THE GREAT BENAH
There’s no fighter in the sport of boxing, from its historic and vibrant eminence at the start of the 20th century to that of its modern comparative tepid and contracted state, who captivates my imagination more than Benny Leonard(89-6-1) – the lightweight ‘king’ who went by the moniker of the ‘Ghetto Wizard’ and whom lived up to that ‘colourful’ superlative when boxing was at its apotheosis during a ‘golden age’ in the 1910s and 1920s.
Leonard, for me, crystallizes the penultimate mix of style, mental and physical attributes that can ever be seen in a fighter: namely that of being a great ‘puncher’ and a highly cerebral boxer who is augmented by peak physical ‘fighting’ durability: sat upon a solid bedrock of will and heart.
If you were to go down a mythical list of pound-for-pound champions written or voiced by anyone who has a modicum of knowledge of the history of the sport, you would be hard pressed to find more than a handful fighters who possessed it all or could do it all like ‘The Great Bennah’ could . . . .
He was a true pioneer of ‘scientific boxing’ and fought at the forefront in the company of a plethora of other great pugilists around that time who helped to liberate the sport from the shackling clutches of a previous past where fighting rules, structure and attitude fostered more readily the crudity of sheer strength and will as decisive factors in the action and outcome of a bout.
Benny, in this regard, took a brush to what could be considered at times an otherwise ‘dull’ canvas.
A revealing anecdote by Ray Arcel, a legendary boxing trainer who had pretty much seen all there is to see in boxing from his junior days in the 1920s to his retirement from the sport in the 1980s, and who had also personally seen and was involved with Leonard at his peak, confirmed the magic and richness that the lightweight maestro could produce:
‘When Benny sparred or shadow boxed the whole gym stopped to watch!’
To add a footnote to that glaring reminiscence, it’s worth baring-in-mind that Benny sometimes trained at the famous Stillman’s Gym, a colorful boxing haunt that back then was regularly packed with a plethora of legends involved with the sport, and who would train and sometimes spar each-other: providing those in attendance with mythical match-ups and pound-for-pound face-offs for a fraction of the normal price at the gate.
According to veteran sports journalist, Harold Conrad:
‘Stillman’s Gym was like the boxing capital of the world’.
Even the usually reluctant, hard-to-please and cantankerous owner of Stillman’s, Lou Stillman, couldn’t resist against giving a compliment in admiration of the self-proclaimed Ghetto Wizard:
‘There was a perfect fighter.’ Stillman said of Leonard, ‘All you had to do was make one mistake with Benny, and your number was up. He had brains, personality and courage.’
(The famous Stillman’s Gym that was frequented routinely by legends of the sport)
Leonard’s story, in and outside of the ring, also left a narrative that would satiate boxing romanticists who get a kick and high from tales of redemption in the sport, as he rebounded from initial lows to being crowned lightweight champion; making a large number of defenses of that crown, then retiring on a fortune and a promise to his parents that he would hang-em-up to almost losing all his wealth some years later because of ill investments he had made that were exposed during the Wall Street crash, and, which, in the ramifications, ‘forced his hand’ into making a comeback in his 30s when a shadow of his former self to try once again ‘climb the mountain’.
In order to get a proper understanding of how good Benny was and how highly regarded his luminary stature in boxing warrants, you have to look beyond the ‘binary’ like surface of an outstanding record of 89 wins, 70KOs, a 66 win fight streak(if you overlook the DQ against Jack Britton for low blows and where Benny, according to sources present at the time, was winning the fight up until that point) and the 7 years of defending the title against a level of opposition that was arguably composed of fighters from the deepest ever talent-pool seen in a weight-division, which featured a number of fighters that are on the end of most boxing historian’s lips when it comes to discussing the very best that boxing has produced, with the likes of Britton, Lewis, Welsh, Dundee and co, you also have to also take into account his background and the social-milieu that surrounded his formative and peak years; the zeitgeist of the time with regards to prize-fighting and the position pugilism enjoyed as the ‘numero uno’ sport(challenged only by baseball) and with it the immeasurable depth of talent and creativity produced by the sport’s mass adoption from an ever increasing population looking to escape poverty through its ‘fruits’, as much as they were looking for a source of ‘entertainment’ to avert their mind from the sodden hardship that the majority of the population trudged through on a daily basis at the time.
