Our feature of this week is this legendary fighter who fought out of the Lower East Side in New York City who fought on to become one of the cities greatest Champions, and that was the man nicknamed ‘The Ghetto Wizard’ Benjamin Leiner, or as we’ve come to known him as…Benny Leonard (90-6-1, 70KO) (Varying Records are Posted).
A Jack-of-all-Trades, Benny was a beautiful counter-puncher who could fight from any distance, who would rise to any occasion and circumstance that was put in front of him. He was a slippery defender with his semi up-right stance, had excellent footwork to bounce in and out of his range, as well as a secondary defensive mechanic to evade the big punches coming back at him. Being a master boxer, he was a nightmare in his prime for combatants to climb in the ring and fight against him. He also possessed a good chin which gave him the freedom to take more chances while staying defensively responsible, and had a nearly unmatched boxing IQ when he was inside them ropes. He is widely recognized as one of the best Lightweights of all time, and subjectively speaking, I have him ranked #1 on my personal list.
His early career was a work in progress and a continuous learning curve, losing his first fight to a fella named Mickey Finnegan, but processing information and hitting his stride, improving every time out, winning the majority of his first fights, and coming back improved after his losses. He started to really come into his own around mid 1914, where he eventually would find himself facing and defeating top-flight boxer Rocky Canvas, catapulting himself into becoming a top Lightweight contender. He drew with another great fighter, that being Johnny Dundee, which was a clear indicator of what level Benny had ascended himself to. His big shot to become a World Champion came in 1916 where he had to face yet another Hall-of-Famer Freddie Welsh for his Lightweight Crown, and performed very well against the World Champion, outpointing Welsh according to multiple Newspaper-Outlets, however Welsh’s Lightweight Title was safe if he didn’t get knocked out inside the scheduled 10 rounds, so he retained his belt. Leonard put himself in position to face Freddie Welsh once again in a rematch, but Benny was outclassed this time by the Champion. Third time’s the charm? apparently so in this case. In a 3rd fight against the Champ in 1917, Benny managed to knock out Freddie Welsh this time around, and overcame his hurdle in Welsh to become the new Lightweight Champion of the world. Mixing it up with outstanding competition repeatedly in his non-title fights between defenses, he had a big assignment in front of him facing legendary British fighter Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, and they fought to a draw, of course with ‘Benny the Great’ retaining his World Title.
In his prime, each future Hall-of-Famer he faced had real trouble match the level that Benny graduated to, achieving pinnacle status in the Lightweight division, so in 1922, he decided to take a gamble by moving up a division to take on Jack Britton. By documented accounts, Leonard through a difficult fight was disqualified in the 13th round by hitting Britton when he was down, though Leonard didn’t agree with the call, and felt that the ruling was a controversial one. Nonetheless, he returned back to the weight class he ruled with an Iron Fist, and defeated the outstanding Lew Tendler twice via decision. Shortly after, Benny decided to call it quits at the request of his Mother, who was sickly at the time and dealing with many ailments. He hung the gloves up at just 28 years of age, and never officially lost his title after winning it in 1917, putting together one of the greatest campaigns in boxing history.
He did however make a return to boxing 7 years later at the age of 35, but it was clear by many onlookers that he wasn’t nearly the same fighter that he had used to be, and he was fighting exclusively at Welterweight. He did ultimately get a shot to face the great Jimmy McLarnin at this higher weight, but Benny was pulverized, and lost via TKO in the 6th round of their 1932 bout. That was the last time Benny Leonard ever fought in the ring, yet it wasn’t the final time that he stepped inside the ring to work. In this post-fight career, he took up Refereeing for roughly 4 years before he unfortunately suffered a massive heart attack on assignment during a bout taking place, collapsing in the first round, and reportedly died in the ring with unsuccessful attempts by Doctors to revive him. He passed away at 51 years of age tragically, but one way you could look at it is that he passed away within the confines of doing the thing that he loved to do the most, and that was being inside of the squared circle, and around the sport he loved. Here are a list of his accomplishments.
– Undisputed Lineal Lightweight World Champion (1917-1925) 8 Year Span
– 8 World Undisputed Title Fights Won
– Historically Widely Regarded as a Top-10 P4P All-Time Boxer
– Still Heralded by Some as thee Greatest Lightweight of All-Time
– Ring-Magazine’s #8 All-Time Boxer (Their 2002 Edition)
– 17 Wins Over 7 Hall-of-Fame Boxers (First 7 Names Listed Below)
– International Boxing Hall-of-Fame (Inducted First-Ballot in 1990)
SIGNATURE MOMENT – Fighting in his backyard of New York, getting the knockout against Freddie Welsh in their 3rd fight in 1917 to Become the Lightweight Champion of the World.
NOTABLE WINS – Defeated Johnny Dundee (5X), Jack Britton (2X), Rocky Kansas (4X), Freddie Welsh (2X), Johnny Kilbane, Lew Tendler (2X), Willie Ritchie & Soldier Bartfield (4X).
NOTABLE DRAWS – Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, Johnny Dundee (2X).