Jews and Sports… Stop Laughing: Some Light Reading Material

In the 1980 comedy Airplane starring Leslie Nielsen, a flight attendant is passing out reading material.  “Do you have anything light?” asks one of the passengers.  The flight attendant, played by Julie Hagerty, responds, “How about this leaflet—famous Jewish sports legends?”

Thirty years later, it would still be hard to put together a minyan of Jewish sports stars.  So then how is it going to be possible to sustain a blog about Jews and sports?  Stop laughing.

One sport where Jews have made the most impact is boxing. Jews made their biggest mark on the sport in the early 20th century when many of the top boxers came from immigrant backgrounds.  Between 1910 and 1940, there were 26 Jewish world champions, and many of their stories are profiled in a book by Allen Bodner called When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport that was first published in 1997 and re-released this year.  Bodner estimates that in the 1920s and 1930s, nearly one third of all boxers were Jewish.

Among the best at the time, Barney Ross held the world lightweight (135 pounds), junior welterweight (140 pounds) and welterweight (147 pounds) titles in the 1930s.  Benny Leonard was a world lightweight champion in the 1920s with an outstanding record of 183 wins against 19 losses and 11 draws who retired from the sport because his (Jewish) mother told him to.  In the 21st century, some of the prominent Jewish boxers include Yuri Foreman, who won the World Boxing Association junior middleweight (154 pounds) title in 2009, and Dmitriy Salita, who has compiled a respectable 33 wins against one loss since 2001, although his one loss came the one time he tried to challenge for a world title.

However there is one boxer, one of the best of all time, who has a Jewish connection that most people do not know about.  Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins became the oldest person ever to win a world championship when he captured the World Boxing Council light heavyweight title at the age of 46 in May.  Earlier in his career, Hopkins held the middleweight championship (160 pounds) for more than 10 years and made 20 defenses of his title, a record for a middleweight.

In April 2010 Hopkins attended a Passover dinner in Las Vegas where I met him and wrote an article for the Jewish Journal about Bernard “The Rabbi” Hopkins.

Hopkins had just won a bout and was a guest of Jewish New York children’s apparel magnate Artie Rabin, who has accompanied the boxer into the ring for his last few bouts while singing a personalized version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” with lyrics about Hopkins.  “The Executioner” was coaxed to speak to the 150 Passover celebrants.  He wanted the full Jewish experience and ate chicken soup and flanken.

“In life, whether it’s in boxing or religion,” Hopkins told the crowd, “you have to put in the hard work if you want to get somewhere or else you’ll just be waiting for something that’s not going to come.”

At the time Hopkins was 45 and said he would box one more time before retiring.  He’s since had three bouts and currently has no plans of retiring.  Hopkins competed last Saturday night, marking the second year in a row he’s had a match during the Shabbat Chol Hamoed of a Jewish festival, this year Sukkot and last year Passover.  On Saturday, Hopkins’ 17-year-younger opponent, Chad Dawson, tackled him to the ground in the second round, separating his shoulder.  Hopkins lost his title because the referee said he was unable to continue, but the result may be overturned after an appeal to the California State Athletic Commission.  “That was a blatant foul,” Hopkins said afterward.  “This ain’t the UFC.  This ain’t the MMA.”

However just as Hopkins gave a Passover message last year, he may have given a message about Succot this year without even knowing it.  On Succot, Jews all over the world pray to “restore the fallen Succah of David.”  Hopkins fell on Saturday night and lost his title, many would agree unfairly. However he’s kept boxing when people thought his career was over and, in his 40s, regained titles he had lost.  He’ll be 47 in January and may still have a good chance to re-break his record for being the oldest boxer ever to win a title.

Gather the Jews member Jonathan Horowitz (www.jjhorowitz.com) is the horse race announcer at Arapahoe Park and host of the show “A Day at the Races” on Altitude Sports TV in Denver. He also has authored The ONE and ONLY: A Sports Quiz Deck of Definitive Games, Teams, Players, and Events that will be published by Pomegranate Publishers in January 2012. If you would like to purchase a personal copy ($9.95), please contact him at jjhorowitz@gmail.com for details.