THE BLOG

Exploring Boxing's Jewish Heritage

27/03/2017 11:20
Kontrec via Getty Images

Beneath the lights, cameras and action of a box office fight on a Saturday night, live on pay per view television, there lies another side to boxing. In all fairness to the sport, boxing does want to celebrate its underpinning heritage. Boxers all start at a club and for those with the necessary talent and work ethic, that club can become their life. As with other sports, only a tiny fraction will reach the top and enjoy the trappings of success. Unlike most other sports, boxing can come with a lethal price and an individual has to make the decision as to whether that is a price they are willing to pay.

Without dwelling into a well of patronizing nostalgia, boxing for all its danger has a heritage of pulling people up from desperate circumstances and giving them a path to a better future. It is no secret that many boxers originate from the tough inner cities and it seems a logical conclusion that a "tough" upbringing leads to better boxers. The notion of a "tough" upbringing is a relative concept but around the turn of the twentieth century brought a legacy of Jewish boxers which seemed somehow not in-keeping with the thousands of years of tradition that Judaism celebrates.

For someone who is not of the faith and is looking from the outside in, it appears that boxing does not sit entirely comfortably with religious teaching. Most ancient civilizations seem to have enjoyed some element of combat sport or aggressive pursuit. Judaism seems to have valued more cerebral pastimes and religious study. A gentleman by the name of Daniel Mendoza seemed to be one of the first to break the mold. In eighteenth century England, long before the Queensbury rules were established, this diminutive man of Spanish-Jewish decent had a successful fighting career. His intelligent fighting style was not the taste of everyone but did seem to be the catalyst for the sport to move from all out brawling to one requiring greater thought. The notion of "the sweet science" was born. Socially, Mendoza was seen to have fought (literally) a rising tide of antisemitism and was even patronized by royalty.

However, it was several generations later that Jewish boxers had their golden age, The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw considerable global change. From the boxing perspective, greater structure to the sport was becoming a reality and opportunities for boxers were increasing, Jewish communities in the West were starting to appear. Large numbers have arrived, fleeing persecution in the East and collecting in cities like London and New York. For these communities, poverty was a stark reality and the antisemitism they have hoped to escape was far from entirely absent. This was a literal case of survival of the fittest and the communities did seek to establish their own athletics clubs, with boxing playing a considerable role as a way of "toughening up".

For Londoners, names like Ted Lewis and Jack Berg are examples of successful boxers. For Americans, Ruby Goldstein and Benny Leonard were two of many successful Jewish boxers in the early to mid twentieth century. Whether British or American, the boxers tended to share similar patterns; children of Yiddish speaking Eastern European immigrants, born into poverty within big, tough cities It is an interesting footnote is that many Jewish boxers changed their names for their ring careers. One might assume this was to avoid discrimination but author Mike Silver suggests this was to avoid their own mothers finding out they were boxing! These boxers tended to mix a natural toughness with an intelligent style and work ethic, similar to Mendoza all those years before. It would be remiss the mention that behind the boxers were some very dedicated Jewish trainers.

So what happened? Some Jewish boxers still fight today but not in the same number as a century ago and certainly not with the same level of success. It seems to be a case that other opportunities became available and that pursuing boxing as a way to success was no longer one of few routes to a better life. The State of Israel notably does not seem to have embraced boxing in any great way. It seems unlikely that the period were Jewish boxers were the envy of the world will not be repeated. One hopes that the historical significance of those boxers is not forgotten and their legacy is celebrated as triumph against adversity.

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