The Ghetto Wizard


Within the lengthy historical past of boxing there have been many grasp trainers, gurus of the ring who made it their life’s work to mould younger males into pugilists. Any listing of nice trainers and cornermen must embrace Ray Arcel (1899-1994), who began his profession within the Nineteen Twenties, when boxing ranked second solely to baseball in reputation. Arguably no different coach labored with as many all-time greats. A partial listing would come with Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong, Child Gavilan, Freddie Steele, Tony Zale, John Henry Louis, Ezzard Charles and, maybe most famously, Roberto Duran. And but, when requested to call one boxer as the easiest, Arcel confirmed little hesitation. “Leonard,” he would say. “He was the most effective I ever educated.”

What set Benny Leonard aside? In Arcel’s view, sheer ring intelligence.

“Boxing is brains over brawn. I don’t care how a lot means you bought, if you happen to can’t assume you’re simply one other bum within the park. Individuals ask me who’s the best boxer I ever noticed pound for pound. I hesitate to say, both Benny Leonard or Ray Robinson. However Leonard’s psychological power surpassed anybody else’s.”

Legendary coach Ray Arcel.

Benjamin Leiner, the son of Orthodox Jews, grew up within the Decrease East Facet of New York Metropolis, the place Irish, Italian and Jewish ghettos seethed in shut proximity. Avenue fights and brawls with rival gangs have been merely a part of rising up in that quarter. The younger Benjamin obtained instruction in utilizing his fists from his uncles, the logic being it was higher to defend your self along with your naked arms versus counting on bats or pipes. The tutelage will need to have been of uncommon high quality; their nephew proved himself a road fighter to be feared, prompting the uncles to take him to the neighbourhood fitness center the place he would possibly be taught the finer factors of fisticuffs. On the time, Ben was 11 years previous.

He turned professional solely 4 years later, in 1911, however realizing his Orthodox mother and father disapproved of boxing, he modified his title from Leiner to Leonard. He really misplaced his first professional contest by a 3rd spherical stoppage, and would lose a number of extra bouts earlier than he discovered his type and started climbing up the light-weight ranks. However quickly sufficient boxers felt fortunate in the event that they managed to win a single spherical or final the gap in opposition to the ring genius who got here to be known as “The Ghetto Wizard.”

Earlier than reaching such lofty heights although, he had his mother and father to cope with. As Leonard himself advised the story: ”One evening I got here house after a combat and my mom was crying. She had came upon. My father got here in and began yelling at me. ‘Preventing, preventing, preventing for what?’ I took out the 5 bucks I’d earned and handed it to him. He checked out it, smiled and put his arms round me. ‘That’s all proper, Benny,’ he mentioned. “So when are you going to combat once more?’”

July 24, 1923: fifty thousand in Yankee Stadium watch Leonard (left) defeat Lew Tendler.

As a hoop tactician, Leonard was nothing lower than good. He studied boxing like an earnest grad scholar, spending hours within the fitness center not essentially coaching, however watching different boxers, observing their strikes, footwork, feints and timing. Approaching the game from an analytical perspective, he discovered openings and weaknesses the place others couldn’t. Fast of each hand and foot, with a wonderful jab and a devastating proper hand, he was slippery and laborious to hit. He countered with precision, making his opponents pay for the slightest mistake. Competing in a light-weight division stacked with excessive calibre expertise, Leonard proved himself the most effective of the most effective, wresting the world championship from fellow all-time nice Freddie Welsh in 1917 and holding it for practically seven years. He turned again the challenges of such glorious boxers as Johnny Dundee, Richie Mitchell, Charley White, Rocky Kansas, Johnny Kilbane and Lew Tendler.

The nice Benny Leonard. Drawing by Damien Burton.

Good-looking and a natural-born showman and charmer, Leonard was revered by the general public, changing into a real celeb and a large attract New York. His legendary battles with Mitchell and Tendler proved main occasions, attracting big crowds of fifty thousand or extra. A part of Leonard’s enchantment was his intelligent boxing model, subtle and clever, balletic in its fixed maneuvering as he danced and darted, Benny the supreme matador, all the time one step forward of the bull. As he appreciated to usually boast (whereas on the similar time reassuring his continuously worrying mom), his peerless defensive expertise allowed him to win fights with out even getting his hair “mussed.” Benny’s followers cheered with glee when, simply earlier than exiting the ring after one other victory, Leonard cocked his head and proudly smoothed a hand over his hairstyle.


Leonard (proper) with harmful challenger Richie Mitchell.

Leonard was nonetheless on the high of his recreation and undefeated as champion when he introduced his retirement in January of 1925. He had turn out to be sympathetic to the pleas of his getting old mom who might by no means carry herself to observe any of his fights. (As he didn’t thoughts admitting, Benny was a licensed “mama’s boy.”) Moreover, he had hundreds of thousands of {dollars} within the financial institution and nothing left to show. However the inventory market crash of 1929 obliterated Leonard’s financial savings and compelled him to return to the ring. The ill-fated comeback led to 1932 with a six spherical loss to future welterweight champion Jimmy McLarnin. Leonard by no means fought once more however boxing was in his blood and he didn’t stray removed from the gyms and combat golf equipment. He grew to become a referee and in 1941 suffered a coronary heart assault whereas officiating a bout in New York Metropolis and, maybe fittingly, died within the ring.

Benny Leonard is regarded by many, if not most, as the most effective light-weight of all time, and no credible listing of the best boxers of all-time, pound-for-pound, can omit his title. As scribe Jersey Jones put it, “Leonard was one of many all time greats … An impressive boxer, a lethal puncher, a superb ring strategist, and a unprecedented showman, [ruling] over probably the most formidable array of challengers within the annals of the light-weight division.”         — Michael Carbert 

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