A member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Leonard is considered by many boxing experts to be the greatest lightweight champion who ever lived -- and one of the greatest fighters of any weight to ever enter the ring. The lightweight champion for a division record 7 years and 6-1/2 months, he did not lose a fight in a twenty year span from May 1912 until October 1932, except for a single disqualification in 1922. Dan Parker, a veteran sports writer, said: "Leonard moved with the grace of a ballet dancer and wore an air of arrogance that belonged to royalty. His profile might have been chiseled by a master sculptor and there wasn't a mark of his trade upon it to mar its classic perfection."
Leonard inspired countless Jewish boys to take up boxing and encouraged the next generation of Jewish fighters, many of whom became world champions. Sportswriter Al Lurie called Leonard, during his reign as champ, "the most famous Jew in America...beloved by thin-faced little Jewish boys, who, in their poverty, dreamed of themselves as champions of the world." Considered by many to be the greatest Jewish sports figure of all time, Benny was accorded perhaps his greatest tribute when Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane wrote: "He has done more to conquer anti-Semitism than a thousand textbooks."
Birth and Death Dates:
b. April 7, 1896 - d. April 18, 1947
The son of Orthodox Jews, Leonard was born Benjamin Leiner, and learned to fight in the streets of New York. The public baths were near his house, and he recalled: "You had to fight or stay in the house when the Italian and Irish kids came through on their way to the baths." He began fighting with gloves at the age of 11, although his parents failed to understand his attraction to the ring. His mother asked: "A prizefighter you want to be? Is that a life for a respectable man? For a Jew?" For Leonard it was, and at the age of 15 he was suddenly thrust into the world of professional boxing, where he would remain until his death. Too poor to buy a ticket to the fights one night, Leonard climbed to a skylight above a small-time club to watch. Losing his balance, he fell through the window, into the ring. To pay for the broken skylight, Leonard offered to replace a fighter who had failed to appear for his bout that night -- and one of the sport's most glorious careers was launched, with Leonard's first prize fight, in September 1911, against Mickey Finnegan.
Young Leonard lost that first fight when it was stopped in the third-round because he was bleeding heavily from his nose. To hide his new career from his parents, he used the name "Benny Leonard," but also developed a defense that allowed him to avoid getting hit, thus avoiding the bruises that would expose his new profession. Even later in his career when his parents knew of his boxing career -- and fully supported him -- Leonard remained conscious of his mother's feelings, and refused to ever fight on a Jewish holiday. Along with his scientific style of boxing, Benny seemed to have a knack for learning from his mistakes, and quickly became one of the smartest boxers around. After losing to Finnegan, he won six of his next nine fights (the other three were no-decisions), with all six wins by knockout. He then lost a fight in March 1912, and was defeated again two months later. Incredibly, he would lose only one other bout over the next twenty years -- and that one on a disqualification!
Leonard soon brought in a new manager (Billy Gibson) and trainer (Mannie Seeman), and gradually rose to the top of the division. His first big fight came in March 1915 against Hall of Famer Johnny Dundee in New York City; the bout was a 10-round no decision (until 1920, decisions were banned by lawmakers with the intent that no decisions would eliminate corrupt judges and referees). In 1915, Leonard began facing even tougher competition, and fought world featherweight champion Johnny Kilbane. The following year, he fought lightweight contender Rocky Kansas once (no decision), Johnny Dundee three times (all no decisions), and world lightweight champion Freddie Welsh in two non-title fights (both no decisions). In the first fight with Welsh, Leonard received the decision in the newspapers (it was common for newspapers to declare a winner in no decision bouts), but the Englishman was regarded as the better boxer in their second encounter. The "rubber match" (third and deciding bout) was set for May 28, 1917, in New York City, with the world championship on the line.
Leonard dominated his opponent throughout the fight. In the ninth-round, he knocked the champion out cold, and the referee ended the fight without even bothering to count Welsh out. When he finally did regain consciousness, the Englishman protested that he was still champion because he had never been counted out; his argument was understandably ignored, and Leonard was deemed the champion. Leonard was back in the ring one week after winning the title, and fought a rematch with Johnny Kilbane only two months later; he knocked Kilbane out in the third-round. In October, Leonard fought former welterweight champ Jack Britton in a 10-round no decision. Although Leonard did not defend his title in 1918 or 1919, he continued to fight often and against great competition.
