(b. 7 April 1896 in New York City; d. 18 April 1947 in New York City), world lightweight boxing champion between 1917 and 1925, who is universally regarded as among the best professional boxers in any weight division in the twentieth century.
Leonard was one of four children of Gershon Leiner, a tailor, and Minnie Leiner, a homemaker. Leonard's parents, Jewish immigrants from Russia, named him Benjamin Leiner, but because the values in Jewish families did not accept boxing as a respectable activity worthy of being pursued, he appropriated the name Benny Leonard at the age of fifteen to conceal his participation in professional boxing from his parents.
The Leiners lived in an apartment close to a public bath-house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at the intersection of Eighth Street and Avenue C, bordering Greenwich Village. The working-class neighborhood was an ethnic amalgam of Italians, Irish, and Jews. Leonard's introduction to boxing was through street fights between people of various ethnic groups going to use the public baths.
Leonard began boxing for small purses at local informal athletic clubs in 1911. His pseudonym was soon disclosed when he returned from one of his encounters with a black eye and confessed its origin to his parents. However, his confession was accompanied by twenty dollars, which he placed on the kitchen table. His mother, opposed to his choice of profession, wept inconsolably, but Leonard's surprised father said: "All right, Benny, keep on fighting. It's worth getting a black eye for twenty dollars."
Though sources differ by several months as to date, it appears that Leonard's first professional fight was in September 1911 against Mickey Finnegan. All sources, however, are clear on the outcome: Leonard, not quite fifteen years old, was knocked out in only the third round. It was not an auspicious beginning. In his next twelve fights in 1911 and in 1912, Leonard won seven by knockouts, three were no-decision bouts, and he himself was knocked out twice. The no-decision designation was mandated by the state Frawley Act of 1911 for any fight that did not end in a knockout. Under the Walker Law of 1920, decisions by ringside judges and the referee as to the winner of a boxing bout replaced the no-decision fights specified by the Frawley Act.
Many of Leonard's early fights—and perhaps even some later ones—depended on promoters generating spectator participation and enthusiasm by exploiting the ethnic differences between the contestants or the religious prejudices held by their supporters—a reflection of the lamentable polarization that first directed Leonard into boxing. These differences and prejudices also resulted in Benny Leonard folktales—some true. On 3 September 1912 Leonard fought in New York City's Chinatown before a large crowd cheering loudly for his adversary, Ah Chung, who had been introduced as the lightweight champion of all China, just come to America. Though some observers suspected the Asian authenticity of Ah Chung, accessible records indicate a six-round knockout victory by Leonard over Ah Chung without mention of the latter's real name—Greenberg.
Leonard's career took a significant upward turn in 1914 when Billy Gibson, who owned an athletic club and was marginally active in Bronx politics, became his manager. Gibson hired a capable trainer, George Engel, who taught his intelligent and receptive student the finer points of both defensive and offensive scientific boxing. Under Engel's tutelage and Gibson's matchmaking, Leonard fought frequently and rapidly developed into a formidable lightweight contender. At five feet, five inches tall, and weighing between 130 and 133 pounds, he was an extremely hard puncher with both hands. Although not particularly robust for a world-class fighter, Leonard had a remarkable gift for avoiding and countering the attack of stronger opponents.
Leonard's direct road to the championship began with a nontitle ten-round fight against the world lightweight champion, Englishman Freddy Welsh, on 31 March 1916. Though a no-decision bout under the Frawley Act, it was clear to the boxing writers that Leonard had dominated the champion. A rematch on 28 July 1916 also led to a no-decision result, but this time Welsh had somewhat the better of their encounter. An ever-improving Leonard won five consecutive bouts by knockout between 22 March 1917 and 10 May 1917, then met Welsh for the third time at the Manhattan Casino in New York City on 28 May 1917, challenging him for the championship. A brave but totally overwhelmed Welsh was knocked down three times in the ninth round but refused to be counted out, struggling to his feet each time. The referee, after examining Welsh in his corner, wisely refused a resumption of the bout, and Leonard was the new lightweight world champion.
Leonard became an idol of the boxing world because of his willingness to fight often and against any adversary. His famous contemporary, the heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, refused to fight men of color. In contrast, Leonard fought two capable African-American boxers in one week in 1917; he knocked out Leo Johnson in the first round on 21 September in New York City and Eddie Dorsey in the second round on 27 September in Buffalo, New York. Leonard was champion for seven years, longer than any lightweight in history. Subsequent to winning the championship, he fought eighty-three times, including eight defenses of his title.
Many of Leonard's bouts displayed his offensive and defensive skills. Among fights of great interest were two title fights with Lew Tendler of Philadelphia. On 27 July 1922 Tendler challenged Leonard for his title at Boyle's Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey, before a crowd of 60,000 customers. Under New Jersey rules, Leonard retained his championship with a no-decision result by going the twelve-round distance without being knocked out. The exciting fight led to public demand for a rematch, which was held on 24 July 1923 in New York City's Yankee Stadium. It was a superb contest between two splendid boxers, but Leonard had absorbed the lessons of the first encounter and defeated Tendler decisively in a fifteen-round contest to retain the championship.
