For more than a century the lightweight division has been home to some of the most exciting fighters in the sport of boxing. From the late 1800’s to the present time, 135 pound fighters have been at the top of boxing experts pound for pound list. Not unlike the other weight classes, there are the two styles of lightweights — brawlers, those possessing devastating punching power, and the technical fighters. The technical boxers are specialist at throwing combinations, bobbing and weaving to avoid being hit, expert at the art of feinting, and exceptionally fast on their feet.
When one man is able to combine the two, it always makes for an explosive fighter.
By far, the most explosive of all the lightweights was Benny Leonard. Leonard was known to go toe to toe with the sluggers, while being able to outbox the best of the technical fighters as well. Having fought over two hundred fights, he lost only four by knockout: once on a foul, once after he made an ill-advised comeback long past his prime and twice early in his career when he was learning the wisdom of the ring. During the eight years he held the lightweight championship, Leonard outclassed the best the division had to offer.
Born Benjamin Leiner on 4/18/1896 in New York City, he was known as “The Ghetto Wizard.” Like so many boxers from New York, Benny learned to fight on the tough streets of the Lower East Side. Turning pro in 1911 at the young age of 15, Leonard lost his first fight when he was knocked out in the third round. A fast learner, by 1915 Benny was already climbing his way up the lightweight ranks. He possessed lightening speed, scientific boxing skills, and could punch with the best sluggers of his time.
Benny Leonard possessed many assets as a professional prize fighter, probably none greater than his ability to bounce back after a brutal knockdown and regain control of the fight. Three times Leonard narrowly escaped being KOed. The first was a title defense against Charley White on July 5, 1920 in Benton, Harbor, Michigan. In the fight Leonard was hit with a devastating left hook that sent him over the ropes and out of the ring. Leonard was dazed when he climbed back in, but his crafty ring generalship staved off the imminent disaster. Leonard was quick to regain his composure, the fight ending in a 9th round KO in favor of Leonard to retain the lightweight title.
Six months later Richie Mitchell came close to knocking Leonard out. It happened on January 14, 1921 in Madison Square Garden. Mitchell dropped Leonard in the opening round of the fight, leaving Benny groggy and unsteady, barely able to make it to the closing bell of the round. With his unique ability to recover quickly from a tough round within sixty seconds, Leonard came out throwing a barrage of punches, putting Mitchell on the canvas three times. Confirming his dominance in the ring, Leonard retained the title with a 6th round KO.
The third time, on July 27, 1922 Lew Tendler came close to scoring a KO against Leonard in a no-decision fight in Jersey City. A month later, Tendler and Leonard met again, this time in a title fight in New York City, with Benny winning a 15 round decision to retain the lightweight title.
On June 26, 1922, Leonard challenged Jack Britton for the welterweight title. In the thirteenth round, Leonard dropped Britton with a body shot. Actually, Britton took a knee for an eight count, protesting to referee Patsy Haley that he was hit with a low blow. In an unusual set of circumstances, Leonard hit Britton while he was down. Leonard was disqualified adding one of five L’s to his record. It was later said that Leonard had no desire to win the welterweight title, but was only looking for a draw.
Whether or not Leonard was just testing himself at the welterweight division remains a mystery. One fact that is crystal clear, the lightweight division was in the public eye and that’s where some of the most exciting fighters of that era were. The overall thrill of the lightweight fighters drew the attention of the public. That attention ushered in big gates. World famous promoter “Tex” Richard put together lightweight fights that saw record breaking gates of $200,000 and more.
It was not unusual for lightweight fighters such as Jimmy McLarnin, Barney Ross, Beau Jack, Ike Williams, along with Benny Leonard, to be guaranteed purses of $50,000 and higher, along with $2,000 for signing and $500.00 for expenses. The lightweight fighters were looked at as the supermen of the ring. During that era it was the lightweights, not heavyweights, that drew the record breaking crowds.
Among all the great lightweights, Benny Leonard stood apart as the greatest of all time. Benny Leonard was also considered the greatest single name in Jewish sports history. Jewish pride and the accomplishments of Leonard ran parallel with the reputation of Leonard the sports star.
Benny Leonard passed away on April 18, 1947, the way he would have chosen to die, in the ring. While refereeing a minor bout in dusty, smoky St. Nicholas Arena in New York, Benny collapsed. A few minutes later he was dead, at the age of 51, of a hemorrhage of the brain. Leonard had often said, “I’ll be in boxing until I breathe my last breath.”