Boxing: A Jewish Sport

Jews' participation in professional boxing in the interwar period is not as surprising as it might seem to be.

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Reprinted with the author's permission from When Boxing was a Jewish Sport (Praeger).

When Jewish sports fans are asked to name Jewish boxers, invariably they will mention Benny Leonard and Barney Ross, the famous champions. Sometimes Ruby Goldstein, a contender, will be added, and more infrequently "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom, a great light-heavyweight champion. And there it ends.

jewish boxingEven knowledgeable sports fans have no notion that there were many outstanding Jewish champions and contenders, and thousands of Jewish boxers in the twenties, thirties, and even forties. "How was it possible?" they will ask. "It is so contrary to Jewish tradition and culture. It is astounding."

In fact, Jews entered the ranks of American boxing in large numbers and by 1928, were the dominant nationality in professional prizefighting, followed by the Italians and the Irish. Ten years later, Jews sank to third place, preceded by the Italians and the Irish.

When World War II ended and the G.I. Bill of Rights and other avenues of advancement became available, boxing was no longer attractive to the Jews as participants. By 1950, there were virtually no Jewish boxers, and their number has been minuscule ever since. A similar decline occurred among Jewish trainers, but Jewish managers, promoters, and matchmakers continue to maintain a presence.

On the surface, it seems unlikely that Jews ever participated in such a brutal sport. It is assumed that Jewish pursuits were traditionally more cerebral and that education played an overriding role in the Jewish culture. Who would box when he could go to college and become a professional?

But going to college and becoming a professional were not necessarily options for the vast majority of Jewish youths in the 1920s and 1930s. When that choice as well as other economic opportunities became possible, after the Second World War, Jewish boxing rapidly disintegrated.

Jews in Proportion

During the years 1910-1940, there were twenty-six Jewish world champions. This was an impressive achievement, particularly in an era when there were only eight weight classes, instead of the myriad that exist today (to say nothing of the multiplicity of sanctioning bodies).

But this success must be viewed in the context of overall Jewish participation in boxing. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s approximately 16 percent of the champions were Jewish, but nearly one-third of the fighters were also Jewish. While there were indeed Jewish champions, Jews did not excel out of proportion to their number of participants and were, in fact, underrepresented at the championship level. In boxing, at least, Jews could be average, a possibility that was not available in other sports such as baseball.

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Allen Bodner is an attorney with a remarkable entry into the world of boxing as his father was an amateur boxer during the 1920s, and a professional manager during the 1930s and 1940s.