“Benny Leonard moved with the grace of a ballet dancer and wore an air of arrogance that belonged to royalty.” – Dan Parker, NY sportswriter
The kid in the woolen underwear cut off at the knees and the badly scuffed gym shoes thought he looked like a fighter until he saw his opponent, a redheaded Irish fireplug named Joey Fogarty but called Shorty by everyone but his mother, who never called him anything but Joseph, except when she was angry, and then she called him Joseph Francis Xavier. A veteran of bootleg boxing at the Silver Heel Club on the squalid lower East Side of New York City, Fogarty entered the club’s jury-rigged ring wearing Kelly green swimming trunks, the kind that drooped over the knees; a sash made from pink netting from a crate of oranges, wrapped twice around his waist and tied with a huge bow in the back; and a pair of old skating shoes, which, if you did not look too closely, offered the appearance of boxing shoes. Fogarty had surreptitiously lifted the shoes from the cold water flat of the boyfriend of his older sister, Maureen.
“Geez, look at John L. Sullivan hisself,” Rusty Grogan said to little Benjamin Leiner, who was studying his resplendent ring rival with narrowed eyes.
“I know that little rat,” snarled Leiner. “He runs with that Sixth Street Irish gang that used to beat up on me.”
For the opening decade of his life, before his Russian immigrant parents, Jacob and Minnie Leiner, moved the family to Harlem to be nearer Jacob’s tailor shop, Benjamin lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood on Eighth Street, hard by Second Avenue and two long blocks from the home turf of Fogarty and his fellow Hibernian hooligans. A public bathhouse straddled the bottom of the narrow cobblestone street. Years later, Leiner, by then recognized as Benny Leonard, the lightweight champion, said: “We had Italians to the south and Irish to the north and they were always passing through our neighborhood on the way to the baths. You had to stay in the house or you had to fight the Italian and Mick kids as they came through.”
When there was snow on the streets, the ethnic neighborhood gangs battled with snowballs packed tightly around pieces of coal, soaked with water, and frozen until as hard as cannon balls. Other times, they fought with baseball bats and bare fists, with bicycle chains and loaded canes and broken bottles. Leonard said they were the hardest fights of his life, “and many a kid, Jew, Italian and Irish, suffered permanent injury.”
There is as much fable as fact to the biographies of Leonard, but one thing that everyone appears to agree on is that it was the brothers Max and Joe Dornholz, Benny’s uncles on his mother’s side, who found their 11-year-old nephew bruised and bloodied a few moments after another one-sided battle against either the Italians or the Irish, and, after cleaning the little fellow up, hustled him off to a gym, where he received instruction in the proper fashion to bust some poor fellow’s nose.
“Benny,” Max, the largest of the uncles, told the willing youngster, “if you are going to fight, it is best if you learn how to use your fists. There may not always be an iron pipe handy.”
“Right,” said Joe, the oldest Dornholz brother, “but just don’t tell your mother and father that it was our idea.”
Unlike the Jews of New York in the early 1900s crammed, sometimes 15 to a room, into cheerless cold-water tenements on New York’s East Side, the Dornholz brothers found no shame in boxing. “Where is it written that Jews cannot be fighters?” said Max. They were in the minority. Their people were Orthodox; the men bearded and the women, as the Ribalow’s wrote in Jews in American Sport, “properly humble.” Strict Orthodox teachers, most often the local rabbi, educated the children, who honored and obeyed parents as their mothers and fathers had honored and obeyed parents in the old country. Rarely did one of the youngest generation step beyond the pale to become a fighter or, Abraham forbid, an actor or actress, and when that happened, the elders sighed and blamed each fresh moral failure on the new fast life of America that was making life difficult for “the real Jews.”
