The bell rang out and the room fell silent. The sound that once signaled these men to come out fighting suddenly trapped them in the not-so-neutral corner of the past.
If there is one ritual in boxing that can bring tough guys to tears, it is the honorary 10-count--the ringing of the bell 10 times for deceased fighters. As the ex-pugs, their families and friends stood with their heads bowed, Dr. Charlie Gellman, a former middleweight, solemnly rang the bell.
Ding . . . The mind races back to Benny Leonard and Barney Ross . . . Ding . . . The names keep coming back, there was Ruby Goldstein, who had the Star of David on his trunks . . . Ding . . . Sid Terris, Lew Tendler, Al "Bummy" Davis . . . Ding . . . Maxie Shapiro, Yale Okun, Joey Varoff . . . Ding . . . The fight venues come back into focus . . . Ding . . . places like the Coney Island Velodrome, Sunnyside Garden and Ebbets Field . . . Ding . . . Abe Reibman, Izzy Schwartz, Oscar Goldman . . . Ding . . . Abe Attell, Curley Nichols, "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom.
Ding! When the count ended, the room came alive with flat-nosed men lofting playful jabs at old friends and foes. This event was not a time of mourning, but a recent book party to celebrate the release of Allen Bodner's "When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport" (Praeger Trade, $24.95). Gellman was one of several former fighters bobbing and weaving his way through the crowd at Manhattan's Kingsway Gym. All of them Jews.
They represent an era that has long gone unnoticed, when Jews were as good or better than the Irish, Italian and African American fighters vying for world titles. When ethnic rivalries drove boxing, with promoters often hyping matches between a Jew and an Italian or an Irishman against an African American. And yet, to the boxers, the gym was a sanctuary void of ethnic hatred and stereotypes.
And while the young Jewish fighters excelled, they often competed behind their parents' backs.
"About 99% of the time, parents disapproved of boxing," said Vic Zimet, a former amateur boxer and trainer. "That's why the Jewish boxers took on different nomenclatures. They changed their names, they even changed their ethnic connotation. Some became Irish or Italian.
"But the fighters who had more ability were usually compelled by their management to retain their Jewish names because it was an attraction for Jewish fans."
The book by Bodner, whose father, Leo, fought as an amateur and later managed boxers, chronicles the rise and fall of Jewish boxing. The era began roughly with the ascent of lightweight champion Benny Leonard in 1917 and ended with the retirement of middleweight contender Herbie Kronowitz in 1951. Since then, there has been only a handful of successful Jewish fighters. The Jewish presence in boxing today is in the form of promoters and managers, Bodner points out.
"Most people don't remember that boxing was a Jewish sport," said Marty Glickman, the one-time voice of the Jets and Knicks who was master of ceremonies at the party. "Men like Benny Leonard and Barney Ross dominated the sport. It's important to have this recorded. This book is long overdue."
He said that despite ethnic rivalries, a boxer's race, color or religion hadn't mattered in the ring. "You developed your reputation as an athlete. Winning or losing didn't depend on your religion or race. It depended on your ability."
As a world-class runner before he became an announcer, Glickman knows firsthand about discrimination. He wasn't allowed to run in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin because he is Jewish.
The book began as a master's thesis at Hunter College, where Bodner had earned a law degree.
"I went back to Hunter for a degree in Jewish history," Bodner said. "That's how all this came about. It won an award for the best thesis, and one of my teachers told me I should try and get it published."
His father, now 90, was an important source. But Bodner also interviewed other fighters, men who were from Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. Those who attended the party were Kronowitz, Gellman, Allie Stolz, "Schoolboy" Bernie Friedkin, Zimet and Sammy Farber, who boxed in the first New York City Golden Gloves in 1927.
"This gathering brings back such fond memories, and sad ones too, because some of these guys are no longer with us," said Gellman. "The only friends I had were the fighters. These fellows never looked into your pocket. They never asked, 'How much stock do you have?' None of that mattered."
Family members of the deceased fighters in the book also attended.
"There is a certain special pride that this group represented to themselves and to their descendants," said Fred Rosenberg, a nephew of lightweight Lew Tendler.
Even in the '30s and '40s, when most of these men fought, education was a primary concern in Jewish culture. Bodner, who writes that Jewish career pursuits were more "cerebral than physical," examines the social circumstances that drove these young men to boxing.
The strength of the book, though, concerns the struggles and triumphs of the fighters.
"I would say that the higher up they were on the ladder of achievement, the less prepared they were for life after boxing," said Bodner. "Charlie Gellman may have just been a club fighter, but he really put his life together. But Allie Stolz based his entire life on that one fight against Sammy Angott."
Gellman, who grew up in West New York, N.J., before settling on Long Island, became the first Jewish kid to fight for the local Catholic Youth Organization. He trained with future heavyweight champ James J. Braddock at a gym run by Joe Jeannette, the great black heavyweight who boxed at the turn of the century but was denied a title shot because of his skin color.
