Many decades later the names of Benny Leonard, Abe Atell, Barney Ross, Maxie Rosenbloom, Lew Tender, Ted “Kid” Lewis, Louis “Kid” Kaplan and Benny Bass still evoke greatness. During the “Golden Age of Boxing,” they were the standard bearers of a powerful Jewish presence when winning truly mattered. In an age of undisputed champions and ten weight categories — including junior-welterweight and junior lightweight, and a limitless supply of top contenders and tough guys — the Jewish boxer confirmed his status at the top table of boxing.
In “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing” (Lyons Press) Mike Silver, an internationally respected boxing historian, shines a light on a fascinating subject by tracing Jewish involvement from the bare-knuckle days of the eighteenth century when British Jew Daniel Mendoza became the first Jewish hero of the prize ring. Silver then takes readers on a journey of historical discovery where he details the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to the United States at the turn of the 19th century and early 20th century. It is here in the teeming American metropolises where ethnic groups huddled together and competed for everything from jobs, food and space that champions were born. Frequent street battles between rival ethnic groups were transferred into the squared circle as savvy promoters exploited ethnic pride, hunger and the individual ambitions of youths who saw boxing as a passport out of the ghetto.
In this extensively illustrated social history and reference book, Silver delves deeply into his subject. Sure, there have been previous worthwhile works on the subject from Allen Bodner and Ken Blady and sports tomes containing chapters on Jewish boxing from Steven Riess and Harold Ribalow, but what sets Silver’s work apart is the attention to detail and the comprehensive summary of Jewish boxers. He shows that the 1920s were the heyday of Jewish boxers and that, alongside the Italian Americans, they dominated the manly art with the most champions and contenders. Jewish boxers continued to thrive inside the ring during the Depression era but by the 1940s they had all but disappeared as the next generation found less arduous pursuits to follow. As Silver points out, assimilation in America provided greater opportunities and the group took advantage becoming doctors, dentists and academics and businessmen, leaving the blood sport to others.
Silver weaves into the main body of text 166 profiles of prominent Jewish boxers to emerge from the international Jewish diaspora. Some of these athletes are well known to the connoisseur but many names are obscure. Their inclusion is significant because it highlights that boxing was not solely the preserve of the Jewish American experience. Many top practitioners of the noble art came from Great Britain.
For avid sporting buffs, stat geeks and the discerning boxing aficionado there are 46 pages of appendices ranging from the author’s choice of 25 best Jewish boxers to a list of Jewish world champions. Also included are Jewish boxers by weight class and by location and those involved in world championship contests and even who appeared in main events at Madison Square Garden. I think you get the picture. Quite simply it is a treasure trove of information.
Rolando Vitale, author of “The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in Boxing 1900-1955,” lives in London.