In addition, you also have to fathom the subjective reality faced by Leonard amid this environment and the initial vacillating ‘lows and highs’ his career underwent that eventually, through a metamorphosis of self-reflection and expert instruction, capitulated to form a stabilizing and formidable discourse to make him the lightweight division’s conqueror with a lengthy title run of defences measured in years, and which as a sub-sequence bore him legendary standing in the sport.
A BOXING KING IS BORN
Benjamin Leiner was born in Manhattan, New York City, in 1896 to a married couple of Jewish emigres from Eastern Europe and grew up in surroundings where racial divide was common among the various ethnicities and nationalities that had settled in the US due to years of mass waves of immigration to the country that brought a consternation between Irish, Italians and Jewish kids who would settle their differences and disputes on the street through fighting and where sometimes the gang use of ‘fists and weapons’ on street corners would be tempered and civilized by a fight between leaders or would-be gang ‘capos’ in abandoned buildings with make-shift boxing rings and out-of-sight of the police.
Contests like this were usually set-up to address stalemates that had occurred ‘on the curb’ between rivals.
It would appear that this was the type of backdrop where a youthful Leonard had his first amateur bout of note, wherein he was selected to represent the Sixth Street Gang, due to a stalemate that had occurred in a previous pack melee with another Irish crowd, and was pitted against a tough local ‘paddy’ kid who was the chosen representative for the opposing mob.
The idea of this particular ‘straightener’ was to not only reconcile their respective hostilities, but to form a wider alliance with the added incentive of the winner not only being declared leader of the new unified posse, but prize money too for the victor who would gain a 60/40 split of the purse in their favor.
(No doubt this extra premium caused further encouragement and influence for a young Leonard to pursue the sport as a credible way to earn a living beyond its primitive use to settle tribal differences .)
As the story goes: an adolescent Benny fought and knocked the rival’s leader out, collected his cut of the money and bought the rest of his gang an ice-cream with it.
(However, there was no peaceful wider merging of gangs after his(Leonard’s) victory though, as the makeshift arena, in the wake of Leonard’s debut amateur win, ended up also hosting a free for all ‘royal rumble’ between the gang audience of incensed Irish and jubilant Jews inside the vicinity; adumbrating the tension there was in those days between ethnic groups, which boxing tapped into and was greatly rewarded with in its error.)
In addition, it seems that Benny’s siblings and an uncle were also actively involved with the sport by way of the Silver Heel Club, an athletic establishment that had boxing links and which also no doubt had a strong bearing on aspiring boxer in his early days.
This is the first glimpse we get of his introduction to boxing, but its worth also probing the sports early modern development in tandem to get an idea of the surroundings Benny and his career were maturing into.
A CHANGING OF THE GUARD
As the famous Prime Minister Winston Churchill sagely put it :
‘Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.’
The same could be applied to boxing in a broader sense, to make apparent to the uninformed modern boxing fan the heights pugilism had reached ‘scientifically’ back then, and the lessons of technique and ring-craft that were created by the swell of talent and creativity arisen from a zeal and ambiance of change in the sport that can be overlooked or lost in neglect and ignorance, due to a faux notion of progressiveness and outlook being applied to boxing that might be influenced from the modernity of life with its superior technological and medical advancements.
It’s true that other sports, such as athletics, have benefited ‘overwhelmingly’ from improvements in science and technology, but boxing is an entirely different proposition.
When boxing first underwent its modern transformation in the 1880/90s from the Old London Prize Ring rules, which had overseen the conduct of bare knuckle boxing for most of the 19th century, to the more modern Marquis of Queensberry rules implementation that still stands today(albeit in a modified state), the sport was massively changed for the good.
