Tag Archives: Jewish Boxers

The Fighting Kessler Brothers

By Mike Silver

The ultimate goal of every professional boxer is to win a world title, but running a close second is the opportunity to be featured in a main event at the world’s most famous sports arena—Madison Square Garden. During the Golden Age of boxing, from the 1920s to the 1950s, the honor of topping a card in “the Garden” was an achievement to be savored for the rest of a boxer’s life.

A brief historical note: There have been four Madison Square Gardens. The first dates to the late 1870s. But the building that is most synonymous with boxing’s glory days—and the one most fondly remembered by those who experienced it—was the third version that occupied an entire block on New York’s Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets. Garden III stood as a monument to the sport from 1925 to 1967. It was demolished in 1968 and replaced by the current Madison Square Garden located 16 blocks south at 33rd street and Seventh Avenue.

Gaining entry into boxing’s holy of holies was a privilege not easily attained. Certain standards had to be met. Even the undercard boxers had to have records that warranted an invitation. Boxers who fought main events in other arenas might only qualify for a six round preliminary or eight round semi-final in the Garden. To appear in the featured bout of the evening was equivalent to starring in a Broadway theatrical production.

Because of the arena’s status, and the importance of boxing to the popular culture at that time, the result of a Garden main event made news throughout the world. For every boxer lucky enough to appear in a Garden main event the knowledge that a good showing—win or lose—could mean an invitation back and another good payday spurred them to put forth their best effort.

On the night of August 9th, 1946 Ruby Kessler, a 19 year old welterweight out of Brooklyn’s Coney Island neighborhood, was prepared to do just that.

Ruby Kessler

Ruby’s journey to a featured bout at the world’s most famous arena began three years earlier when he knocked out Ray Ramirez in the first round at the Fort Hamilton arena in Brooklyn. It was an auspicious beginning for the 135 pound boxer. Ruby had followed his older brother Milton into the ring. In fact, on the same night that Ruby scored his first pro victory Milton fought in the main event.

Milt Kessler had turned pro in 1939 and quickly established a reputation as one of the finest young boxers in New York City. He was a classic stand up boxer with quick hands and agile footwork. The Kessler brothers were part of a grand boxing tradition. Jewish boxers were an integral part of the boxing scene, having produced hundreds of title contenders and 29 world champions from the early 1900s to the late 1930s. They hoped to become the second set of Jewish brothers to win world titles. The first were Abe and Monte Attell who ascended to their thrones at the turn of the last century.

Milt Kessler

Milt compiled an impressive 31-4-2 won-lost-draw record before he was drafted into the Army in 1943. He was one of 4000 American professional boxers who served in the armed forces during World War II.

After being discharged from the army in 1946 Milt decided not to continue his boxing career. By that time Ruby had graduated from preliminary boxer to main bout status. He began the year by winning six in a row before dropping an eight round decision to Patsy Brandino at the Queensboro Arena. But just sixteen days later Ruby scored his most impressive victory by coming off the floor to stop veteran Pat Scanlon in the 7th round of a ten rounder at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. That victory earned him his first Garden main event. His opponent was Greenwich Village’s tough Tony Pellone. A few months earlier Pellone had scored a major upset by ending Billy Graham’s 58 bout undefeated streak via a controversial ten round decision.

Pellone and Kessler had similar records and were evenly matched but Pellone had an advantage: He was a mob managed fighter. As a “connected” fighter there was always the possibility that the fight judges and the referee would be under orders not to vote for his opponent if the bout went the distance. The day before the fight the odds favored Pellone at 9 to 5. By fight time the odds had increased to 11 to 5 on Pellone. There was no reason for this unless word had gotten out that the fix was in and Pellone could not lose.
In a rousing see-saw fight that the New York Times described as “a bruising battle that held the interest of the crowd right to the final bell” Pellone won a split decision that was greeted with boos by a majority of the fans in attendance.

Irving Kessler, Ruby’s younger brother, believes the decision was preordained. In an interview with the writer he offered as proof the referee’s telling Ruby after the fight, “Sorry Ruby, the best I could give you was a draw”. There is no question the fight was very close but in the end the two judges scored it 5-4-1 for Pellone, with the referee voting a draw. It should not surprise anyone with knowledge of boxing history that the decision might have been fixed. Professional boxing in the 1940s and 1950s was heavily infiltrated by mob elements and fixed fights were not uncommon.

Less than six weeks later Ruby knocked out Pat Foley in the first round. Over the next two months he outpointed Pat Scanlon in ten and finished out the year by stopping former contender Cleo Shans in three. Those victories earned Kessler a second Garden main event. On January 17, 1947, in front of 14,000 fans, Ruby crossed gloves with master boxer Billy Graham. An interesting sidelight to the fight was that both men were trained by Whitey Bimstein. As a result Bimstein decided not to work in either boxer’s corner.

