This Day in Jewish History, 1764

A British Heavyweight Champion Is Born

Daniel Mendoza is remembered for being the father of what some called the 'Jewish School' of boxing.

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July 5, 1764, is the birthdate of English-Jewish pugilist Daniel Mendoza, the heavyweight champion of England in 1792-1795. Mendoza is in large part remembered for being the father of “scientific” boxing, or what some called the “Jewish School,” which introduced a number of defensive techniques that took what was then a bare-fisted sport into a realm that allowed for the use of more than just brute force. These included sidestepping, the straight left, and using a guard.

Mendoza was the son of Abraham Mendoza and Esther Lopez. His father’s family were conversos (Jews who had converted to Christianity during the Inquisition), who had moved from Spain to Amsterdam in 1701 and reverted to their native faith, before coming to London a short time later. He grew up in the Aldgate section of the capital, and prayed at the Bevis Marks synagogue there.

It was almost to be expected that Dan Mendoza became a prizefighter, as he was only taking his natural tendency to get into fights regularly and turning it into a source of income. It was while defending the good name of his employer in a tea shop, for example, at age 16, that Mendoza was spotted by Richard Humphries, the “Gentleman Boxer,” as he thrashed a porter who had challenged the man. Humphries, impressed by Mendoza’s talent, offered to become his trainer.

Under the tutelage of Humphries, Mendoza began fighting professionally in 1784, and scored his first big victory against Harry Davis the Coalheaver in a bout that went on for an hour and 50 minutes. In 1787, while training with Humphries, he and his mentor got into an argument at a tavern. Stopped by police from settling their argument on the spot, they arranged to fight in a ring on January 9, 1788, drawing a reported 60,000 spectators to that bout. The audience was well entertained until the 28th minute, when Mendoza slipped and hurt his ankle. He conceded the match, and responded to Humphries’ taunting of him as a “coward” by saying he would not fight him again until his ankle had healed.

The two met again in Stilton in May 1789, after a year in which Mendoza, who was only 5 feet 7 inches, and weighed 160 pounds, perfected his defensive style of boxing. It took 65 rounds, but he defeated Humphries soundly. This led to a decisive third match between the now-famed rivals, which took place in September 1790, and was won by the Jew, in 72 rounds (one hour and 13 minutes).

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By now, Mendoza was a natural celebrity (as one newspaper writer put it, he was not “the Jew that Shakespeare drew"), and had earned himself the patronage of the Prince of Wales, later King George IV. He also was invited to Windsor Castle to meet the prince’s father, George III, which is said to have made him the first Jew to speak to the British king.

In 1792, he claimed the title of heavyweight champion after the current champion retired, and he defended that title two years later, when he fought Bill Warr. But then, in 1794, Mendoza lost the championship in a fight against John “Gentleman” Jackson. Jackson was 40 pounds heavier than Mendoza, and four inches taller, and despite his nickname, he bested the champion only after grabbing and holding him by his long hair and pummeling him.

Mendoza then retired from the ring, and began to capitalize on his celebrity. Under the management of a circus producer, he began to tour Scotland and Ireland, giving demonstrations. He opened a pub (the Admiral Nelson) and a boxing academy, but it seemed that, whatever he earned, he spent. He also drank profusely.

In 1806, in debt so severe it landed him in prison, Mendoza came out of retirement for one more fight, his 33rd. He was victorious, but the bout was a punishing one. That was followed in 1820 by what was to be his last appearance in the ring, at the age of 56. Mendoza was badly defeated in that, after a mere 15 minutes.

Dan Mendoza died on September 3, 1836, at age 72. His wife Esther was left in great debt. The couple had had nine children, several of whom ended up in Australia. The family left no descendants in Britain.