The days of the classic pose of ‘put your dukes up’ and ‘stand your ground’ was dealt a death-blow, literally.
Participants, who had previously fought outdoors on patchy and natural terrain with spiked boots to grip the earth below them and whose mobility were impeded as a result, now found the arena of combat shifted to a staged indoor arena on a level canvas where soft athletic leather shoes and boots were utilized, allowing for a boxer, in less constrained circumstances than previous, to use his legs and feet more to his advantage when fighting.
Padded gloves were also introduced with these new rules, which provided a fighter a larger variety of punch choice and with less worry that their hands might be broken on the skull of an opponent should a hook be thrown and not that of a straight punch which would more likely have found a softer target on the head(the reason why you see a lot of old bare knuckle fighters, like John L Sullivan, in past pictures with their comic ‘put your dukes up’ pose as the stance suited straight punching more than hooks) or for them be cut to the head by an opponent more easily due to the uneven surface of tightly clenched naked flesh and bone.
The new mandated hand protection also afforded a fighter the ability to increase the volume of punches thrown, which had significant bearing on the action and choice of style employed, KO ratio and – retrogressively – brain injury.
Under the Marquess of Queensberry rules, rounds were fixed to 3 minutes with 1 minute intervals and the number of rounds a fighter could go more constrained. A change from the pre Queensbury days, where lengthy marathon bouts could ensue for hours upon hours, causing a fighter to be justly fixated on their stamina: in turn causing a ‘blunting’ to the action and spoiling in the name of conserving staying power, only for the pace to be picked up once a vulnerable foe had been dragged into ‘deep water’ and where there was most likely an opportune moment to unleash a barrage of winning blows. As a result this change in the duration of a fight helped to force an increased tempo of action and engagement between fighters during combat that hitherto hadn’t seen before.
Increased focus was also placed on the disparity of weight between fighters that encouraged separate divisions to be employed and gave a fairer and balanced proportion to contests.
These changes slowly caused the atavism and residue of the fixated and rigid style(s) of fighting employed in the past that had worked well to compliment the sport’s early primitive and demarcating environs, with its emphasis on straight-line retreats and single blows, to slowly decay and die and were replaced by a more cerebral brand of pugilism which was ameliorated by fighters such as Leonard, who realized there were more ‘squares and moves on the board’ to take advantage of.
Leonard, while at his peak, publicly touched on this in an interview with esteemed boxing writer Robert Edgreen:
‘the day of the boy with a strong back and a thick skull has gone by. You have to be a student to get to the top and stay there’
Through this major transformation of change to the rules and related apparatus of the sport, boxing metaphorically went from being permutationally like a game of checkers to a game of chess.
BOXING: NOT JUST A PROFESSIONAL SPORT
It wasn’t only the internal dynamics and intricacies of the sport itself that changed and improved, boxing’s public appeal and accommodation underwent massive conversion too, as people increasingly gravitated to this new refined sport and form of prize-fighting.
Indoor arenas that were now being used to house boxing events created conditions that allowed promoters to charge an admission fee for the privilege of a surrounding parasol and seat. This was a small but significant adjustment which helped to contribute to legitimizing boxing as a serious mainstream sport and also paved the way for legendary promoters like Tex Rickard who would go on to stage the famed ‘Fight of the Century’ bout in 1921 between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, a stirring affair that attracted over 90,000 people to attend and where radio was utilised to broadcast a boxing championship event for the first time ever.
The bout generated so much money that it forced certain states, who had hitherto considered boxing to be illegal, to come to their senses, drop the ban and profit from related tax revenues.
(The famous promoter Tex Rickard: who staged the famed ‘Fight of the Century’)
The army also seen potential in the use of the sport for combat and conditioning purposes during WW1; incorporating boxing into their training drills for new recruits while also using it to entertain troops for morale purposes, which helped to add an extra public acceptance.
Pugilism went from being an illegal peripheral pastime to being a solid professional sport and top source of mainstream entertainment that brought with it guaranteed riches and glory for the participants.