Ruby Kessler and Billy Graham

The Graham bout was the most important fight of Ruby’s career. Graham was a highly regarded welterweight contender. Fortunately he was not a mob managed fighter so if the fight went the distance a fair decision would be expected.
A victory over Graham would put Ruby in line for a title shot. But it wasn’t to be. Although every round was closely contested the difference came down to Graham’s vast experience (he had twice as many fights as Kessler). Graham’s accurate counterpunching and superb defensive skills gave him the edge, but Ruby never stopped trying and when tagged would fight back even harder.

Ruby lost the decision but impressed the critics with his tenacity and toughness. Writing for the New York Times, James P. Dawson praised Kessler’s performance: “The Coney Island youngster is one of the most courageous fighters in the welterweight class today and a lad who is dangerous even when staggering around the ring groggily under fire. In ten rounds that sizzled with superb boxing and sparkled with sharp, solid hitting, Graham received the unanimous decision.”

In his next bout Kessler was stopped in the 7th round by lightweight contender Juste Fontaine. Fritzie Zivic, the ex-welterweight champ who was known for his foul tactics, trained Fontaine. He schooled his protégée well in the art of dirty fighting. Kessler was ahead in the scoring but during the bout was repeatedly fouled. Punches below the beltline, hitting with an open glove, thumbing and butting were taking a toll. The bout took place in Philadelphia, Fontaine’s hometown. The referee, obviously favoring the hometown favorite, issued a few warnings but would not disqualify or deduct points from Fontaine. In the seventh round a weakened Kessler was backed against the ropes and taking punishment when the referee intervened and stopped the bout. As the fighters left the ring Ruby’s brothers Milt and Freddy confronted Zivic and an argument ensued. Several punches were exchanged before security stepped in and broke it up.

Ruby was disappointed by the losses but not deterred. Over the next 19 months he fought 16 times. His most notable opponents included former contender Bobby Ruffin (WD-8, Draw-10), former junior welterweight champion Tippy Larkin (LD-8, LD -10) and eighth rated welterweight Charley Fusari (LD-10).

On October 11, 1948 Ruby was knocked out for only the second time in his 57 bout career when he was stopped in the first round by welterweight contender Tony Janiro. Although he was only three weeks shy of his 22nd birthday the loss convinced Ruby it was time to hang up his gloves.

Irving Kessler is 88 years old. He is the only surviving member of the Kessler clan (originally seven brothers and one sister). Irving remembers how proud he was to carry his older brother’s equipment bag to the gym. He attended almost all of Ruby’s fights and recalls “a fearless boxer who would take on anyone. Whereas Milt was a pure boxer who was often compared to the great Benny Leonard, Ruby was a fighter who rarely took a backward step and didn’t mind mixing it up if the situation called for it. He was an excellent boxer and puncher and if you were not a title contender or champ you couldn’t get by Ruby.”

Ruby Kessler left the sport just as television was beginning to mass market boxing to millions of new fans. No doubt his all action style of fighting would have made him a very popular TV boxer.

Following his retirement Ruby partnered with his brother Milt and opened a bar in Brooklyn. Two years later they ran into financial problems and Ruby decided to pick up a payday by fighting again. On December 23, 1950, at the Ridgewood Grove Arena in Brooklyn, Ruby was holding his own against journeyman Joey Carkido when he suffered a deep gash over his left eye that caused the referee to stop the fight in the 6th round. He never fought again. His final stats were 38-17-2. He knocked out 17 opponents and was KO’d 3 times.

In 1955 Ruby handed the bar over to his brother and took a full time job as a sales representative for a liquor company.

Back in the days when boxing was still boxing not everyone got to be a world champion. There was a definite hierarchy of boxing talent and generally eight champions (today there are over 100) for each of the eight (now 17) weight classes. In that unforgiving environment to be competitive with the best took an extra measure of character and talent. Despite never having won a title Ruby Kessler measured up to the task and was an indispensable part of boxing’s greatest generation.

Mike Silver is the author of Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (2016, Lyons Press) and The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, 2008).

Research assistance was provided by Irving Kessler.

Sting Like A Maccabee: Jews in Boxing



“Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History”, By Mike Silver, Lyons Press, 2016. 344 pages with 255 photographs.

Reviewed by Len Abram

StarsAs coffee table books go – landscape printing and pictures prominent – this one is double expresso: a photographic history of Jewish boxers through the Golden Age of the sport, as well as a study of the context, from which Jews in boxing emerged, fought, lost and triumphed. Silver is an award-winning expert on boxing. Among his contributions was an exhibit in Philadelphia in 2004, “Sting Like A Maccabee: The Golden Age of the American Jewish Boxer.” This book may be its definitive outcome.

