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Fight Club

In the 1930s, boxing was more infused with politics than ever before

David Margolick
Douglas Century
November 22, 2005

Jews were once as critical to the boxing world as Kenyans are to long distance running today. In 1930s New York City, legendary champions like Benny Leonard and Barney Ross fought before largely Jewish audiences. And when these fans remember the German boxer Max Schmeling, they recall that he had a Jewish manager and saved Jewish children on Kristallnacht. But David Margolick found a more complex story while researching Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink, about their 1938 rematch. Here he talks with Douglas Century (whose biography of Barney Ross is forthcoming in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters book series) about the boxers of the 1930s and the causes they appeared to stand for.

Douglas Century: Were you always a boxing fan, David?

David Margolick: There was always something that attracted me to it. I went to a boys’ boarding school and I remember listening after lights out with an earphone in my ear. I remember listening to the Ali-Liston fight in Lewiston, Maine. When Ali left, I just sort of lost interest in contemporary boxing, but not in historical boxing.

Century: I remember crying watching Ali lose to Leon Spinks. But that was still the stage where you could watch the best boxing on regular TV. And it’s gone now; the sport’s just a shadow. Which brings me to the question of the heyday of boxing: People often talk about the Twenties being the glory era: Jack Dempsey, Benny Leonard. But you and I are both writing about the Thirties, a time when—at least in terms of ethnic rivalries—everything has more symbolic weight. You picked this fight that’s right on the brink of World War II. Why do you think it drew, as you write, what was up until that point the single largest audience for anything in history?

Century: I did a lot of research into the history of Jewish boxing, but something I didn’t cover, that you explore in great detail, was the Nazi regime excluding all Jews from boxing. It was a precursor to a lot of things that were going to happen.

Margolick: Boxing had been important in Germany before Hitler came to power, and it became more important afterward. He writes about boxing in Mein Kampf. Physicality was an important part of Nazi culture, and boxing was the purest form of physicality. Hitler loved boxing, and Hitler was good for Max Schmeling.

Century: When Schmeling first comes to America to fight Max Baer, he’s obviously trying to straddle the fence on the Nazi issue. At the time, probably nine of his ten best friends were Jews. Did you come off at the end feeling sympathetic to Schmeling?

Margolick: No, I thought he was an opportunist and a chameleon. And I understand how difficult it was to speak out in Nazi Germany and how one did it at one’s peril. That’s why that moment in 1933 is so important to me.

Century: So set the scene. Schmeling’s come to America by boat…

Margolick: It’s April of 1933. Hitler has been in power for a little bit more than two months. And Schmeling is probably the freest man in Nazi Germany. Schmeling is, first of all, very wealthy. He’s the most popular athlete in Germany. He had the freedom, in a sense, of a Babe Ruth. And so he comes to New York, shortly after the Jews have been kicked out of German boxing. Not only that, but German boxers had to sever all ties with anything remotely Jewish—a German boxer couldn’t go to a Jewish dentist. And Schmeling comes over here and he pretends that it never happened. He actually says that everything is fine in Germany, it’s never been more quiet, people are working again. And so he’s straddling a fence, but he’s leaning in one direction.

Century: Joe Jacobs, Schmeling’s flamboyant manager, is in his own way an ambiguous character. He was nicknamed Yussel the Muscle for his brusque manner and hardball business tactics. But you’ve got a photo in your book that just stunned me of Jacobs giving the Sieg Heil salute.

Margolick: Joe Jacobs is one of my favorite characters. Jacobs made Schmeling world champion, and Schmeling made Joe Jacobs famous in turn. After the war, Schmeling said, “How could I possibly have been a Nazi? I had a Jewish manager.” And this became part of the lore. Schmeling outlived anybody who could contradict his story.

Century: Boxing is the roughest sport around, and these are guys without much education. They’re scrambling out of the ghetto and then they’re shoved into these positions of being symbols—you know, Joe Louis is fighting for the free world. Max Schmeling is equated with the Nazi Übermensch. And in the case of Barney Ross, the big moment was when he’s fighting Jimmy McLarnin three times in 1934 and 1935. McLarnin was called “The Baby-Faced Assassin,” and by the time Ross fights him for the welterweight championship, Jimmy had beaten six Jewish fighters in a row. The press called him “The Jew Beater,” and “The Scourge of the Fighting Sons of Israel.” But McLarnin later said he’d always hated that stuff. Nevertheless, he gets thrust into that role. And just before the first McLarnin-Ross bout in New York, there’s a huge pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden. So Barney Ross says he feels like he’s fighting for the entire Jewish people.

These young guys are often thrust into positions that they don’t have the emotional or intellectual facility to deal with. They’re not there to fight for some greater cause. They’re just trying to make a few bucks and keep their brains intact.

Margolick: Max Schmeling was stereotyped unfairly in the 1930s. Many of the papers called him Nazi Max. And there are these famous stories of Schmeling carrying around a Nazi uniform in his trunk when he came to America. He wasn’t a political activist, he was somebody who just went along.

