On April 18, 1947, former longtime lightweight boxing champion Benny Leonard died while refereeing a match in New York. Today, more than six decades later, Leonard is still remembered as one of the greatest pugilists of all time, combining brute strength with technical elegance and an intelligence that included the ability to unnerve opponents with his patter.
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Born Benjamin Lanier on April 7, 1896, Leonard came of age at a time when many of the greatest boxers were Jewish, having emerged from the immigrants’ mecca of the Lower East Side of New York. His initial training came from an uncle, who took him to a neighborhood gym after seeing how his nephew was being picked on by local bullies.
Leonard fought his first pro fight in 1911, suffering a knockout. But in his next 18 bouts, he scored 12 victories. Nonetheless, he tried to keep his new career a secret from his parents. One evening, he returned home from a fight to encounter his crying mother, who had just found out how her son was spending his time. His father began to yell at him, Leonard later recounted for a reporter: “’Fighting, fighting, fighting – for what?’ I took out the five dollars I had earned and handed it to him. He looked at it, smiled, and put his arms around me. ‘That’s all right, Benny,’ he said. ‘When are you going to fight again?’”
By 1917, Leonard had won the lightweight title for the first time. Although today, the heavyweight category is the most prestigious, in the early decades of the 20th century, it was the lightweight division (in which fighters weigh between 130 and 135 pounds) that garnered the most attention.
Leonard’s first championship came in his third fight with Freddie Welsh. Previously, Welsh had retained the title in a no-decision fight (in which Leonard was widely seen as the superior contestant) and then in a clear-cut defeat of Leonard. On May 28, 1917, though, Leonard knocked Welsh down three times in the ninth round, before the referee ended the fight, making the contender the new champion.
Leonard was skilled at stalling when he needed a moment to catch his breath, and also at distracting opponents while he moved in to attack them. Twice he fought Lew Tendler, who, although he never won a championship, was also regarded as a brilliant fighter, defeating him both times. Their second bout took place at Yankee Stadium in 1923 before nearly 50,000 fans who paid almost a half-million dollars for the privilege, a record gate for the lightweight division. That fight went the full 15 rounds, and as Leonard described it, he was able to buy himself some time to recover from a devastating blow from Tendler by complimenting him on the punch.
“Lew snarled,” recounted Leonard, “'Never mind that stuff, come on and fight.' But I stuck out a restraining hand and said, 'No, Lew. That was really a good punch. It was all right.' Lew paused again, and by that time I had recovered my senses."
Leonard defended his title seven times between 1917 and 1925. When he retired, on January 15, 1925, still in possession of the title, it was at the request of his mother.
“My mother was so happy,” Leonard told journalist Bud Greenspan. “I was 29, practically a millionaire and without a scratch.”Unfortunately for Leonard, however, he lost it all nearly five years later, during the stock-market crash of 1929. Desperation led him to attempt a comeback two years later, which ended in 1932, after he came up against a serious fighter.
Benny Leonard’s career record included 213 bouts, with 180 wins -- 69 of them knockouts; 21 losses, six draws, and six no-decisions.
He met his death while working as a referee at the St. Nicholas Arena, in New York, toward the end of an evening bill of seven fights. Just as the wind-up bout was about to commence, Leonard collapsed onto the canvas, having suffered a heart attack. He died a short time later. He was 51.
In 1997, when the Sporting News published its 75th anniversary issue, it named Benny Leonard the best boxer of the previous 75 years – just one of numerous encomiums that have been heaped on him since his death.