That not more fled their harsh surroundings for the uncertainties of the ring or stage is a tribute to the immigrant parents that hammered the moral codes of the old countries into their young almost from the first breath. Shortly after 1910, a year before Benny had his first professional fight, a report issued by New York City officials estimated that within the square mile of the lower East Side where the Leiner’s lived there were more than several hundred brothels, as many pool halls, twice that number of bars, and, according to the NYPD, more than 300 gang hangouts. In Patrick Downey’s Gangster City, a history of the New York underworld over the first 35 years of the 20th century, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was labeled the greatest breeding ground for gunmen and gangsters this country has ever seen. The same area that produced the Benny Leonards and Al Jolsons, produced the Buchalters and Anastasias and Releses of Murder Incorporated.
When the conspiring uncles felt that young Benny was ready, they delivered him to the Silver Heel Club, where they were charter members and avid backers of the club’s weekly bootleg boxing programs. Benny was 12 and thrilled that someone would pay him for what he had been doing willingly every day for free. The purse total for the Fogarty-Leiner fight in the Oasis in the Ghetto was 50 cents, with 30 cents going to the victor. The rules were Marquis of Queensberry, although few fouls were recognized and even fewer bought a penalty.
“That leaves 20 cents for the dumb Mick,” growled Max Dornholz, who had taken a blood oath to give up drinking before ever setting a foot in an Irish saloon.
The fighters, Leiner and Fogarty, each had brought three friends to work their respective corners. At Benny’s side was Grogan, the son of an Irish cop; an Italian named Tony Palozollo, the muscular son of a fruit peddler, who would go on to become a famous fight promoter; and a Jew name Izzy Winters, whose father was in readymade clothing. In the other corner with Fogarty was Hugo Blotz, the son of a Munich-born butcher; Angelo Castellucci, who would have a violent but very short career as a Mafioso hit man; and a gawky fellow named Sprawl.
The first round produced much grunting and wild swings, but few hits. When the two returned to their corners and were seated on upturned milk cans serving as corner stools, their respective cornermen, thinking they were mimicking professionals, began beating the hell out of them.
“Rusty poured water over my head and damn near drown me,” Benny said later. “Izzy nearly broke my ribs giving me a massage, and Tony gave my legs a terrible pounding. No one, except maybe Shorty, was ever so glad to see the minute of rest come to an end. I escaped from that trio from hell into the ring. Shorty was not so lucky. His seconds were stronger than mine and they really beat the tar out of him. He was slow coming out because they wouldn’t let go of him. They hit him more in one minute than I had in three.”
When it was over, Benny was given a narrow three-round decision and three dimes, which he used to buy hot dogs and ice cream for his three admiring cornermen. There is no record of how many bootleg fights he had until he became a true professional in 1911, at the age of 15. “Probably over 100, maybe 125,” Benny said, guessing. “My uncles had boxing contacts all over New York and I fought about every week, sometimes twice. The best part was the guys from the other neighborhoods learned I was fighting at the clubs and they left me alone in the street.”
(A visitor once remarked to Lou Ambers, the former world lightweight champion, that he’d had only 109 pro fights, which seemed a low number for someone who had fought in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Ambers laughed. “You’ve got to remember,” he said, “before I turned pro, I’d had over 150-plus fights as Otis Paradise.”)
The only thing certain about Leonard’s first real pro fight was that it was held at the Fordon Athletic Club at Grand and Orchard Streets deep on the East Side of New York City in 1911. The month and day were not recorded, at least not for posterity.
Boxing in New York was illegal, as it was in many states, but the newly chartered athletic clubs were permitted to hold boxing programs as long they were members-only affairs; no one checked or cared that the members only showed up on fight night. (It reminds me not unpleasantly of the private drinking clubs in the hotels and motels in Texas in the 70s and 80s, where it cost travelers $1.50 to join and the first drink was free.) Sites of the clubs were mostly dreary lofts and converted stables, with poor ventilation and worse lighting, and they rarely held more than 1,500 people. There were no showers for the boxers in the malodorous toilets that served as dressing rooms.