At the peak of his fame and having become sufficiently wealthy to move his parents to a new home in Harlem, Leonard perceived that his great abilities were beginning to diminish. He had his last bout at this stage of his career on 1 August 1924 in Cleveland—a ten-round, no-decision fight against Pal Moran. Two weeks later, the twenty-eight-year-old Leonard asked his grateful and relieved mother to announce his retirement as the undefeated lightweight champion.
Leonard did not fight again for seven years. However, with advent of the Great Depression, he attempted a futile comeback as a welterweight beginning in October 1931. His opponents were of mediocre caliber, largely through his manager's selection, and Leonard prevailed in eighteen of nineteen bouts before encountering Jimmy McLarnin, a rising contender and future welterweight champion, on 7 October 1932 in Madison Square Garden. McLarnin charitably carried the thirty-six-year-old Leonard for five inept rounds before knocking him out in the sixth, ending one of the most illustrious careers in boxing history. Leonard's final record was 85 victories (69 by knockout), 5 defeats (including the 3 knockouts he experienced when he was 16 or younger), 1 draw, and 114 no-decisions. For the majority of the no-decisions, Leonard certainly would have been judged the winner if decisions had been rendered.
Though Leonard's personal character and conduct were exemplary in all respects and he was regarded as an exceptional role model for youth of the period, one of his losses in the ring indicates that he was not immune from the darker elements frequently afflicting the boxing profession. On 26 June 1922 Leonard, the lightweight champion at the zenith of his powers, stepped up to the next weight class, the 147-pound welterweight division, to challenge the welterweight champion Jack Britton for Britton's title. Before a capacity crowd in Madison Square Garden, Leonard floored Britton in the thirteenth round with a monstrous left hook to the body. As the referee began his count, the welterweight champion was unable to get up. The about-to-be triumphant Leonard inexplicably crossed quickly from a neutral corner and when the count reached nine swatted the floored Britton on the head, an obviously indefensible foul. The amazed referee waved Leonard away and immediately declared Leonard disqualified and Britton the winner.
According to Mannie Seamon, Leonard's trainer between 1917 and 1922, in an account given more than a quarter of a century later in 1948, a year after Leonard's death, Billy Gibson, Leonard's manager, had told the lightweight champion at the weigh-in just before the fight: "I'm sorry I've got to say this, but you can't win this fight tonight." According to Seamon, what prompted Gibson's remark to Leonard that amounted to an order was never made known to the fighter or his trainer.
Other than this single incredible incident, Leonard's long record both in and outside the boxing ring was one of consistent honor, civic decency, fairness, and good citizenship. During World War I, Leonard trained thousands of men as a U.S. Army lieutenant boxing instructor, encouraged enlistments, participated in war bond drives, and fought exhibition bouts to secure recreational equipment. His fame even enabled him to act in several motion pictures in 1924, though he did not achieve distinction as an actor. Leonard joined the Merchant Marine during World War II, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander and again made use of his athletic and public relations skills. After the conflict, he taught boxing at the City College of New York and refereed professional fights.
On 1 January 1936 Leonard married Jacqueline Stern, who had been his devoted secretary for ten years. They had no children.
On 18 April 1947, while refereeing the final six-round bout between Mario Ramon of Los Angeles and Bobby Williams of Harlem at St. Nicholas Arena in New York City, Leonard suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in the ring. He is buried at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Queens, New York. Leonard was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, at its opening in 1954. In 1978 he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in the Orde Wingate Institute for Physical Education in Israel.
Leonard must have welcomed the Zionist tribute paid him after his 1924 retirement by a Jewish newspaper, New Warheit, which perceived him as greater than Albert Einstein. It observed, "It is said that only twelve people or at the most twelve times twelve the world over understands Einstein, but Benny is being understood by tens of millions in America and just as we [the Jewish people] need a country [a Jewish homeland] so as to be the equal of other people, so we must have a fist to become their peers." More concisely, the Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane said, "Benny Leonard has done more to conquer anti-Semitism than a thousand textbooks."
Nat Fleischer, Leonard the Magnificent; Life Story of the Man Who Made Himself "King of Lightweights" (1947) is the only full-length biography of Leonard. Written the same year as his death, the book was hurriedly put together and inadequately edited. What makes this out-of-print and inaccessible work worthwhile is the large number of interesting photographs not available elsewhere. In The One Hundred Greatest Boxers of All Time (1984), Bert Randolph Sugar rated Leonard fifth, between Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. For a discussion of Leonard's disqualification in his welterweight championship fight with Jack Britton, see Ronald K. Fried, Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers (1991). Several books present material on Leonard as a Jewish athlete. Although it contains several errors, Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow, The Jew in American Sports (1985), offers an admiring description of Leonard's career. See also Robert Slater, Great Jews in Sports (1992); Allen Bodner, When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport (1997); and Steven A. Reiss, ed., Sports and the American Jew (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (19 Apr. 1947).
Leonard R. Solon