Century: After reading your book, I don’t think Schmeling was a great villain. He’s no hero, but boxing needs heroes and villains. I don’t know if you saw Cinderella Man, but what they did with Max Baer was so unfair. They turned him into this sadistic brute.

Margolick: And Max Baer was a very likeable guy.

Century: Everybody seems to thinks Max Baer is Jewish. He did have some Jewish ancestry. But he was a practicing Catholic.

Margolick: Ray Arcel is sort of the final arbiter of Max Baer’s Jewishness. Because he saw him either in the shower or in the dressing room. And Baer wasn’t circumcised.

Century: But it was brave of him to wear a Star of David on his trunks, allying himself with all the other Jewish fighters.

Margolick: I don’t agree with you. I think it was just marketing. I think that you have the exquisite and really appalling irony that at the very time the Jewish boxers were fleeing Germany for their lives, gentile boxers in New York were grasping onto anything remotely Jewish. It was good business. Dan Parker of The Mirror, who was somebody who catered to a Jewish audience, said, “The closer Max Baer got to New York the more Jewish he became.”

Century: It’s the great forgotten story, the Jewish presence in boxing in the ’30s. No ethnic group was more dominant in a single sport. And not just as managers and promoters. The Educational Alliance on the Lower East Side was giving boxing lessons, and when Benny Leonard fights Lew Tendler for the lightweight championship in Yankee Stadium, there’s 70,000—mostly Jewish—fans there. But in Irving Howe’s >World of Our Fathers, there’s one passing reference: “Benny Leonard was proving that a Jew could be the lightweight champion of the world.”

Margolick: I think it was the kind of thing that no element in the community was particularly proud of: the Yiddishists weren’t proud of it, the radicals weren’t proud of it, the wealthy Jews, the German Jews weren’t proud of it. Everybody sort of tried to distance themselves from it. When they have Palestine Night at Madison Square Garden in 1929—a fundraiser during which five Jewish boxers beat five gentiles—it’s The New York World-Telegram, a conservative, gentile paper, that records the scene. They write about it more than any of the Jewish press. I mean, Abe Cahan never wrote about boxing in the Forward.

Century: You can argue that the revulsion goes back to Biblical times. When Alexander the Great conquered the Holy Land, that’s when Jews started to box and to wrestle. Sport was always considered pagan. It’s a great injustice that we’ve had this collective amnesia.

Margolick: Even in the black papers there are repeated references to how the Jews pulled for Joe Louis. There are descriptions in many of the black papers of Jews and blacks celebrating together in the streets after Louis beat Schmeling. I’m not sure that Jews were much more tolerant than gentiles towards blacks back then; it was still the dark ages as far as civil rights were concerned. But it’s very clear that the Jews felt that Joe Louis was standing up to Hitler and no one else was. So they embraced him tenaciously for that reason.

Century: What struck me most when I’d go back to the old newspapers, you always see the Irish as brave. The Italians as tough. The Jews are always clever. You read about Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, going right back to Daniel Mendoza in 18th-century England, these Jewish fighters say that boxing was the sport most perfectly suited to Jews because it’s an art of self-defense. But as you note, Hitler was also advocating the necessity of boxing for the Aryan master race. Prizefighting becomes this sort of catchall that people infuse with their own agendas.

But there’s some truth to it: Barney’s brother George told me that Jews always respected a smart fighter, someone who could jab and dance and knew how to steal a round in flurries. They didn’t want to see a Rocky Graziano kind of brawler, a tough guy who’ll take two or three punches just to land one. So the Jewish fighter enters the scene as wily, clever, quick.

Margolick: It’s the same stereotype that Paul Gallico uses for the Jews in basketball. You remember that famous passage in Farewell to Sports, a wonderfully vivid—and to contemporary ears, offensive—description of Jews as prospering in basketball because of their excessive cleverness.

Century: But it was also more than smart. To be a great Jewish champion you had to have a kind of effortless grace. There’s the myth about Benny Leonard that his slicked-back hair was never even mussed in the ring. But what’s interesting about it is the cultural aesthetic. It’s politically incorrect to speak about ethnic groups playing sports in different styles, but clearly it’s culturally reinforced. You see it in international soccer: the Brazilians have a style of play which is free-flowing and jazz-like and improvisatory; the Germans are very efficient and mechanical, and never say die. There are cultural reasons that we respect a certain kind of movement. For the Jews in boxing, it’s this sense of being the wily and cagey, combining wits with physicality, being the ultimate survivors in the ring.

David Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is writing a book for Nextbook on Your Show of Shows. He’d appreciate hearing from those with memories or comments on the program: [email protected].

Douglas Century is the author and coauthor of numerous bestselling books including Hunting El Chapo, Takedown, Under and Alone, Brotherhood of Warriors and Barney Ross: The Life of a Jewish Fighter, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.

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