Fighters at the top of the bill weighed in on scales borrowed from neighborhood fruit stores or meat markets. Preliminary fighters did not have to weigh in. Five-ounce gloves, little more than leather razor blades, were used. Seconds wrapped hands with heavy electrician’s tape, and with no hovering inspectors, they usually managed to build a quarter-inch ridge over the knuckles. Boxers poured talcum powder on their hands to help force them into the light gloves. Damage inflicted by punches was brutal. If after a fight a boxer could still fit his hat on his head, he figured he’d had an easy night.
Purses rarely crept above $5, even for the stars; as a bonus, the $2 and $3 preliminary kids were allowed to watch the main event for free.
As legend has it, the announcer for Leonard’s first pro fight was Peter Prunty, the Michael Buffer of his time. “Name?” he growled as Benjamin Leiner emerged from his corner, weak-kneed from fright and weighing a bony 120 pounds.
“In this corner,” said the impatient Prunty, “Benny Leonard.”
Stopped by one Mickey Finnegan and a torrential nosebleed in the third round, the 15-year-old son of Jacob and Minnie, now officially Benny Leonard, earned four dollars, one-quarter of which went to his novice manager, a poolroom operator named Buck Areton. Two cornermen split another dollar. Benny kept the remaining money and the family name of Leonard.
“I did not want my mother to find out I was fighting,” he said later, “so I figured Leonard was as good a name as any.”
Fable: Leonard had no intention of becoming a professional on the night he lost to Finnegan. As the story goes, he and some of his friends had snuck onto the roof of the Fordon to watch the fights when Benny tripped and fell through a skylight onto the ring below, where they were just learning that Finnegan’s intended opponent was a no-show. As penalty for breaking the skylight, Leonard – or Leiner as he was still known – was ordered to replace the no-show. I am not sure of the distance from the ring floor to the roof of the athletic club, but I suspect if the story were true, Benny would have shattered more than glass.
Oddly enough, Finnegan’s stoppage of Leonard was, as it was Benny’s, his pro debut. He would fight just once more; two years after stopping Leonard, he knocked out Artie Edwards, a hard luck bantamweight, in the second round at the Fairmont Athletic Club in the Bronx, and then slipped away into obscurity. One report said that after breaking up with his girlfriend, a dance hall hostess named Mildred, he joined the French Foreign Legion; another said he became a fireman in New Jersey. Even a century ago, boxing’s facts fared badly in any tussle with the fables.
Another popular legend has it that Leonard told Bud Greenspan, the filmmaker and poet laureate of the Olympics, that he took his last name from Eddie Leonard, one of America’s great vaudevillians and minstrel men. Since most of the reports I have read repeated the Prunty version nearly verbatim, I suspect the either Leonard or Greenspan, or both, had more than a nodding acquaintance with blarney.
Ten fights the loss to Finnegan, the outgunned amateur manager Areton was talked into overmatching Leonard against the veteran Joe Chugrue, who, after being knocked down in the third round, dropped the Ghetto Wizard twice in fourth round, leaving him barely able to stand, causing the referee, Bill Brown, to wave off a fresh attack by Jersey City lightweight.
“There goes my career,” a badly shaken Leonard said to Brown, who would later become a member of the usually politically incorrect New York boxing commission.
“Forget it, kid,” Brown shot back. “It just wasn’t your night. There will be a lot more fights. You can still become a champion.”
Fable: According to the most recent Classic Greek-to-English translation from Aesop’s, Leonard went home that night and confessed to his father that he was fighting professionally.
“My son is a bum,” Jacob supposedly wailed. “How can you do this to your mother? You’re nothing but a viper and a gangster. Why do you fight?”
“For this, Papa,” said Leonard, pulling a $20 bill from his pocket. He handed the money to his father, who, Aesop claimed, smiled as he slipped the bill into his pocket.
“Benny, my son,” said Old Dad, “when do you fight again?”
