“Stars In The Ring:
Jewish Champions In The
Golden Age Of Boxing” by Mike Silver
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
Mike Silver pegs the first four decades of the 20th Century as Boxing’s Golden Age. It was a period where the sport was at its peak in both popularity and talented participants. The boxers of the period were extremely well schooled. Most trainers considered themselves teachers, and were comparable to college professors in the seriousness they brought to teaching the fine art of pugilism.
Mr. Silver also considers this time in history a Golden Age for Jewish boxers. In his new book “Stars In The Ring: Jewish Champions In The Golden Age Of Boxing” (Lyons Press, 366 pgs., $29.95) he does a magnificent job of not only telling the story of the many great Jewish fighters, he also gives a concise and fact filled history of the overall sport of boxing.
The book is is divided up into an introduction, six chapters, and an extensive appendix. The introduction along with chapters one and two give a wonderful overview of the sport along with setting the background of how Jews became such a big part of boxing. It is filled with such interesting fact as pointing out how Jewish boxers who held world titles during the 1920s ranked only behind Italians but ahead of the Irish in numbers. There were close to 3,000 professional Jewish fighters active during the Golden Age. But make no mistake, “Stars In The Ring” is not just a compilation of statistics; it is a wonderful narrative of a very exciting time not only the history of boxing but also of our nation.
In the chapter entitled “The Melting Pot Sport” we learn much about the immigrant experience in America. The various ethnic groups that were at the lower rung of the economic ladder were proud of the fighters who shared their background. Often, matches pitted boxers from the different groups against each other.
Mr. Silver also discusses the Jewish fighters who took on Irish names, or a nom de box, when that became more advantageous for getting fights. There was another reason, perhaps more compelling, why young Jewish men would fight under an assumed named. I’ll quote the author, “Jewish boxers were brave and tough, but they did fear one personage above all others – their mothers.”
Benny Leonard was one such fighter. Leonard’s real name was Benjamin Leiner, but he changed it to keep his parents from finding out what he was doing for a living. When a black eye proved to uncover his activity he was quickly forgiven when he handed his father the purse from his evening’s work.
The book is filled with stories like that, but that is just the beginning. Chapters 3 though 6 break the sport up by its various eras. Each chapter begins with an overview of the time period that is extremely fact filled and interesting. These narratives lead the reader biographies of many of the fighters from the period that has just been discussed. There are also photographs of the participants. A total of 166 biographies are contained in the book. You will meet the young Charley Goldman, who has an official record of 129 fights, but is believed to have participated in over 400 bouts. If the name sounds familiar, it is because Charley went on to become one of the great boxing trainers, teaching world champions Lou Ambers, Joey Archibald, Marty Servo, and a kid from Brockton, MA named Rocky Marciano.
There is also Georgie Abrams whom Silver ranks as the greatest Jewish middleweight who ever lived. I think Sugar Ray Robinson would agree with that assessment as Abrams gave the great Robinson all that he could handle while losing a disputed decision to him.
Sid Terris, Al Singer, middleweight champion Al McCoy (real name Alex Rudolph), Abe Simon, Ruby Goldstein, Saoul Mamby, “The Fighting Dentist” Leach Cross, Herbie Kronowitz, and Victor Young Perez, who’s tragic story is both heartbreaking and inspiring, are just a few of the many fascinating biographies contained in this wonderful book.
Mike Silver could have left it at that and had an outstanding work, but he went even further by interspersing vignettes throughout the book discussing all sorts of boxing related subjects from boxing trading cards to boxing in the movies to a piece about the Shanghai Ghetto. The story of the ghetto in China was new to me and incredibly fascinating. You’ll also learn about the boxing careers of Entertainers Billy Joel and Woody Allen.
To top the book off, Mr. Silver has compiled an extensive appendix that contains, among many other things, his picks for the greatest Jewish boxers of all time. Given Mike’s extensive knowledge of the sport this list is one to be taken very seriously. I know I would not argue its merits with him. He also lists Jewish boxers that have competed in title bouts along with date, location, and results.
A very interesting section lists the Madison Square Garden Main Events that featured Jewish boxers from 1920 to 2014. It is a very long list. The appendix is an encyclopedia that boxing aficionados will find themselves referring to time and again.
I have to comment on the book as an object as well. When I opened the package it was mailed to me in I was astonished to see how pleasing to the eye it is. It is not a book to be left on a shelf. It is beautiful to hold and look through. Copiously illustrated with hundreds of amazing photographs it is a piece of art unto itself.
Mike Silver, who’s previous book “The Arc of Boxing” rates as one of the all time great works on the Sweet Science (I consider it the best) has not let his readers down with “Stars In The Ring”. This is a book to be displayed so that friends may share it when visiting. I guarantee it will be the cause for hours of interesting conversation. You can pick it up and turn to any page and find something interesting to read.
Mike Silver knows his boxing, he also knows how to write, and that combination (pun intended) makes this book a joy to own.
If you are one of the many misguided souls who chuckle when you hear someone mention Jewish fighters, you will come away from this book with a healthy respect for the very tough and very honorable men who were Stars in the Ring.