Stars-Ring-Champions-Photographic-History/dp/1630761397">Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing
By Mike Silver
(Lyons Press, 366 pages, $29.95)
It may seem out of place as we approach a holiday celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace to be reviewing a book on boxing, which is a good deal less than a peaceful activity. But within living memory of many Americanos — myself included — boxing was a popular and respected sport with a large following here and abroad. I know that while Ike was snoozing in the White House, my dad and I would never miss Friday Night Fights on that new-fangled gadget called television. (“The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports is on the air — look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp.”)
In Stars in the Ring, boxing historian and journalist Mike Silver takes readers through the history of the sweet science in America and Europe, with specific attention to the high number of Jewish fighters and Jewish champions during boxing’s golden age of the 1920s into the 1950s. Many, especially younger readers, may be surprised to learn that Jewish fighters were so plentiful and successful at one time. But they shouldn’t be surprised. The large number of Jewish immigrants in America early in the last century, mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia, followed the same sequence as other groups — Irish Americans, Italian Americans, et al. On arrival, most wound up in large cities with few vocational opportunities, not many avenues to fame and fortune. The boxing ring offered one of the few prospects of big paydays and a way out of poverty. Today young Jewish Americans are far more likely to try to beat each other out on the LSAT than to try to beat each other up in the boxing ring. But back in the day…
Silver reports that about 3,000 Jewish boxers were active during the sport’s golden age. Between 1901 and 1939 there were 29 Jewish world-champions, including the champion of champions, Benny Leonard, who was the lightweight champion between 1917 and 1925. In Stars, in addition to Leonard, Silver provides profiles of Jewish champions and contenders with names like Slappy Maxie Rosenblum, Joe Bernstein, Phil Bloom, Yankee Schwartz, Izzy Straus, Harry Blitman, Abe Feldman, Sailor Freidman, and Georgie Abrams. Some fighters chose to try to mute their Jewishness, even in an era when being a Jewish fighter was not only accepted but respected. So there’s the odd Smith and Callahan in the profiles.
For multiple reasons, boxing has fallen on hard times, and barely exists anymore. But as recently as the early 1950s, boxing was likely still America’s second favorite sport after baseball. Now it’s a niche sport, on the way to near extinction. Football (talk about unpeaceful), baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, and others now claim the attention of contemporary sports-minded folks. With the exception of a few adept practitioners and blockbuster matchups, the current product in the ring richly deserves the obscurity that has overtaken the sport.
The causes of the decline are many, including mob influence and unscrupulous promoters, so focused on their own bottom line that they damaged the sport that made them wealthy. Television first helped re-interest fans in a sport they had soured on a bit after the war. But over-exposure on television led to the proliferation of sanctioning agencies and new weight classes so that there are more champions now than even dedicated fight fans can keep up with. Television can put on any number of “title fights” now. But the titles have about been emptied of meaning. As Silver puts it, “If baseball were run like boxing, there would be at least four separate World Series champions.” The heavyweight champion of the world used to be the most revered title in sports. Now try and find anyone who can name any of the several fighters who hold this title.
More important, free boxing on TV led to the end of neighborhood fight clubs and gyms – boxing’s littoral, where not only fighters learned their trade, but trainers and corner-men, and managers found employment. Why go to a fight club in a crummy section of town when you can watch boxing free on television? The results have been fewer boxers, fewer fights, less well-trained fighters, and nearly skill-free boxing matches, many of which resemble a bar brawl more than the high-level athletic competitions of boxing’s past. While a good case can be made that skill levels in the other spectator sports that engage us have increased, skills in the boxing game have eroded badly. For those who came up with and loved the sport (count me in), it’s a sad state of affairs.
But in addition to the sadness of a beloved sport brought down, Stars includes the triumphant story of many of boxing’s most courageous and most skilled practitioners, and of groups that literally fought their way into the American Dream. There’s also a great deal to learn here about America’s history over the last century. Our taste in entertainment and how this evolved tells as much about us as our politics. Silver is a first-rate chronicler of this rich American story. Which is why I lift up Stars in the Ring to TAS readers. I don’t think Santa would mind your giving a boxing book to the fight fan on your gift list.