In 1922, in a boxing ring on a winter’s night, in a small Philadelphia arena, Ty Cobb won a six-round decision against Babe Ruth.
No, not that Cobb and Ruth, but a pair of Jewish lightweights looking to mask their identities so as not to aggravate their mothers, while pumping up the gate with suckers expecting the real Ruth and Cobb.
“Cobb” was sort of telling the truth. His real name was Kolb, Sammy Kolb.
Holden Kepecs, finishing production on “Stars In The Ring,” a documentary he’s producing about Jews in boxing, says that “Ruth” was Jewish, too, though his real name was lost in the cigar smoke of time.
Kepecs, 47, an Emmy Award-winning editor and producer, unearthed a scene in a Yiddish silent film, “His People” (1925) showing an aproned and matronly mother, alongside a bearded, Orthodox father, reading a letter from their son. “You see what he is,” she says with regret. “A prize-fighter!”
The father looks to Heaven, “God of Israel! That a son of mine should sink so low.”
Kids were changing their names all across America. In the record books we found five Ty Cobbs and three Babe Ruths — and four Abe Goldbergs, four Izzy Cohens, two Hymie Cohens, and 164 other Cohens. We presume that the Izzys and the Hymies were fighting under their real names.
Maybe not. There’s a story out of the old Stillman’s Gym that someone picked up a ringing pay-phone and was heard yelling into the receiver, “Which Tom Kelly do you want, the Irish Tom Kelly, the Italian Tom Kelly or the Jewish Tom Kelly?”
Kelly was likely to be the Jewish one. Kepecs says that prior to World War II there were perhaps as many as 20,000 Jews boxing for money. They had nicknames like “Newsboy, “The Fighting Dentist,” “The Fighting Redhead,” “Beryl The Terrible,” ”Slapsie,” “Mushy,” and “Bummy.”
Jews were not only were plentiful but dominant. In the first half of the last century there were 27 Jewish world champions, and in 11 championship fights both fighters were Jewish, with a Jewish champ in one weight class or another in every year but 1913.
And then there were all the Jewish trainers, sparring partners, promoters, managers and “inventors.”
Daniel Mendoza, the first Jewish champion, is credited with inventing “the science of boxing” in the 1700s. The upper cut is credited to Dutch” Sam Elias and the left hook was invented by Joseph Choynski, both in the 1800s. We may presume that a fighter didn’t exactly have to be Thomas Edison to invent the upper cut and the left hook, but hey, history gives the credit to Elias and Choynski.
Jewish guys were all over the fight game. Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, developed the mouth protector. Jacob Golumb, founder of the Bronx-based Everlast, the ultimate in boxing equipment, merged the Jewish genius in boxing and the garment industry to invent the elastic waist-band in 1925. Before that, boxers only wore leather-belted trunks. Nat Fleischer founded and edited Ring magazine. Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” captured the loneliness and wintery perserverance. Screenwriter, Budd Schulberg (“On The Waterfront,” “The Harder They Fall”), who put the words “I coulda been a contender” into Brando’s mouth, used to say that “boxing is a chess game with blood.” You have to think four, five moves ahead.
If Jews and boxing seem an anomaly, Orthodox Jews and boxing seems even more so. After World War II, when the GI Bill allowed poor Jewish kids to go to college, the closest Orthodox Jews came to boxing was when Rocky Marciano or Larry Holmes trained at Grossinger’s.
These days, the two most prominent Jewish fighters are Orthodox: Dmitriy Salita, welterweight, and Yuri Foreman, a former super-welterweight champ and the first Orthodox champ in nearly 70 years. (Foreman’s next fight will be March 12, in Las Vegas). Since he lost his title last year under the Yankee Stadium lights (only after waiting for Havdalah), his manager died, he and his wife had a son, his knee was operated on, all while he continued his rabbinic studies. Asked by The Times if he’d want his newborn son to be a boxer, Foreman said, “I’d prefer he become a scholar, a righteous man.”
A few years ago, Foreman affixed a mezuzah to the door at Gleason’s gym in Brooklyn, where he was training. Newspapers said it was the only mezuzah on a boxing gym outside Israel.
“Wait a second,” e-mailed Joseph Brender. “I’ve got a mezuzah on my gym, too,” the Inwood Boxing Academy in Upper Manhattan.
A beautiful gym it is. In 2009, it won a complete make-over from the Discovery Channel, while yet retaining the funkiness, the old fight posters, the big-buckled championship belts, and the scent of liniment that a great boxing gym has to have. Brender looks at a photo of Foreman and wonders if he’s coming back too soon after surgery.
Brender, who grew up on 162nd Street in Washington Heights, is tough, a child of the streets, with a strong Jewish heart. A Modern Orthodox Jew, among the first things he did was nail the mezuzah, and put up a terrific painting of two boxers nearing a clinch under the smokey lights, a painting that Brender commissioned from an old yeshiva classmate, Raphael Gribetz.
Gribetz is an accomplished artist living in Maine, but “he used to fight,” says Brender. Did you know that? Yeah, he told me he once considered a boxing career. He fought locally in the Bronx,” says Brender laughing at the roads old yeshiva pals take. “He was strong like an ox.”
Eilon Kedem, an Israeli bantamweight trained in Brender’s gym, alongside Gold Glovers and wirey black and Dominican teenagers from the neighborhood. “We’re trying to keep the kids off the streets and keep’em in the ring, mentoring the kids, and it seems to be working.”
Brender enjoyed talking about an old boxing coach who “still comes in here barking at his people. It’s great,” says Brender. That coach reminded Brender of a rebbe he had in high school. “He screams and yells, and you finally figure out years later all that he was teaching you.”
Brender says boxing is “a fantastic workout, for all parts of your body.” We’ve got kids, seven and eight years old, coming in. I like helping the kids out. Look, we’ve got drug dealers right on the corner, there are gangs in the schools. There are turf wars going on. The police precinct, the councilman, we try to work together to see what we can do. Instead of guns, give them gloves. I’m from the Heights. I grew up in these streets. I can relate, to some extent. I feel like I’m giving something back. I try to show them some kindness.”
He only wishes some yeshiva kids would come in. “Theres something soothing about boxing,” says Brender. “You take an angry person, he hits the bag for an hour, its cathartic. It releases tension. You relax. Kids in yeshiva, they’re in school from 8 to 5, then they have a ton of homework. Let them come in and hit the bag.”
They won’t be the first Jewish kids to do exactly that.