Benny Leonard: Always A Champion

If you sat down with a group of boxing fans under the age of say, 50, and began to talk about whether Benny Leonard really is a Top-10 all-time fighter, you’d probably have a cacophony of voices barking at you about how great “Sugar” Ray really was.

Tell them you were talking about Benny Leonard though, and you might hear a lot of “Who’s that?” from the same group. But Benny Leonard most definitely belongs in the conversation about the all-time greats. Benny Leonard, known as “The Ghetto Wizard” and “The Great Bennah” among others, is generally recognized as the greatest Jewish-American fighter to ever lace them up. There were some other really good ones; Mike Rossman and Barney Ross come to mind, but Benny is generally regarded as the best of the bunch.

There is some controversy about just how many bouts Leonard actually fought. Some sources list his record at an astonishing 220 professional fights, with Benny winning 186 of them against only 22 defeats. Others say he was 89-6-1 with 70 KO’s over his entire career.

The reason for this stems from the very different life of a boxer from a hundred years ago, as opposed to a fighter today. There wasn’t much money in boxing then, especially not in the lighter weights. So fighters fought often – very often. Some fighters fought as many as 50 times per year. At the lowest levels, a club fighter might fight and lose at one club, only to show up at another club, on the very same night and emerge victorious in the nightcap bout.

For the more accomplished fighters, there was a sort of “exhibition tour”, and this is where boxers’ records became murky. Since the fighters were often paid a stipend for these fights, some fans and many pundits feel that these bouts should count as part of a boxer’s record. Leonard had a ton of these types of “newspaper fights”, hence the discrepancy about his record. What is clear though, is that no matter how it’s sliced and diced, Leonard was a terrific boxer!

Like every other fighter of the early 1900’s, a lack of film and the paucity of high-quality photos, make it very difficult for those of us living now to truly appreciate the greatness of this fighter. We must instead rely largely on the accounts and impressions of those who were lucky enough to see him. In Leonard’s case, this becomes a little easier because of the caliber and reputations of those who vouched for him.

Some will argue that this is not enough to vault him into the celestial company of the elites, but I must disagree. When the likes of Nat Fleischer, the founder of Ring Magazine, ranks Benny Leonard as the second greatest lightweight of all time, he has my attention. When the brilliant Bert Sugar says that Leonard was the 6th best boxer on his 100 all-time best list, I am captivated. When a boxer is unanimously enshrined into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, with no detractors whatsoever, I am inclined to accept such judgement.

Still, I admit to being a bit of a skeptic, so I had a long, hard look at his boxing record. Who did he beat? How? How long was he a dominant force? Did he receive many gift decisions? At every turn, Leonard passed with flying colours. Let’s take a look.

As I already mentioned, he won up to an astonishing 186 of 220 fights. He beat at least 6 Hall of Fame fighters including Johnny Dundee and Johnny Kilbane. He won the world lightweight title at only 21 years of age. He held that title from 1917 to 1925 – at a time when boxers fought incredibly frequently. No two fights a year then, Leonard defended his lightweight title a nearly unbelievable 70 to 103 times, (again depending on which boxing record you accept) including 29 defences in the first 12 months after becoming the champion.

He wasn’t a devastating puncher but a stiff one, registering 70 knockouts over his many wins. Boxing commentator and writer, Al Bodner, said, “Leonard had a truly remarkable record. He was one of the greatest master boxers of all time.” The aforementioned Nat Fleischer, likened Benny to the Muhammad Ali of the lightweights and said that Leonard defeated the greatest-ever group of lightweights who ever appeared at one time.”

Boxing’s original “everyman”, the late “Jersey” Jones, described Leonard this way. “Benny was incredibly fast, with the reflexes of a deer being hunted, and the brain of a genius. He beat you with his brains as much as his brawn. Moreso, actually.” I urge fans to watch the video of Leonard vs the great Lew Tendler in 1923. I’m embedding the video here.

Watch “The Greatest Boxing Fights of All Time – Benny Leonard vs Lew Tendler in 1923” on YouTube

His speed afoot, ring I.Q., reflexes, and ring generalship are on par with any fighter you care to name; from yesterday or today. The hanging question always when talking about fighters from previous generations is this: “Could they have been competitive today?” I have long held that any champion from yesterday, would be more than competitive in today’s world – especially in the lower weight divisions. One could possibly argue successfully that in the heavyweight division, today’s heavies would have simply been too big for the boxers of generations ago.

But for the lighter divisions, that does not apply. A welterweight is a welterweight is a welterweight. Added to that is that, in my opinion anyway, the fighters of yesterday were tougher, hungrier, and meaner than the ones of today.With all due respect to Floyd Mayweather Jr., I’m not sure he would have been 49-0 if he’d had to fight all 49 bouts inside of a calendar year. This is why I believe the fighters of yesterday would have more than held their own against today’s.

They were poor, hungry, and desperate. They didn’t have the benefit of P.E.D.’s either. It was a dog eat dog world. Benny Leonard would have heard “And the new Lightweight Champion of the World….Benny Leonard” in 1917 or 2017.

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David Auger-Villanueva
I was born in the Caribbean but grew up internationally. I've lived in Canada since 1974. I played just about every sport but was best at boxing. Fought in bareknuckles bouts, fight clubs, amateur, and pro. Married, father of four.
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