From Barney Ross To Yuri Foreman - The World Champions Who Fight Kosher
When it comes to boxing, Jewish world champions are a bit like London buses. You go 30 years without one and then two come along in the space of three weeks.
At least, that’s how it will be if Dmitriy Salita (pictured) upsets the odds and beats WBA champion Amir Khan in their light-welterweight showdown in Newcastle, England on December 5th.
Khan, from Bolton in Lancashire, is 7/1 on to keep his crown against the Ukrainian-born Salita, an Orthodox Jew whose family fled from Odessa to New York when he was nine to escape persecution.
And while Salita is unbeaten in 31 fights, the quality of his opponents is such that you can get 5/1 against him repeating the feat of rabbinical student Yuri Foreman, who convincingly outpointed hot favourite Daniel Santos to capture the WBA Super-Welterweight crown in Las Vegas last weekend.
While the life stories of Foreman - a Belarus-born, US-domiciled Israeli - and Salita are remarkably similar, their sudden emergence conjures up memories of a bygone era when some of the best fighters on the planet were Jewish.
Arguably the greatest of all was Barney Ross, the son of a Talmudic scholar who, in the 1930s, won the world lightweight, light-welterweight and welterweight titles – and was the first man to hold two world crowns simultaneously.
New York-born Ross lived in an era where Jewish fighters dominated much of the boxing scene. Between 1910 and 1940, there were no fewer than 26 Jewish world champions in the eight weight divisions that existed at that time.
Names like Benny Leonard, Jack 'Kid' Berg, Ted 'Kid' Lewis, 'Slapsie' Maxie Rosenbloom and Battling Levinsky remain legends of the sport to this day. But since American Mike Rossman lost his world light-heavyweight crown in 1979, there has not been a single Jewish world champion. And Rossman was himself the first Jew to rule the boxing world since French-Algerian bantamweight Alphonse Halimi two decades earlier.
The kosher cupboard has been bare for 30 years - until now.
So why did Jews ever come to the forefront in the ring when, traditionally, they were always a race of scholars rather than fighters?
Perhaps Ross’s explanation is the most logical. I was lucky enough to interview the great man when he came to London not long before his death to be honoured by the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
‘’When I was young, the Jewish people were so deprived that they had to fight to live,’’ he told me. ‘’Today, the guys who box just live to fight. Jews don’t need to do it any more, so they don’t. It’s as simple as that.’’
I’ve never forgotten those words and somehow they ring true when I look at the backgrounds of Foreman and Salita. Both boxers come from deprived backgrounds – Foreman in Belarus; Salita in Odessa.
The roots of Ross’s generation were similar – his own father emigrated to the US from Brest-Litovsk, which is now in Belarus, while Leonard’s background was Manhattan’s Jewish ghetto and Berg and Lewis were products of London’s rough-and-tough East End.
Perhaps the only difference between the two generations is that while Ross and Co grew away from their religious roots, both Foreman and Salita seem to have found them.
Foreman is studying to become a rabbi, while Salita is a staunch follower of Orthodox Judaism who won't fight on the Sabbath.
So if anyone reckons he hasn’t a prayer of toppling Khan in what is being billed as a classic ‘Muslim v Jew’ confrontation, perhaps they should think again.
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