By Angelo Prospero Jr.
The most revered of all the lightweight champions was Benny Leonard, born Benjamin Leiner, and known as “The Ghetto Jewel.” He held the lightweight championship majestically during the Golden age of Sports in the 1920s and was idolized as much as Dempsey, Tilden, Ruth, Tilden, Grange and all the other greats of this sports-centered decade.
Benny was in the unenviable position of having to win the title on a knockout because he met the outstanding British titleholder Freddie Walsh in a no-decision bout. He did the almost iompossible, stopping the brilliant Walsh in nine rounds, the only kayo on the Briton’s record. Benny’s legendary battle against another Jewish opponent, hard-hitting lefty Lew Tendler, drew over 58,000 people and a $452,648 gate, remarkable figures for the little guys of that day and age.
In this fight, Tendler staggered Leonard and Benny reportedly replied, “Is that the hardest you can punch?”
The ploy gave the champ time to clear his head and he went on to a fiteen-round decision win. Tendler was unfortunate in that he fought in the same time period as Benny Leonard. He could have been champion in any other era and just missed in his own when he was talked out of the title.
Leonard also defeated other stalwarts of the ’20s including left hook specialist Charlie White, Rocky Kansas, Willie Ritchie and Joe welling.
His retirement in 1925 led to a furious jousting among challengers for the crown in a series of eliminations. Jimmy Goodrich of Buffalo finally was recognized as the new champ and he was succeeded by another Buffalonian, Rocky (Tozzo) Kansas, who beat him in ten rounds.
Roberto Duran, rated by many with Leonard as the best lightweight ever, rose from the slums of Panama to the status of national hero in his homeland. He won the title from the Scot – Ken Buchanan – and gained prominence as a fierce warrior with a string of KO defenses, including two over Esteban DeJesus, the first fighter ever to beat him.
One of his victims was Ray Lampkin, who fell to Duran’s “Iron Fists” in Round 14. Lampkin was knocked senseless and as he lay there motionless, a tense aura swept over the crowd who feared for his well-being. Duran was being interviewed on TV and his intensiveness was revealed as he insensitively said, “If I fight heem again, I keel him.”
“Old Bones” Joe Brown fought from 1946-1964. He was a journeyman pro, losing 15 times until maturing into a top contender at age 28. He defeated Bud Smith to gain the championship in 1956 and defended his crown eleven times until losing to Carlos Ortiz in 1962.
Motorcycle-riding Lew Jenkins had a meteoric career, featuring two KO’s over Lou Ambers, but faded quickly due to alcohol and lack of training. Lew was a war hero and became an Army career man.
Jim Watt was the first southpaw champion in lightweight history; Jimmy Carter has the record for most knockdowns in a round for lightweights when he florred Tommy Collins seven times in round three of a title defense on national television. Arthur King and Leonard delGenio were unfortunate to be in the same stable as the current lightweight champs of their respective times. King was Ike Williams’ policeman during his reign. You had to get li’l Arthur before tackling Ike. DelGenio was in Tony Canzoneri’s stable. