A good story is a good story.
In the latest book from Mike Silver, a boxing historian from Queens, there are dozens of good stories.
Promoted as a photographic history of Jewish boxing, “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing” is filled with vignettes on 166 Jewish boxers.
The book, published by Lyons Press, is meticulously researched and shines a light on dozens of world class fighters who have faded from public view.
The inside cover states that “more Jewish athletes have competed as boxers than in all other professional sports combined” and that from 1901 to 1939, “29 Jewish boxers were recognized as world champions and 160 Jewish boxers were ranked among the top contenders in their respective weight divisions.”
The book also states that in the Roaring Twenties, the most famous Jewish person in America was not a scientist, entertainer, author or Supreme Court justice. It was lightweight champion Benny Leonard.
That breakdown provides the historical backdrop for the book. At the time, only baseball and horse racing rivaled boxing in popularity. Not just world champions, but even main-event fighters were considered national sports heroes.
Many boxing fans, and even some casual sports fans, know the story of Barney Ross. His bio is one of the book’s most compelling reads. Ross grew up in Chicago, and his father was killed when he was 15. Ross then took to the streets and worked for a short time as a messenger for Al Capone. Ross turned pro in 1929 and became a three-division world champion and Hall of Famer. Ross’ three-fight series with Jimmy McLarnin remains one of boxing’s greatest rivalries. The first bout drew 60,000 to the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City. The finale brought 45,000 spectators to the Polo Grounds.
Ross would later serve in the Marines and fight on Guadalcanal, one of the deadliest battlefields in World War II. He was wounded and awarded a Silver Star for bravery. A medic began to give him morphine to deal with his pain, and he later became a heroin addict. Ross beat his addiction and became one of the nation’s earliest substance abuse advocates.
The book includes dozens of other stories of lesser known fighters that are interesting and entertaining.
There is Nat Arno - born Sidney Nathaniel Abramowitz - who had his first fight at 15. After five pro bouts, his father forbid him from boxing. So Arno hitchhiked to Florida and won 49 of 50 fights over the next 13 months. He supplemented his income working a bootlegger.
There is also Harry Kid Brown, whose brother was a famous sculptor and professor at Princeton. Or Armand Emanuel, a law-school graduate also known as “The Boxing Barrister.”
The stories are rich and deep and take the reader back to a world that no longer exists, in or out of the ring. It was a world in which boxers fought often but still had to work side jobs to make ends meet. A world in which boxers fought in local clubs as neighborhood heroes, to fighting on the world’s stage.
In his first book, “The Arc of Boxing,” Silver wrote about the rise and decline of the sport. In this book, Silver helps to resurrect fighters whose lives and careers are worthy of your time.