Choynski, Joe : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Choynski, Joe

Joseph Bartlett Choynski

Arguably the greatest fighter who never won a world title, Choynski is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and is considered by many to be the greatest Jewish heavyweight in history. Never given the chance to fight for the heavyweight crown, "Chrysanthemum" Joe Choynski fought the greatest boxers of his era in non-title bouts, including Jack Johnson, Marvin Hart, and Jim Corbett. His career spanned 16 years; but unfortunately for Choynski -- who was often 30-70 pounds lighter than his opponents -- the light-heavyweight division was not created until 1903, a year before he retired.

A tremendous puncher, Choynski was effusively praised by the legendary black fighter Jack Johnson, whom he defeated in 1901. Choynski taught Johnson the finer points of boxing while both men were in prison for having fought each other in a ring (at this time, laws prevented blacks and whites from boxing one another). In 1940, Johnson remarked "...Jefferies No. 1? No, sir. Give me Joe Choynski anytime. I faced both and should know. Jefferies had a powerful wallop, but Choynski had a paralyzing punch. His left hand was a corker. He was the hardest puncher in the last 50 years, with Joe Walcott a close second. I think his left hook was even more effective than either Dempseys."

Birth and Death Dates:
b. November 8, 1868 - d. January 25, 1943

Career Highlights:
Choynski was the son of Isidore Nathan Choynski, an immigrant from Poland who was the first Jew to attend Yale. A San Francisco leftist, journalist, publisher, and bookseller -- his store was called "Choynski, Antiquarian Books" -- the elder Choynski also ran his own newspaper, The Public Opinion, which focused on exposing anti-Semitism and political corruption. Isidore was so highly regarded in literary circles that Mark Twain visited the Choynski home. Joe's well-educated father supported his son's unusual choice of profession, even after the young man dropped out of high school. While his father approved of Choynski's boxing -- he believed Joe's success complemented his own fight against anti-Semitism --his mother (naturally) took more convincing; but even she came around after she saw the considerable financial rewards (Joe reportedly received $1,000 for his third professional fight).

In between blacksmith and candy pulling jobs, Choynski won the amateur Pacific Coast Championship in 1887. Joe's father declared unabashedly in his newspaper, "We are coming Father Abraham! The boys of the Jewish persuasion are getting heavy on their muscle. Many of them are training to KO John L. [Sullivan] and it may come to pass. It is almost an everyday occurrence to read in our papers that a disciple of [Daniel] Mendoza has KO’d the best of sluggers, who point with pride to their ancestry. This week, a youngster who calls himself J.B. Choynski, 19 years old, native of this city, weighing 160 pounds, fought for the championship and gold medal with one well-knitted Irish lad of much experience…knocked him out in three rounds…" Clearly, Choynski was ready for the professional ranks.

The following year, Joe turned pro six days after his 20th birthday, and knocked out George Bush in the second round. Choynski quickly became known as the first businessman-fighter, as he would usually insist on a 50-50 split of the money at a time when the winner usually took at least 80 percent. At the turn of the century, San Francisco was the mecca of boxing on the West Coast, and Choynski took part in one of the most famous fights the city has ever seen. Choynski grew up only blocks from future heavyweight champ Jim Corbett, and the two men were destined to fight in the ring. The champions of their respective sporting clubs (Choynski at the Golden Gate Athletic Club and Corbett at the Olympic Club), they had battled in an amateur fight in 1884 with Corbett the victor. Five years later, they met as professionals.

The importance of the fight can hardly be overstated. The winner would have an inside track at a title shot, and would gain notoriety as the city champion. On May 30, 1889, the two men battled only four rounds before police interrupted the contest, and the fight was declared a no contest. Six days later they fought again, this time on a barge in Benecia Harbor to foil any police plans of halting the bout. For twenty-seven exhausting rounds, Choynski and Corbett battled before Choynski was knocked out (Corbett had to be carried off the barge). After fighting again the following month (another Corbett win), Choynski won his next nine fights (six by knockout) and then fought an exhibition against John L. Sullivan. In 1894, Choynski faced future heavyweight champ Bob Fitzsimmons, but their bout was stopped by police in the fifth round. Two years later, Joe had made tremendous strides as a boxer, and his reputation was such that there was a pre-fight agreement that Choynski could only win by knocking out his opponent, Jack Sharkey. He did not, and Sharkey was awarded an eight-round decision.

In 1897, Choynski fought the great, then-undefeated James J. Jeffries (who outweighed Choynski by 50 pounds) to a 20-round draw. Jeffries later said a left hook of Choynski's was the hardest he'd ever been hit. In February 1901, Choynski had his greatest triumph when he knocked out the legendary Jack Johnson in the third round (Johnson would not suffer another knockout for 14 years). Both the Jeffries and Johnson fights took place before each of Choynski's opponents wore the heavyweight crown. Following the bout with Johnson (the first African-American world heavyweight champion), both fighters were arrested for staging an illegal mixed-race match -- the fight was held in Galveston, Texas, Johnson's hometown. The two pugilists remained in jail for four weeks, and boxed to entertain the local gentry and other inmates. Choynski gave Johnson his initial lessons in ring tactics during these exhibitions.

Following the Johnson contest, Choynski fought infrequently (his next bout was a year later), eventually retiring in 1904, but not before fighting future heavyweight champ Marvin Hart to a six-round no decision in November 1903. Joe never got a shot at the heavyweight title -- when Corbett, Fitzsimmons, and Jeffries were World Champions, they refused to give Choynski a title bout -- despite having battled, on equal terms, all the top fighters of the division. His opponents testified to his greatness, and Corbett, his rival from San Francisco, confessed that "Little Joe was the hardest hitter I ever tangled with. To this day I can't figure out how a runt like him could hurt so damned bad." After retiring, Joe remained active in boxing and in 1910, he trained Jeffries for his comeback fight against Jack Johnson, and even promoted the bout. He eventually settled in Cincinnati and went into business. Choynski is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

San Francisco, California

Physical description:
160 pounds

Career Statistics:
Professional record:
Wins: 50 (25 knockouts)
Losses: 15
Draws: 6
No decisions: 6
No contests: 1

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Also, read a chapter from The Jew in American Sports by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow

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
Ring Magazine, December 1923 issue (Volume 2, Number 11)