In the 1920s and 1930s, when boxing was perhaps the most popular sport in America, many championship belts were held by Jewish boxers.

Over the years, our JN sports reporter, Steve Stein, has written a number of articles about boxing. Last year, he penned several items about boxing matches promoted by Dmitriy Salita, who is a rare person in the modern era: an Orthodox Jewish boxing promoter.

From 2001-2013, Salita was himself an accomplished welterweight boxer, with a fine record of 35 wins and only two losses with one draw. Observant, he did not fight on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.

The heyday of Jewish boxers is long past. In the 1920s and 1930s, when boxing was perhaps the most popular sport in America, many championship belts were held by Jewish boxers. Steve’s recent reports about Salita reminded me that there are still Jewish — and Israeli — professional boxers, so, I thought I would research the sport in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History.

The search term “boxing” is mentioned on over a whopping 40,000 pages. Many of these references, however, cite “boxes” or a “box” or the like. Even when eliminating citations with such derivatives, the Detroit Jewish Chronicle and JN over the past 100 years hold thousands of stories about boxing and boxers.

The earliest boxing story is in the Aug. 10, 1917, Chronicle. The article has a somewhat archaic-sounding title, “Pugilistic Ranks Invaded By Hebrews Who Hold Four of Seven World’s Titles,” but it makes quite a statement. In an era when only seven people in the entire world were universally recognized boxing champions, Jews held over half the titles.

 

Observant Jewish professional athletes, like Salita, have always had a tougher path to follow. Legendary baseball player Hank Greenberg, for example, suffered criticism and jeers when he refused to play on Yom Kippur. Long before Greenberg’s time, all-time great lightweight champion boxer Benny Leonard declared: “If I Can’t be Home With ‘Ma’ on Yom Kippur, I Won’t Fight.” His bout in Detroit was rescheduled so that he could be home in New York for the High Holiday (Oct. 3, 1919, Chronicle).

Some Jewish boxers excelled beyond a championship title. At one time, Barney Ross held both the lightweight and welterweight belts (June 6, 1934, Chronicle). After his retirement from the ring, Ross would go on to become a hero with the Marines in World War II.

Max Baer reached the pinnacle of the sporting world when he beat James Braddock for the world heavyweight championship in 1934. In the ring, Baer always wore the Star of David on his trunks in honor of his Jewish grandfather (June 22, 1934, Chronicle).

While Jewish boxers are rarer these days, there are still many Jewish promoters, managers, writers, television commentators and others who participate in the sport. This includes a number of Jewish Detroiters. Jackie Kallen is one of only a few women to manage boxers. Dr. Stuart Kirschenbaum was the state boxing commissioner for many years. Jessica Hauser is the executive director of the Downtown Boxing Gym that does so much for Detroit youth. And, Dmitriy Salita promotes boxing in Detroit, including the best female boxer in the world, Claressa Shields, who is from Flint.

For those interested in the “Sweet Science,” as famed New York writer A.J. Liebling called boxing, the Davidson Archives holds a wealth of boxing history and stories of Jewish boxers.

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.

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