Latest Israeli boxer comes from a long line of Jewish champs.
A few months ago, there was a brief announcement from the sport of boxing that was a bit unusual. Yuri Foreman, WBA Super Welterweight (154 pounds), 2009-2010, was retiring from the ring. He has a record of 32 wins and only two defeats.
This was Foreman’s second retirement as a boxer, but this is somewhat typical for pugilists. Many boxers miss the action and often stage comebacks. Despite the fact that it’s a hard way to earn a living, some boxers are just desperate for the income.
The unusual part of this story is that Foreman is a rarity in today’s world of boxing. He’s the first Orthodox Jewish boxer to hold a world title since Barney Ross in 1930. Moreover, although born in Belarus, and training and fighting in the United States, Foreman is also the first-ever Israeli world champion. Indeed, he always wore the Star of David on his boxing trunks and often entered the ring with an Israeli flag.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect to Foreman’s career, however, is that while boxing as a professional he was also studying to be a rabbi.
“Boxing is sometimes spiritual in its own way,” Foreman said. “You have the physical and mental challenges in boxing, just like you have lots of challenges in exploring the different levels of Judaism. They are different, but the same.”
Foreman is currently studying at a Brooklyn yeshivah and plans on returning to Israel to serve as a rabbi there.
He is a throwback to the first few decades of the 20th century when Jewish boxers were a dominant force in the sport. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age, when professional and college football vie with NASCAR and auto racing as America’s top spectator sports, but from 1900 to the 1940s, boxing was the most popular sport in America. This was an era when the most recognized athlete on Earth was the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Even our grandmothers and moms knew the names of Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis.
The Popularity of Boxing
Boxing has been a sport since the ancient days of the Greek Olympics, but it did not reach its peak of popularity until around 1900. For much of the 18th century, boxing was considered the realm of the “fancy,” that is, a clandestine sport kept alive by the rich elites of England and the Americas.
Boxing matches at this time were brutal, bare-knuckle affairs. Boxing gloves, largely developed to protect the hands rather than the face, were adopted in the 1890s and became standard fare by 1900. And, one of the earliest and arguably most famous boxers of the 18th century was Daniel “The Light of Israel” Mendoza.
In the early years of the 20th century, much like today, most boxers came from the working class or the poorer segments of society. The bulk of professional boxers during this era were newly arrived immigrants or sons of immigrants. In this respect, young men from various ethnic groups often turned to boxing to not only make a living, but also to have a chance at glory and fame … and along the way, make some really big money!
Plenty of young Jewish men from the poorer classes followed this dream. Ken Blady, in his book, The Jewish Boxers Hall of Fame, claims, “More than in any other sport, Jews have excelled in boxing.”
Boxing matches were often not only a test between two individuals, but also events that matched the best of one ethnic neighborhood against another. Jewish patrons turned out to see their champion take on the pride of the Italian community, and the Italians turned out to see their boxer take on the Irish neighborhood’s hopeful, and so on and so forth.
Jewish boxers made their mark on the sport. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish boxers during this era, and many of them claimed championship belts.
According to Alan Bodner, author of When Boxing was a Jewish Sport, there were 26 Jewish world champions between 1910 and 1940, an era when there was only one champion in each weight division. This is unlike today, when there are several sanctioning bodies for boxing and, therefore, several champions in every weight category.
There were many Jewish champions and plenty of fine contenders during the heyday of boxing. Some of them became all-time greats. The record books cite outstanding world champion boxers like Lightweight Champ (1917-1925) Benny “The Ghetto Wizard” Leonard; Featherweight Champ (1901-1912) Abe “the Little Hebrew” Attell; Light Heavyweight Champ (1916-1920) Battling Levinsky (a.k.a. Beryl Lebrowitz); and Light Heavyweight Champ (1930-35) “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom, to name just four of the 26 Jewish champions and 11 Boxing Hall of Famers.
One of the best was Beryl Rossofsky aka Barney “Beryl the Terrible” Ross. He was also known as “One Punch Rossofsky.” From 1930-1938, Ross held titles in three different weight classes.
In respect to the boxers cited above, there appears to be one boxing category where Jews clearly dominated — colorful nicknames! In what other sport could you find such practitioners as Joe “The Sheik of San Joaquin” Benjamin? Or Harry “The Human Hairpin” Harris and “Chrysanthemum” Joe Choyskie, “The California Terror,” along with Sid “The Galloping Ghost of the Ghetto” Terris and Ted “The Aldgate Sphinx” Lewis.
So, anytime someone says that Jews aren’t tough or haven’t excelled in any sports, think of the tremendous record of Jewish boxers. Better yet, ask them to tell it to Yuri “The Lion of Zion” Foreman.
By Mike Smith, DJN Foundation Archivist; Photos courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library