighters, and trained young kids throughout the rest of his life. In 1954, Zerling was the guest of honor at the Children's Aid Society Banquet. His son Lenard took over G&S in 1957. Izzy opened the Izzy Zerling Youth Recreation Center in 1966, a non-profit designed to serve socio-economically disadvantaged children. It was located in Brooklyn on Church Avenue.

Dione Warwick once did a benefit show for the center in the early 1970s. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the center produced quality amateur boxers. Among the more colorful people Zerling trained were Flory "Non-stop" Goldberg and David Ruggerio, a famous chef who used to work for the mob. In a 2003 interview, Zerling boasted that, at nearly 90 years old, he weighed a svelte 140 pounds.

On September 10, 2011 at the age of 96, Izzy Zerling died. He is buried at Montefiori Cemetery in Queens, New York. G&S, still owned by his descendants, closed its physical store in 2014 but continues to operate online. It's just the most tangible legacy of the long, eventful life of a true mensch, Izzy Zerling.

Interview with Izzy Zerling. Randal Library Oral History Collection. April 22, 2003.
New York Amsterdam News. 30 Jan 1971: 20. (Warwick benefit)
On Essex. Vimeo. Jan 28, 2010.
Sherman, Gabriel.  Vanity Fair; New York Vol. 64, Iss. 5, May 2022.
Star in the Ring. YouTube. Mar 1, 2011.
Other sources include his immigration record, his naturalization records, the 1940 U.S. census, and Find a Grave.

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