In any case, Brown the referee proved unbelievably prophetic. Leonard lost the third of his first 13 fights on May 3, 1912 and never lost another until June 26, 1922, when he was black flagged for punching welterweight champion Lew Tendler several times while he was down and in the process of being counted out. During that streak, he won the world lightweight championship and successfully defended it six times. (He defended the title successfully thrice more after the loss to Tendler.) Ignoring for the moment the credibility of newspaper decisions, his unbeaten span covered a decade plus 54 days, and 172 fights, of which Leonard won 61 outright; the remainder were newspaper decisions.
Over his career, Leonard was involved in 81 no-decision bouts, winning – in the mind of at least one boxing writer, and sometimes as many as five – all but six. During Leonard’s time, in most states it was illegal to render a decision, the thinking being that most judges were crooked and best way to prevent that was by removing the crooks from the equation. It is rather like saying that if you shoot all dogs, you will be certain to get the ones that will bite the postmen. A fight was a fight only if it ended in a knockout; if not, it was relabeled an exhibition. Sure. That was quickly circumvented when it became the common practice to name from one to a quartet of boxing writers who would announce the decision – as they saw it – the following day in the newspapers. The practice gave birth to the howls of hometown decision.
In February of 1921, a sluggish-looking Leonard lost a four-round newspaper decision in San Francisco to Willie Ritchie, a former lightweight champion. (Known as one of boxing more brilliant boxers, Leonard was no less an intelligent businessman. A few months later, for a far greater purse, Leonard knocked out Ritchie in the eighth round of one of his nine title defenses). After the loss to Ritchie in San Francisco, Leonard was sitting on a rubbing table in his dressing room, when Tad Dorgan, one of America’s more famous boxing writers and cartoonists, and the lone judge of the fight, joined him in the room.
“Hi, Tad,” Leonard said, smiling.
For a moment, Dorgan stood there studying Leonard’s unmarked face; then, without a word, he hauled off and drove a fist into the lightweight champion’s left eye.
“Jesus, Tad,” Leonard yelled, leaping off the table. “Are you nuts?”
“I’m sorry, Benny boy,” said the contrite writer. “That was absolutely necessary. I just filed my story saying you had lost and that you had a black eye. Apparently, I was mistaken, but a black eye you must have. Think of my reputation.”
After a flash of anger, Leonard laughed. That night, the two went out to dinner. Dorgan picked up the check. Should you run across a yellowing newspaper that has an account of that fight, you will notice that it states that Benny came out of the fight with “a trace of a shiner.” All the papers carried that.
Fable: The following day, Leonard called his parents, as he always did after a fight.
“Hello, Mama, I lost. How are you? Is Papa there?”
“I’m fine and Papa is here. Where are you calling from, Benny?”
“San Francisco, Mama.”
“Oh, and how much does it cost to call from there?”
“Three dollars a minute, Mama.”
After the loss to Chrugue, Leonard’s inept manager, Buck Areton, went back to hustling pool. Briefly, Leonard was managed by Louis Wallach, another managerial misfit whose forte was matchmaking, and after seven fights, Wallach passed off the rising young lightweight to Billy Gibson, who ran the Fairmont Club. One of the more sensible managers on the East Coast, Gibson brought Leonard along slowly, permitting the scrawny body time to catch up physically with the extraordinary skills without putting the owner under any heavy artillery barrages. Long regarded as a light-hitting boxer with a great chin, Leonard did not become known as a devastating puncher until after his 74th fight, the one in which he stopped Gene Moriarity in three rounds in November of 1915. Moriarity was a mediocre lightweight out of Syracuse, N.Y. who, until Leonard hammered him senseless, bragged he’d never been knocked off his feet. Before then, Benny had been called, not unkindly, “The Powder Puff Kid.”