A generation had passed by the time Gellman was training in Jeannette's gym. By then, "nobody looked at color in the gym, nobody looked at religion," he said. "These people looked out for me. When I used to talk about making a career out of boxing, Joe Jeannette took me aside and said, 'You listen to me, you have to go to school. That's where your career is. This is no way to make a career.' " Gellman smiles about that now because he understands the delicacy of Jeanette's instructions: that Gellman was not going to win a world title, so education would be a more worthwhile pursuit. Still, Gellman boxed throughout the '30s and used the name Chuck Halper because his parents did not approve of his decision to box.
Bodner writes about Benny Leonard, born Benjamin Leiner, who ultimately won his parents' approval. They did not know about his boxing until they saw his photo on a fight poster. His mother cried and his father, a tailor who in 1916 earned about $12 a week, confronted him. Leonard handed him the entire $35 purse from his last fight.
"That's what you got for the fight?" the father asked. "One night? You got that for the fight? . . . Benny, when are you going to fight again?"
Gellman, who is 81, used the money he made in boxing to help his family pay the rent and eventually saved enough to go to college. But, though he stopped boxing, he never forgot the boxers. Gellman became president of two hospitals and routinely found vacant beds for ailing fighters, or charitable doctors for the fighters who could not afford health insurance or medical bills. Today he is the chairman of the board of Ring 8, an organization that helps indigent fighters. And he recently received the Ray Arcel Humanitarian Award, the organization's highest honor, named for the late Jewish trainer who was seen as a father figure by the many fighters he trained.
"It's not that I have to help--I want to," Gellman said. "Sometimes all people need is a little bit of kindness. What does it cost to be nice to a guy? My childhood was spent with these guys. When a boxer calls on me and he is down on his luck, it saddens me deeply."
Of the remaining living fighters, only Stolz challenged for a world title, and the hurt of that defeat still stings him today.
"The thing that will stay with me until my death is the fact that they stole the world title from me," said Stolz, who is 76 and lives in Great Neck, N.Y. "As a kid, all I wanted was to be lightweight champion of the world. That was my dream."
Jewish fighters may have excelled in the ring, but it was organized crime that controlled the game in the '40s and '50s. When Stolz challenged lightweight champ Sammy Angott at Madison Square Garden in 1942, the man who ruled boxing was gangster Frankie Carbo. To become a champion, and stay champion, fighters often had to surrender a percentage of their earnings to Carbo.
"Carbo approached me and said, 'You win the title with me and you'll make a pot of money,' " Stolz recalled. "I said, 'I don't think so, Frank; I got a manager.' And he said to me, 'You're a dummy.' I said OK and I walked away. Sure enough, I didn't get the decision. They robbed me. It's still very upsetting. Very disheartening."
Most ringside observers felt that Stolz beat Angott, and for years he was known as the uncrowned lightweight champion. Still, as a main-event fighter, he made enough money to provide for his family. And that, Bodner concludes, is the main reason these men entered the ring. While parents tried to steer their sons away from boxing, higher education wasn't always an option in working-class homes.
"Those were lean years," Kronowitz said. "In the amateurs, if you won the fight, you'd get a wristwatch. A Waltham 18. If you lost, you got a pocket watch or a pen-and-pencil set. There would be guys hanging out beneath the stands, and we'd sell the watches to them. Sometimes I'd keep them, but how many watches can you wear? So you'd sell them. You could get $18 or $15 for the watch. You couldn't get nearly as much for the pen-and-pencil set."
Kronowitz grew up in Coney Island and began boxing at 15 under the name of Joe Block; he couldn't use his legal identity because the age requirement for amateur fighters was 16. Then, at 17, he turned pro, which was also illegal, so to get around the rules he used his older brother's first name.
Kronowitz would earn a top-10 ranking in what some consider the Golden Age of the middleweight division. While he yearned for a title fight against Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano or Sugar Ray Robinson, those bouts never materialized. But on June 19, 1947, he won a title of sorts at Ebbets Field by beating fellow Jewish contender Harold Green, who was from Brownsville, N.Y.
The match was billed as the Middleweight Championship of Brooklyn, and Kronowitz scored a knockdown en route to a 10-round decision. After the contest, the Brooklyn Eagle, then the borough's premiere newspaper, presented him with a championship belt.
"There must have been about 20,000 people there because people knew when they came to see me, they were going to see action," Kronowitz said. And to see his name on the Ebbets Field marquee as the main event "was a great feeling. What a feeling."
The fighters in the book unanimously agreed that the work ethic and discipline of boxing helped them outside of the ring. No matter how their careers turned out, boxing had a positive impact on the rest of their lives.
"Boxing made me a stronger person; it gave me confidence," said Kronowitz, now 74. "When I was a salesman, I'd walk right into someone's office and introduce myself. Sometimes, the guy would say, 'I saw you fight; you don't need to introduce yourself.' " Even today, people come up to me and tell me they saw me fight at the Garden or Ebbets Field.
"What a feeling that is. It's still nice to hear."