In 1918, Benny had a rematch with Britton in January (a no decision), and fought welterweight champion Ted "Kid" Lewis (who won the title from Britton) in September in a no decision bout. In 1919, Leonard fought Johnny Dundee three more times, with all three ending in no decisions. That year, Leonard also fought former lightweight champion Willie Ritchie twice. The first bout ended in a no decision, but Leonard knocked Ritchie out in the eighth-round of their second fight (Ritchie retired soon after). His first title defense came in July 1920, and showed why he was the champion and would remain so until his retirement. Against Charley White, Leonard was stunned with a right hand in the fifth, but recovered to knock White out in the ninth-round. Identifying White's tendencies during the early rounds, Leonard saw White preparing to throw a huge left; he knocked out White before Charley could even deliver the punch.
In January 1921, Leonard used a little psychology, along with his ability to recover from apparent defeat, when he faced Richie Mitchell in a title fight. New rules stated fighters had to go to a neutral corner after knocking down an opponent, and in mock confusion, Leonard asked the referee loudly, "Which corner do I go after I knock him down?" With Mitchell shaken, Leonard attacked relentlessly in the first-round, knocking him down twice. When he went in for the kill, though, Mitchell surprised Leonard with a left-right combination that knocked him down. Stunned, Leonard somehow recovered and made it through the first-round, boxed more carefully and eventually knocked out the challenger in the sixth-round. In June 1922, Leonard moved up in weight and challenged Jack Britton for the welterweight championship. In their two previous fights, Leonard had been the better boxer, and he looked strong again in the third fight. In the 13th-round, however, Britton was on one knee when Leonard inexplicably hit him and was disqualified.
Leonard returned to the lightweight division to defend the title against Rocky Kansas for a second time on July 4, 1922 (he had won a 15-round decision in February). He knocked out Kansas in the eighth-round, then showed his craftiness again in a late July bout with Lew Tendler. Tendler staggered him in the eighth-round, but Leonard claimed it was a low blow. Instead of pressing the advantage, the young Tendler responded, allowing Leonard to recover and last the remainder of the bout (a 12-round no decision). After his bout with Tendler, Leonard successfully defended his title against Ever Hammer in 1922, and in a rematch with Tendler in July 1923. By the mid-1902s, however, Leonard's mother was ill and urged him to retire from the ring. He fought only twice after defeating Tendler, and eventually announced his retirement on January 15, 1925. Lightweights throughout the world celebrated the announcement.
At the age of 28, Leonard had been the champion for over 7-1/2 years, and a hero to America's Jewish community. He had become a millionaire through his exploits in the ring, but after losing everything in the 1929 Stock Market Crash, he attempted an ill-fated comeback. Leonard won 19 consecutive fights before getting knocked out in 1932 by Hall of Famer Jimmy McLarnin (who was 25 years old and entering his prime). His final defeat at the hands of McLarnin cannot diminish the greatness of Leonard's career. A member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, Leonard fought over 200 career bouts without ever officially losing a decision.
Known for his intelligence and defense, he may have been one of the strongest champions in history. He knocked out some great fighters in big bouts, and manager Dumb Dan Morgan (who wasn't) said of him, "Leonard was more powerful than people think. He'd tie you up and move you in close...[Jack]Britton came back to the corner once in a fight with Benny and said, 'Nobody ever lived as strong as this guy.' " Following his retirement, Leonard taught boxing and became a referee; he had a heart attack in the ring and died in 1943. Sportwriter Al Lurie wrote of Leonard at his death, "When Leonard was accepted and admired by the entire fair-minded American community, the Jews of America felt they, themselves, were being accepted and admired. Leonard, therefore, symbolized all Jewry." Benny himself wrote, in a 1925 issue of The Palestine, a magazine of those times, that "I believe that the Jew is especially adapted for the sport of boxing because, in the final analysis, it is the most elemental form of self-defense."
New York City
Wins: 85 (69 by knockout)
No decisions: 119