Saturday, April 19, 2014

"The Ghetto Wizard"

By Peter Silkov

The lightweight division has always been one of the favourite weight classes in boxing, spawning over the years many of boxing’s greatest and most colourful champions.  Of all these, Benny Leonard ‘The Ghetto Wizard’, will always rank amongst the best and the greatest of them all.  Born Benjamin Leiner, on April 7, 1896, upon turning professional at just 15 years old, he took on the name Benny Leonard, in order to keep his mother from knowing that he was boxing. Leonard was one of the cleverest and fastest boxers the division has ever seen, with a lighting left jab, brilliant defence, and footwork. Leonard also had a knockout punch in either hand.  In all, he was a complete fighter. 

When Leonard turned professional and began his career in New York, the No- Decision law was in force, (also known as the Frawley Law) meaning that a fighter could only win a fight by a stoppage or clear knockout, any fights which traveled the full distance were called a ND contest. To remedy this, the journalists of the day would give their own verdicts on the fights of the night before, verdicts that became known as ’newspaper decisions.’ During this time, Leonard was involved in many fights that ended officially as a ND contest, but he also piled up an unusual amount of knockout and stoppage wins for someone of his weight.

After overcoming some early setbacks, Leonard fought his way to world title contention.  On May 12, 1917, Leonard fought Freddie Welsh for Welsh’s World Lightweight championship.  The fight was fought in New York, under the no-decision rules, which meant that if it went the distance, Welsh would win and retain his title.  This was the third meeting between Leonard and Welsh, with each winning one newspaper decision each, but this time, Leonard dominated the action and in the 9th round floored Welsh three times, and the referee stopped the fight, meaning that Leonard was the new world champion.  Welsh protested the stoppage and claimed that the fight had not been advertised as for the title (Welsh had weight 136 and a half pounds, a pound and a half over the lightweight limit, while Leonard weighed in at 133, two pounds under the division limit) but found not support from the media or the boxing authorities. The young and exciting Leonard was welcomed by all as the new World Lightweight champion. 

The lightweight division has generally always been one of the most talented weight classes in boxing, always with a mixture of slippery boxers, dangerous sluggers, and fighters who could do a bit of each.  In the 1910’s and 1920’s, the amount of talent amongst the lightweights was at bursting point; this was a time when fight clubs were on every corner and fight cards took place every night of the week, and a fighter could fight as often as he wanted if  he was so inclined. 

Even while sitting atop such a hot division, Benny Leonard dominated it.  From 1917 to 1925,  he defended his world title 8 times against the cream of the contenders, as well as taking part in various non-title fights.  Some of the outstanding talents that Leonard defended his title against were, Richie Mitchell, Rocky Kansas, Charlie White and Lew Tendler. The only defeat that Leonard suffered during this time was when he tried to win the World Welterweight championship from Jack Britton in 1922, and after flooring Britton in the 13,th he then inadvertently hit him while he was down and was instantly disqualified.

By 1925, Leonard had defeated all his top contenders, amassed a large fortune, and gained world wide recognition as one of the greatest boxers ever to lace on a pair of gloves.  So he retired, safe in the knowledge that his work was complete.

However, in 1929, when millions lost their jobs, careers, and life savings, Benny Leonard was among them, his businesses and fortune wiped away with the speed of a right hand to the face.  In 1931, Benny Leonard pulled on the gloves once more, for a comeback that broke many hearts.  This was not the Benny Leonard of old, but an old Benny Leonard, softened by over six years of idleness, he fought at welterweight, his midriff thicker, and his hair thinning.  The faded great still had enough left to win 19 fights in a row, but then on October 7, 1932 he met ’Baby Face’ Jimmy McLarnin, a decade younger than Leonard and in his prime, most of McLarnin’s career was still ahead of him, while Leonard was trying to recapture a past that was forever lost. ’Baby Face’ floored and punished Leonard until the referee stopped the fight in the 6th round.  ’The Ghetto Wizard’ was no more, and Benny never fought again.

In 1943 Benny Leonard became a licensed referee on the staff of the New York athletic commission.  On April 18, 1947, while refereeing a fight in New York, Benny Leonard collapsed and died of a heart attack at the age of 51.  He died as he had lived in his prime, in the boxing ring. 

Copyright © 2014 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

twitterfacebookgoogle pluslinkedinrss feedemail

1 comment:

  1. OT: Want to watch awesome training videos by Manny Pacquiao? Watch the Peoples Champ Manny Pacquiao speed shadowboxing all day on the official MP Youtube Channel now!