Mendoza, Daniel : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Mendoza, Daniel

An eighteenth century legend, Mendoza continues to be one of the most fabled fighters to ever compete in a ring. The first Jewish boxer to become a champion (1792-1795), Daniel introduced the modern science of boxing, with an approach that included footwork, sparring, defense, and strategy that replaced the brutal slugging of the previous era. Although a natural middleweight (5'7", 160 pounds), Mendoza fought heavyweights, and became champion by learning to keep his bigger opponents at a distance as he moved about the ring. In the process, Mendoza changed the sport. He observed in 1820 that "I think I have a right to call myself the father of the science, for it is well known that prize fighting lay dormant for several years. It was myself and [Richard] Humphries who revived it in our three contests for supremacy, and the science of pugilism has been patronized ever since."

The late 18th Century was a time of social and political upheaval. Boxing was gaining widespread acceptance, and Mendoza became boxing's first superstar. A hero to England's Jewish community, Mendoza's status in English society as a national cult figure made him one of the most influential Jews in history. A book titled The 100 Most Influential Jews of All Time ranks Mendoza No. 82, the highest-rated athlete on the list; he is considered more influential than Harry Houdini, Marc Chagall, and Bob Dylan, among others. The descendant of Portugese Jews, he spoke Hebrew and insisted on being billed as "Mendoza the Jew." In 1812, boxing historian Pierce Egan wrote in his study, Boxiana, that Mendoza was not "the Jew that Shakespeare drew, yet he was that Jew."

Birth and Death Dates:
b. July 5, 1764 - d. September 3, 1836

Career Highlights:
From his youth, Mendoza got into fights, as he defended fellow Jews from the insults and threats of their gentile neighbors. He lost a job as a glazier when he thrashed his boss's son in a fight. Then, while working in a tea shop, Mendoza defended his employer against a disgruntled porter who appeared ready to attack. Only 16 years old at the time, Daniel defeated the porter in 15 minutes. Among the surprised spectators was Richard Humphries, "The Gentleman Boxer," who felt he had discovered a worthy protege.

Humphries trained Mendoza for the lad's first prize fight, which took place in 1784. Mendoza defeated Harry The Coalheaver in 40 rounds; the time was 1 hour and 58 minutes. He lost a bout to Tom Tyne in 1786, but he then beat Sam Martin -- in 20 minutes -- in April 1787. While training for his next fight, Mendoza had a falling out with his mentor Humphries. On September 9, the two men got into a public argument at the Cock Tavern in Epping Forest, and went out back to settle things, but were stopped by police. Four months later, on January 9, 1788, they fought in a ring, and drew an amazing crowd of 60,000 people. The bout was considered a terrific fight while it lasted; but to his disappointment, Mendoza slipped in the 28th minute and sprained his ankle, causing him to concede the contest.

"The Gentleman Boxer" taunted his former protege after the fight by calling him a coward. Mendoza responded that he would not fight again until his ankle was fully healed. This incensed Humphries, and their feud became famous throughout England. Mendoza spent the next year perfecting an innovative style of defense. In an era that allowed wrestling moves above the waist, and in which rounds were marked by knockdowns, Mendoza used sidestepping, a straight left, and special guarding techniques that his critics called "cowardly." More perceptive observers understood that Mendoza, smaller than most of his opponents, was developing a defense that capitalized on his speed. This technique allowed him to rise to the top of his profession. He not only became England's first national celebrity; he also changed boxing forever. In the process of doing so, Mendoza defeated his nemesis, Humphries, in convincing fashion.

The Mendoza-Humphries rivalry, one of the most famous in the early history of boxing, showcased the effectiveness of Mendoza's scientific approach in the ring. In May 1789, Mendoza and Humphries fought their long-awaited rematch at Stilton, Huntingdonshire, in an amphitheater built especially for the bout. Ignoring Humphries' taunts, Mendoza was patient as he dominated the fight, closing Humphries' right eye, and cutting him above the left eye. Humphries was literally blinded, and swallowed quite a bit of blood before falling -- without being hit -- in the 65th round, after 50 minutes. The demand for a third and decisive meeting resulted in the two fighters meeting once more, in September, 1790. Again Mendoza proved the better man, achieving victory after 72 rounds (1 hour and 13 minutes). Humphries retired after the bout. But if it was the end of his career, it was the launching of Mendoza the Jew.

In 1787, Mendoza mixed with royalty when he became the first boxer to win the patronage of the Prince of Wales (later to become King George IV). After defeating Humphries the second time, he also became the first Jew to ever speak to King George III. Mendoza's acceptance by royalty helped elevate the position of Jews in English society. In 1792, his reputation was enhanced further, when he claimed the heavyweight championship after Ben Brain retired. Mendoza subsequently cemented his claim by defeating Bill Warr in only 23 rounds that May.

Hailed as a British hero, Mendoza's achievements countered the stereotypes of English Jews typified by Shakepeare's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. He spent three years as champion, touring Scotland and Ireland, and teaching the art of boxing to Celts and English nobles alike. Mendoza was the first to make boxing socially acceptable. In April 1795 though, his reign ended when he lost the title to "Gentleman" John Jackson. Mendoza's skill had steadily declined, and he faced a much larger opponent in the 5'11", 203-pound Jackson, who was able to walk through Mendoza's defense. Overwhelmed, Mendoza was punished severely; in the ninth-round, Jackson grabbed him by his hair and beat him senseless. Mendoza returned for one more round, but the bout was over in a little over ten minutes.

Following his loss to Jackson, Mendoza retired from the ring. He ran his boxing academy, but unsuccessful business decisions forced him to make a comeback. In March 1806, Mendoza defeated Harry Lee in 53 rounds for a prize of 50 guineas, and then travelled the country giving exhibitions before settling down in Kensington to run a tavern. He fought once more -- in 1812, at the age of 56 (!), against Tom Owen. In what was apparently an old grudge match, Mendoza lost in only 15 minutes. He retired for good after that fight, and remained a British icon until his death in 1836. In his later years, Mendoza wrote his memoirs, the first ever written by a boxer.

In 1954, 190 years after his birth, in an America he had never seen, Mendoza was officially named one of the inaugural group of boxers elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame. He was also selected to the inaugural class of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, and is a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

London, England

Physical description:
5'7", 160 pounds

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Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, by Joseph Siegman (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2000)
encyclopedia of JEWS in sports, by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co, 1965)
Fistiana, or, The oracle of the ring : results of prize battles from 1700 to December, 1867(London: W.H. Crockford, 1868)
Boxiana or Sketches Of Ancient and Modern Pugilism, by Pierce Egan (London: G. Smeeton, 1812)
Bare fists: the history of bare-knuckle prize-fighting, by Bob Mee (Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2001)