Robert Silva is back with his list of the greatest boxers ever per division. This time, he catches us up on Benny Leonard.
Boxing has always been dominated by the downtrodden. Depending on the era, the ethnicity that suffered the most, dominated the sport. In the 1910s and 1920s, Jewish, Italian and Irish-Americans were the groups, along with African-Americans who were able to breakthrough racism that dominated the sport. The greatest of the Jewish fighters from this era was a 5’5” Lightweight boxer from New York City, Benjamin Leiner, or better known as Benny Leonard, the fourth greatest 135 pound fighter of all-time.
Like many fighters from humble beginnings, Leonard turned pro at a very young age; 15 to be exact. Because of such an early start, Leonard was knocked out three times during the first year of his pro career. He wouldn’t be kayoed again until the final fight of his career. Despite the early setbacks, Leonard continued to improve, and by the age of 21 had garnered the number one ranking in the Lightweight division. Leonard earned his number-one ranking by splitting two fights with the 135-pound World Champion Freddie Welsh. Then, on May 28, 1917 at Madison Square Garden, Leonard knocked out Welsh in the ninth round of their third fight to become the 135 pound World Champion. It was a title that he would hold for eight years without losing it.
Leonard was ahead of his time in terms of his pugilistic fighting style. He was a fleet-footed boxer with power that was just as potent as his quickness. At the time, most boxers that were fleet of foot carried no power and power punchers were one dimensional, slow moving punchers. Leonard mesmerized both his opponents and fans with a combination of both. He was also an incredible box office draw.
On July 24, 1923, Leonard defended his title against fellow Jewish fighter Lew Tendler at the brand new Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, New York. A crowd of over 58,000 fans that drew almost a half a million dollars at the gate turned out to see the electric Leonard win a scintillating 15 round decision. Two years later, Leonard would retire never losing the belt and as a very wealthy man. Unfortunately, the stock market crash of 1929 took away his entire fortune and he made an ill-fated comeback.
There are two reasons that keep Leonard from being higher on my list. There is absolutely no complete footage of any of his title fights. Also, he served in World War I a year after winning the title, leaving a couple of years of his prime where he didn’t defend the title. Even after defeating Tendler at Yankee Stadium, Leonard held the title two more years without defending it. Unlike the three men ranked above him in my all-time lightweights, Leonard was too inactive to lay claim to number one. However, there is no denying that Leonard set a standard in the 135 pound division that continues today with the great Vasyl Lomachenko.
Greatest Lightweights in Boxing History
5. Carlos Ortiz