Painfully frail his first three years as a professional, Leonard became a defensive genius while developing a jab so perfect it more than offset any shortage of power. Critics claimed he succeeded too well. While conceding that Leonard was the best little man he ever saw, Harry Wills, the great black heavyweight and the leading name on Jack Dempsey’s Do Not Return His Calls list, often remarked that Benny neglected his greatest asset, the natural right hand that all boxers covet, but few possess. “Benny boxes so beautifully, he likes to put on a show” Wills said, “So unless he in trouble, he won’t use his right hand. He could easily stop an awful lot of the opponents that go the distance with him; he just chooses not to.”
“Many a night I would be in there just looking for a workout with no idea of knocking my man out,” Leonard said after his retirement. “But there’d always be a loudmouth who’d start yelling, “Leonard, you’re a freaking bum,” or worse. He’d keep it up and I’d get sore and quite a few guys got flattened that wouldn’t have been hurt otherwise, just because some dope in the crowd wouldn’t keep his mouth shut.”
Fiction: In one account, Benny Leonard was fighting Irish Eddie Finnegan in a dusty coalmining town in the early part of the last century when the crowd, fueled by booze and bigotry, screamed for Finnegan to “kill the kike.” Furious, Leonard lashed out at Finnegan again and again, staggering him repeatedly. Wrapping both arms around his angry opponent, Finnegan pleaded for mercy. As Leonard struggled to break free, Finnegan gasped in Yiddish: “My real name is Seymour Rosenbaum.”
Only one Finnegan is listed on the chart of Leonard’s 215 professional fights, which would be Mickey (not Eddie), who stopped him in his professional debut. According to the record, they fought that one in the dusty coalmining town of New York City. The nearest Leonard got to fighting in a coalmining town would be Philadelphia, which would have been 70 miles from the closest mines. There is no Seymour Rosenbaum on Leonard’s record, either, although he once fought a guy named Joe Goldberg in the Bronx.
Another of the Leonard legends that has had the legs to carry it across three-quarters of a century was the oft-told story that the lightweight champion was so brilliant he never had his hair mussed in 215 professional fights. It was written that Leonard plastered his hair tightly to his head before a fight and would challenge his opponent to mess it up. As the Ribalows wrote, with tongues imbedded in cheeks, this was a wonderful story, revealing the daring of the man, and showing that no one was good enough to touch him if he did no want to be touched. And, said those who expanded on that fiction, if anyone even should be so bold as to attempt to muss his hair, Leonard would become enraged and pound them into the ground.
Fact: On Nov. 11, 1919, Leonard fought a second rematch with Soldier Bartfield, a hard-bitten 28-year-old veteran with a 92-35-1 record, at the Olympic A.C. in Philadelphia. The pair had fought twice before, with Leonard winning each by newspaper decision, the first in the opinion of an ink stained wretch from the Mansfield News; the second in the judgment of a scribe from the Decatur Daily Review, who added his view that Bartfield had not even mussed Leonard’s hair, which did little to please the transplanted Hungarian welterweight. In their third meeting within three months, Bartfield pulled Leonard into a clinch, then with an open glove reached up and scrubbed Benny’s plastered down hair, reducing it to a wild and sticky mess. Rather than exploding in anger, Leonard took it as a joke and broke out laughing. At the end of their schedule six-round bout,, Leonard was declared the winner on the votes of writers from the PhiladelphiaPublic Ledger and the PhiladelphiaRecord. There were no knockdowns.
Final Fact: Among Leonard’s 88 victims (plus 75 newspaper decisions) were some of the greatest lightweights in history: Johnny Dundee, feather and junior lightweight champion (four or five times, depending upon the record book); Freddie Welsh, lightweight champion (twice); Johnny Kilbane, featherweight champion (once); Rocky Kansas, lightweight champion (four times); and Lew Tendler (twice). Leonard was the only man to knockout the legendary Welsh. Should you opt to claim he was the greatest lightweight ever, you will get no measure of dissent from me.
“To see him climb in the ring sporting the six-pointed star on his fighting trunks was to anticipate sweet revenge for all the bloody noses, split lips and mocking laughter at pale little Jewish boys who had run the neighborhood gauntlet.” – Budd Schulberg, author