Silver’s scope here is larger than American Jewish boxers. England, the Netherlands, and Italy are also represented. We learn, for example, that the French boxer Victor “Young” Perez died heroically in the Holocaust. We find outstanding boxers among Jews, who were forced to flee the Nazis, all the way to Shanghai, China. Silver also covers Jewish managers, promoters, and writers, who contributed to the sport, including the owner of the famous gym of champions in New York, Stillman’s. With his American fighters, however, Silver’s story is as much about America as about any fighter with the Star of David on his trunks.

Silver’s story is as much about America as about any fighter with the Star of David on his trunks.

“No other sport lends so perfectly to metaphor,” Silver says. ‘Against the ropes’, ‘roll with a punch’, ‘down for the count’, ‘in your corner’, ‘on the ropes’, ‘throw in the towel’ – these clichés are drawn from boxing and perhaps remain more popular than the sport itself. The “Rocky” movie series and most recent pugilistic “The Southpaw” remind us that the theme of the down-and-out (another boxing reference) individual, who can redeem himself through boxing, is still compelling.

In the early decades of the 1900s, boxing was the most popular sport in America. In 1927, Babe Ruth earned $80,000 a season playing baseball, but the heavyweight champion Gene Tunney got around one million. At a time when a man in a sweatshop earned $20 per week for 12 to 14 hours a day, he might overlook his son’s black eye, if the young man had earned $20 for a four round bout.

During the Golden Era of Jewish participation in boxing, from the early 1900s to the late 1930s, upwards of 3,000 Jewish professional boxers were active, or about 7 to 10 percent of the total number.

From 1901 to 1939, Jews produced 29 world champions

From 1901 to 1939, Jews produced 29 world champions about 16% of the total. Silver is thorough with his statistics and little known details. Leach Cross (Dr. Louis Wallach), “the Fighting Dentist,” practiced dentistry during the day and fought at night. He made twice as much fighting. The first use of a mouth guard to protect the teeth came not from him, but from Ted “Kid” Lewis (Gershon Mendoloff) , who had a dentist make one out of rubber. The idea caught on.

Benny Leonard
Benny Leonard

How did Jewish mothers feel about their sons pummeled in the ring? Silver says that Jewish fighters feared their mothers, who opposed the sport, as unbefitting to the gentler Jewish values, of compassion and kindness. When lightweight champion Benny Leonard (Benjamin Leiner) was knocked down in a fight, his mother fainted. Leonard retired undefeated in 1925. A photograph shows the champion holding up his mother’s hand, a sign that she was the final victor.

Boxing is a violent sport, its purpose to inflict harm, its touted achievement to win by a knockout. Silver acknowledges that repeated blows to the head can damage a brain for life.

However, boxing can be an art and science, meaning the application of brain over brawn. Boxers use agility and speed to avoid being hit. They anticipate the moves of opponents and counter. An 18th century fighter, an English Jew named Daniel Mendoza, was so famous that he had an audience with King George III. At medium height and weight, Mendoza took on bigger and heavier opponents (weight classes later determined a fair match). Mendoza used his wits to outbox his competitors.

Silver’s outstanding figure among Jewish boxers is Benny Leonard

Silver’s outstanding figure among Jewish boxers is Benny Leonard champion from 1917 to 1925. The athlete as thinker, Leonard approached boxing as “a game of chess.” Silver reports that the day after a bout, Leonard was back in the gym, reviewing mistakes and successes from the night before. Leonard learned from everyone , including the youngest boxers in the gym.

Like so many others, including the great Barney Ross (Beryl Rosofsky), Leonard was the son of immigrants. He came out of a Jewish ghetto in Manhattan and fought his way to wealth and success. Many American fighters changed names according to the interests of the paying public for Irish, Italian and later for Jewish fighters.

Boxing leveled the playing field beyond the sport, as well. Joe Louis, a black man, became a national hero to both blacks and whites. The celebrated writer Pete Hamill grew up in a New York Irish-American home. As a youngster, he complained to his family about a “kike” boxer. His father corrected his anti-Semitism for good.

“Benny Leonard is a Jew,” he said.

(This article first appeared in the Jewish Advocate and is reprinted here with permission of the author.)

Book Review: “Stars In The Ring”

“Stars In The Ring:
Jewish Champions In The
Golden Age Of Boxing” by Mike Silver

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

StarsMike 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.

Joe Choynski
Joe Choynski

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.

Barney Ross
Barney Ross

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.”

“Jewish boxers were brave and tough, but they did fear one personage above all others – their mothers.”
Benny Leonard
Benny Leonard

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.

Georgie Abrams
Georgie Abrams

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.

Leach Cross
Leach Cross

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.

Charley Goldman
Charley Goldman

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

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.