Jewish Boxers

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Jewish Fighters in the History of Boxing


     The endless debate concerning “who is a Jew” affects the issue of who in sports is Jewish. According to Jewish law, all children of a Jewish mother are Jewish no matter who the father. According to Reform practice, the children of a Jewish father whose mother is not Jewish are also considered Jewish.

     For our purposes we shall include in the list of Jewish boxers not only those who meet these criteria but also those who were perceived as Jewish by the public even if they did not practice the Jewish religion or have a Jewish mother.

     Foremost among those whose image was that of a Jew was Max Baer, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Germany and an American Lutheran mother. Baer had been a contender for the heavyweight championship after turning professional in 1929. He won 22 of his first 24 fights, one of which resulted in the death of Frank Campbell after Baer knocked him out. Baer stopped fighting for a year thereafter but returned to the ring in 1932 when he knocked out Ernie Schaaf, who also died later of injuries received from his fight with Baer.

     In 1933 Baer defeated the German “superman” Max Schmeling in front of 60,000 spectators at Yankee Stadium. Hitler had recently become the dictator of Germany and shouted that Schmeling would easily defeat the non-Aryan Jew Baer. During this fight Baer wore the Star of David on his trunks, leading to the perception that he was Jewish.

     In 1934, Baer received the title of heavyweight champion of the world when he knocked out 6.5 ft. Primo Carnera. Thereafter Baer associated with an endless array of chorus girls and movie stars. Married twice, he remained with his second wife Mary Sullivan until his death in 1959.

     Baer lost the championship to James Braddock in 1935, the year he was married. He also lost to Joe Louis, and finally retired in 1941 with a career record of 72 wins and 12 losses. In 1995 Baer was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

     Jake La Motta (Giacobe La Motta) had a Jewish mother. He married six times. Four of his wives were Jewish. He married one woman twice, so that he married Jewish five times.

     In the course of his career, La Motta won 83 fights and lost 19.  He also registered four draws.

     Billy Fox knocked him out in 1947. The New York Boxing Commission withheld his pay as it became evident that the fight was “thrown” because La Motta wanted a chance to fight Marcel Cerdan, then the middleweight champion. The fight business was then under the control of organized crime.

     La Motta won the fight against Cerdan and went on to fight “Sugar Ray” Robinson six times. He was the first to knock out Robinson, in their second encounter.

     After his retirement, La Motta became an actor, appearing in 15 movies. A movie about his life called Raging Bull starred Robert De Niro. La Motta became a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and was ranked 52nd among the 80 best fighters of the last 80 years by Ring Magazine in 1998.

   Benny Leonard (1896-1947) won 157 fights in the lightweight division. He was defeated 11 times and fought to a draw five times. He retired from the ring in 1932. In view of his enormous number of wins over losses, Leonard has been credited with being the best boxer of all time. Leonard was lightweight champion from 1917 until 1925, an amazing record.

     After his retirement, Leonard became a referee. He died in the boxing ring while refereeing in 1947. In 1996 Leonard was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He was also a member of the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

     Barney Ross (Dov-Ber Rasofsky),  was born in 1909, the son of a Chicago rabbi. A rabbinical student, Ross witnessed the death of his father, who had been shot in a robbery. This experience led him to give up his theological studies and become a street fighter alongside Jack Ruby (Rubenstein), the man who later shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

     Ross associated with some organized crime figures as he succeeded in becoming a Golden Gloves champion and then a professional. He became champion in three divisions, i.e. lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight. He was never knocked out in 81 fights. He retired from the ring after losing to Henry Armstrong in 1938.

      When the United States entered the Second World War, Barney Ross volunteered for the Marines, although he was already thirty-one years old. He was sent to Guadalcanal, an island in the Pacific, where the Marines fought one of the greatest battles of the war against the Japanese between August of 1942 and February of 1943. There he distinguished himself by fighting over twenty Japanese alone after his comrades had been killed or wounded. Although wounded himself, Ross killed all of the twenty Japanese during a bloody night. Ross then carried one of the wounded Marines, weighing 230 lbs., to safety. Ross weighed only 140 lbs. Ross was awarded the Silver Star and a Presidential Citation by President Roosevelt at a Rose Garden ceremony .

      Ross was hospitalized on his return to this country, where he was administered morphine to deal with his wounds. This led to a morphine addiction, which it took him some time to defeat. He then wrote an autobiography called No Man Stands Alone. Ross is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He died at the age of fifty-seven at his home in Chicago.

       These boxers represent only a small number of Jewish boxers during an era when boxing was indeed a Jewish sport. Other Jewish boxers were Julie Bort, Danny Kapilow, Herbie Kronowitz, Artie Levine, Al Reid, Maxie Shapiro, Bernie Friedkin, “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom  and many more.

       In the middle of the twentieth century Jews stopped boxing. Like other immigrants before and after them, Jews had achieved education, business acumen and political power by the 1950’s, so that boxing was no longer one of the few means of escaping the ghetto.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Fraud (2007).

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