Prizefighters who were champions while connected to this new spigot of wealth became some of the highest paid athletes in the world; a trend that has continued to this day. In fact, it’s one facet of boxing that hasn’t changed and incredible amounts of money can still be generated in the sport even though its public attraction and popularity has waned in comparison to the past.
A man carrying a spit-bucket full-time for a fighter back then could also make enough money to rival someone who was working full-time in an industry. As a result, boxing gyms and events started popping up all over the U.S. and arenas like Madison Square Garden were specifically constructed for the sport’s use. This in addition brought with it hundreds, if not thousands of managers, promoters and trainers, which in turn cultivated thousands of boxers and a depth of talent and creativity that the sport will likely never see again.
Benny’s pugilistic metier, it seems, began at just the right juncture amid this vicennial(and a bit) spectrum of transformation that boxing was undergoing from the 1890s.
He was, to use a partial from a quote by the famous polymath, Sir Isaac Newton: ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ in boxing terms figuratively, and also literally in this case on the broad shoulders of the legendary lightweight Joe Gans, a fighter who hailed supreme in the lightweight division just prior to Benny dominating the category and who could be considered one of the first prototypes and pioneers of ‘scientific boxing’ during a ‘changing of the guard’ regarding pugilism under the new rules.
Leonard’s pro career debut also happened to occur at the tail-end of an unprecedented growth the country had enjoyed during the ‘Gold Standard’ and also at an opportune position from the nascent formation of a yet undetermined Federal Reserve Bank, but not so late as to be impeded by the slow protracted oscillating descent that the Golden Age of the sport started to suffer from in the early 30s, where boxing was feeling the ‘bite’ from the economic failures of The Great Depression and was, for the most part, being mainly kept aloft by the popularity of Joe Louis and the doors that he opened for the ‘spotlight’ to be shone more brightly on African American fighters who were frequently avoided by competition, overlooked or denied by promoters any facilitation to a title shot, even if they were valid contenders for such honors, in decades previous.
With the above in mind, Leonard dodged nobody regardless their record, standing, creed or race – and his ring career, from his initial pro-debut to first retirement, is arguably in proximity to the absolute zenith that the sport has ever reached in terms of ring talent, competition and impact the sport has had on the ‘public pulse’; a perfect symbiosis of affairs that only helps to embellish his legendary standing.
LEONARD’S BUMPY RISE
Leonard’s first professional bout seems to have have been against a fighter named ‘Smiling’ Mickey Finegan and was a fight where prior to combat he assumed the ‘nom de guerre’ of Benny Leonard (from Benny Leiner) to avert his mother finding out about his new occupation. A typical undertaking back then for fighters who wanted to ‘anglicize’ their name in order to avert any biases impeding their career aspirations or for Jewish fighters, such as Benny, to conceal their identity in fear of bringing embarrassment to the family name, as fighting was viewed as a shameful occupation at the time by Jews.
Records show Leonard’s first fight as a loss, but according to witnesses of the bout he would have won had the referee not stopped the bout prematurely due to the amount of blood that was streaming profusely from the young prodigy’s nose . . . .
After this initial setback, Benny appears to rack up a double figure winning streak(with a few no decisions) only to lose in a close contest by K.O to an aggressive battler in one Joe Shugrue. Leonard in the aftermath of this sobering affair and reduced to a sobbing mess in the corner, due to erroneously thinking his career was all but over, was consoled by the classy victor Shugrue who gave him the following words of inspiration post-fight:
‘Kid you’ve got it. Don’t let that knockout bother you. Other fighters were kayoed and came back. You’ll do the same.’
Leonard – with his spirit rejuvenated by those encouraging words – would go onto win further bouts with a few contested blips here and there, but it wasn’t until boxing manager and trainer Billy Gibson came on board that the tables-of-fortune for the young lightweight talent started to reverse and a new elevated chapter in his career awaited the ‘king in the making’ . . . .