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