A lightweight world champion for eight years, Benny Leonard is considered one of the 20th Century’s best boxers. Today, on what would have been his 125th birthday, we at Boxing Guru remember an all-time great in our sport.

Ranked by the International Boxing Research Organisation as the number one lightweight in history and as the eighth best pound-for-pound fighter of all-time, the Ghetto Wizard is held in the same regard to some as Muhammad Ali or Floyd Mayweather.

Placed eighth on Ring magazine’s list of the “80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years” and ranked 7th in ESPN’s “50 Greatest Boxers of All-Time,” the New York-born champion came from extremely humble beginnings.

His real name Benjamin Leiner, ‘Benny the Great’ was raised in a Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. One of eight children to Russian parents, Leonard began fighting other immigrant children on street corners in order to defend himself.

Turning professional aged just 15 in 1911, a powerful puncher knocked out 70 opponents in his career. He had speed, lightning reflexes, excellent boxing technique, agility and ability to think fast on his feet complimenting his force.

Losing only six of 96 professional bouts, the road to becoming the lightweight world champion was not a straightforward one. Defeated by Freddie Welsh twice prior to their third contest – the world championship fight – it proved third time lucky for the Great Bennah.

Facing the world champion in May of 1917, the bout was held in the Manhattan Casino. Fans watched on in amazement as Leonard floored his opponent three times in the ninth round before referee Billy McPartland stopped the fight with Welsh hanging unconscious on the ropes. The fighter from the ghetto was on top of the world.

Perhaps most amazing about Leonard was his kindness. Explaining after knocking out Welsh that he was afraid to hit a helpless man on the chin, he instead aimed for the head, in the hope that his opposite would go down, but with no excessive injuries. Rather than a harsh blow, Leonard used a lighter one, his sportsmanship and humility making him a role model to several fans and fellow boxers.

Serving as a boxing instructor in the army during World War One, the American staged four exhibition bouts in 1918, all proceeds raising war bonds for America’s efforts throughout that time. Beating fellow Jewish boxer Willie Jackson at Madison Square Garden and collecting $20,000 to buy soldiers’ athletic equipment. On September 23rd 1918, Leonard also fought future British World Welterweight Champion Ted Kid Lewis.

Eventually hanging up his gloves in 1925 (succeeded by Jimmy Goodrich), Benny Leonard turned his hand to business, acting, after dinner speaker, lecturing and refereeing. Involved in an ice hockey team, a car accessory business, real estate and dress making, fame brought success, but not financial stability.

Ruined by the stock market crash in 1929, his fortune may have gone but his heart remained the same. Whilst Leonard’s acting days where over, a kind outlook on the world stayed very much intact.

After a second retirement, having failed to come back to the sport in 1933/34, the former world champion worked as a boxing instructor for the Physical Education Department at City College of New York. Continuing to help others, the athlete became a Lieutenant Commander. Enlisting into the Maritime Service and taking charge of the physical training for 100,000 men, a once poverty stricken boy supported his country when it needed him most.

Working as a referee after the war, Leonard died whilst officiating in 1947. Struck by a heart attack aged just 51 and collapsing onto the canvas, he was buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Glendale, New York.

Inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1979, the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1980, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 and into the Ring Magazine Hall of Fame as the class of 1955, Benny Leonard was a true boxing and sporting legend.


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