Jews In Boxing--a Bloodline

Stacy W.L.Correspondent IJuly 9, 2009

RAMAT GAN, ISRAEL - MARCH 24: (ISRAEL OUT) English fans gather outside the Ramat Gan stadium on before the Euro2008 Qualifier between Israel and England March 24, 2007 in Ramat Gan, Israel. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

One reason boxing is beautiful is that it honors the truth of our animal nature, our still primal urge toward tribalism, the desire to see 'ours' triumph.  In the best of matchups, this triumph is over someone of another race or culture, so that the winning group can be 'represented' favorably. 

This territorial aggression made raw and real in professional boxing sets the stage for any number of  critiques, with respectability made even harder to attain when a sport so close to our primal natures inevitably attracts the 'bottom feeders' of our society--crooks, fast-talkers, professional money-makers.  It is, however, also part of what makes boxing compelling for the true fan (just ask hard-core Pacquaio or Cotto fans!).

My own interest in boxing is largely culturally/ancester based, though it was only after I began competing as an amateur boxer that various relatives let me know that not only both of my grandfathers but even my GREAT grandmother Anna were boxing fans. 

I have become somewhat obsessively interested in the history of my particular people--Jewish immigrants to America--partly out of my thirst to gain a deeper understanding of the feisty, expressive rage running through my own blood that I have drawn upon in my forays into the amateur ring.

In the book "When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport" (1997) Allan Bodner captures the draw of boxing for second-generation Eastern European immigrants, often to the chagrin of their old-school, traditional parents.  Boxing is a phenomenon that arises only under certain conditions, in which there is not enough of something, and occurs in an area in which the streets play out as the territory for which it is gained--be it money, pride, or that ultimate of streetfight prizes, respect--with the body as the weapon of choice.

The arc of Jewish interest in being in the front lines of the sport reflects the truth of the bare necessity behind making a living by putting one's life on the line.  The sport was popular in the 1920s and 30s, when Jews were trying to carve out a place for themselves in America, money was tight, and Jewish boys coming of age in the ghettos of New York and Philadelphia had something to prove. 

Once the doors to more lucrative lines of business opened up, by the late 30s, American Jews began to take up the more stereotypical roles of professional success, riding at the top of the wave of entertainment, financial services, law and medicine. 

The sport, however, had gained a lasting grip on the Jewish psyche, and Jews rose too into the moneymaking elements of the sport.  In fact, two of the most iconic boxing institutions--The Ring Magazine and Everlast sports--were started by Jews.  Jews have never been strangers to the shadier side of the sport either, and Bob Arum stands squarely at the top of Top Rank as a reminder of that fact.

The cultural stamp of having a champion, or even better a heavyweight champion, from your area of the world or your personal heritage of identity, embodies in some ways the underlying racial/cultural tensions in our world, and seductively simplifies them: as evidenced in purest form in the Shmeling-Lewis fights--in which the balance of power between world powers as well as racial relations would be literally turned upside down.

Recently, watching a replay of a battle in November 2006 between Roman Greenberg and Alexi Varakin for the IBO Heavyweight title, I was granted a glimpse into the cultural pride to which previous generations were privy.  Currently, Greenberg's record stands at 27-1-0.  Though Greenberg is based in England, via Israel, the similarities between his immigration experiences and that of the American Jewish boxers of the 20s captured my imagination.

Taking in the image of the big man with a Jewish star placed prominently on the front of his boxing shorts, I felt connected to my grandfather, who may have seen Lew Tendler or Ruby Goldstein similarly display pride in their heritage.  Even Greenberg's name--not likely to be the given name of a man of Russian heritage--harkened back to the days in which boxers would change their names to recognizably Jewish names to get support from Jewish fans.

I nervously watched Greenberg, after a good first round in which he consistently jabbed his opponent in the body and shook off hard punches, lose the next three rounds due largely to his failure to keep his hands high and difficulty getting off of the ropes.  Finally, in the fifth round, he started taking advantage of his opponent's weariness, and in the sixth round, finished him off with a combination beginning with a straight right lead and ending with a sledgehammer right uppercut which left Varakin convincingly laid out on the canvas.

I watched that ending over and over, feeling the same pride my grandfather must have felt when Jews made up a good percentage of boxing's champions.  Greenberg's rock-solid heart, his ability to overcome early adversity in the fight to destroy his opponent, all reminded me of my own scrappy determination to succeed.  Even his awkwardness and mistakes in the ring were familiar and comforting, as they reflected something about the preeminence of heart which has been so crucial to the survival of Jews throughout history. 

One morning, not too long ago, I connected with my own heritage in my gritty determination to face any and all challenges and never to give up.  On this day, I was tagging along with my trainer and some of her professional fighters.  We went out a few miles into a trail through the woods that led to a big hill.  We were lugging all kinds of things with us.  There was a heavy bag, some chains, some weights, some balls, and a tire, plus each of us had gloves.  We were a ragtag bunch.   

So there we were, going up and down this hill carrying what felt like instruments of torture in various sizes and shapes, and I passed Ann and she was grunting with a heavy bag on her back, its chain looped around her forehead, and I had chains looped around my neck and weights on my legs.  She said, “You look like a slave, Stacy,” and I panted back, “My people were slaves in Egypt,” and I get a renewed resolve, singing in my head a song I learned way back in Sunday school, “Go down Moses, way down in Egyptland.  Tell old Pharoah, let my people go.”