From 1910 through 1940, more than two dozen Jewish boxers became world champions. This was the era, as the title of Allen Bodner’s 2011 book puts it, "When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport."
In the early part of the 20th century, boxing came in second only to baseball for its popularity among American sports fans. And no group was more interested in it than the American Jewish community.
It makes sense: Boxing has historically appealed—at least in the United States—to new immigrants. People who grow up having to be tough, street-smart, and always ready to defend themselves naturally take to the sport.
Yuri Foreman – From the ring to rabbinic ordination
To take just one example: Former champion Yuri Foreman. Foreman is an Israeli born in Belarus who studied for rabbinic ordination even at the height of his career performing in the ring. He was ordained in 2014, and now works providing kosher certification to restaurants. His Orthodox ordination led him to embrace veganism as well, and he only certifies restaurants that are also vegan.
In 2001, Foreman received New York’s Golden Gloves award before turning pro in 2002. He emerged undefeated in his first 28 career fights, earning the World Boxing Association’s super-welterweight title in 2009 after defeating Daniel Santos. Foreman thus became Israel’s second world boxing champ. Female boxer Hagar Finer was the first, her championship win taking place only months before Foreman’s.
In June 2010, Foreman lost his title in a match against Miguel Cotto that remains controversial.
In the seventh round of the “Stadium Slugfest,” the first fight held at Yankee Stadium in more than three decades, the Israeli injured his knee but memorably kept fighting.
It was a foregone conclusion: Cotto was the better boxer that day. Still, plenty of fans knew the knee injury should have immediately led to Foreman being pulled out much sooner than his eventual collapse in the ninth round. The ref earned a lot of opprobrium for telling Foreman to continue even after someone on the Israeli’s side threw a towel into the ring. Foreman’s abilities were notably predicated on technique, and once he lost the strength in his knee, his loss to then-underdog Cotto was all but assured.
Benny Leonard – The “Ghetto Wizard”
Foreman’s Jewish predecessors in the ring include the great Benny Leonard, the “Ghetto Wizard,” widely remembered among the world’s best-ever lightweight fighters. Leonard went undefeated for 15 years, although he held only a single title.
Trainer Ray Arcel, who died in 1994, remarked that the best boxer he had ever worked with was Benny Leonard. Noting that boxing is really more about brains than brawn, Arcel ranked Leonard with Sugar Ray Robinson as leaders in this respect.
Born Benjamin Leiner in 1896, Leonard grew up in an Orthodox home on New York’s Lower East Side, where he frequently got embroiled in street gang fights. His uncles taught him that defending himself with his hands was a skill no one could take from him. When they saw his fighting prowess, the uncles took young Benny to a local gym to learn more when he was only 11 years old.
Leonard showed infinite capacity for study: He watched the moves, the techniques, and the footwork and feinting of other boxers constantly. His analytical ability gave him the means to spot opportunities and weaknesses where others didn’t. He became known for his demolishing right hand, his precision timing, and for being so nimble he was difficult to hit. Notably, he was able to distract opponents by talking to them.
Leonard won 89 of his 210 total fights, winning more than half of his victories in knockouts, and emerged from 115 no-decision fights.
In 1917, he took the world championship lightweight title away from Freddie Welsh, and managed to keep it for years, beating some of the most storied challengers of his day. He lost to Jack Britton in 1922 while attempting to win the welterweight crown. After a comeback, Leonard retired again in 1932, then died in 1947 when he suffered a massive heart attack while refereeing a bout.
Max Baer – Wearing his love for Judaism on his shorts
Maximilian Adelbert Baer, whom we remember as Max Baer, was another of the greatest boxers of any background to step into the ring. Born in 1909 in Nebraska, he was the son of a non-observant Jewish father and did not practice the faith in his own life. However, he earned the love of Jews everywhere by wearing his pride in his heritage, sporting a Star of David on his boxing trunks at a time when Jews were increasingly persecuted.
In 1934, Baer KO’d Primo Carnera to take over the world heavyweight championship after 11 rounds.
Over his career, which lasted from 1929 to 1941, Baer won 70 out of a total of 83 fights. Of these, he won 52 by KO. Of his losses, only three came about due to a knockout. He built a successful nightclub and vaudeville career after his boxing days ended, but died of a heart attack at age 50.
In 1930, Baer fought Frankie Campbell in San Francisco, in a bout that turned into a tragedy. Baer’s right hook ended up killing Campbell, in what the local paper called a “five-round execution.” Baer went to jail briefly, and was suspended from boxing in California for a year.
His family, including son Max Baer Jr.—who portrayed Jethro Bodine on the 1960s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies—was angered by the portrayal of the elder Baer in the 2005 movie Cinderella Man. The film chronicles how longshot challenger James Braddock defeated Baer in 1935 to strip him of his title. It showed Baer sadistically bragging about killing an opponent in the ring, when in fact the opposite was true.
Though unintentional, the death of Campbell always haunted Baer, to the extent that he asked Jack Dempsey to teach him how to contain his force in the ring. While Baer was quite the “party animal,” as his son said, and an erratic, Hollywood-struck womanizer, he was nothing like the vicious character in the movie.
It was in June 1933, months after Adolf Hitler took the reins of power in Germany, that Baer gave what is likely his best performance in the ring. He put up his deadly right hand against Max Schmeling, the German champion who would go on to beat—and then be defeated by—the “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis. Schmeling, though no Nazi himself, was held up as an icon of “Aryan-ness” by Germany. As Louis would do after him, Baer dealt a defeat to his opponent that was filled with symbolism.
In front of an audience of 60,000 at Yankee Stadium, Baer scored a TKO against Schmeling after relentlessly pummeling him against the ropes in the 10th round.
As usual, Baer was wearing shorts emblazoned with the Star of David.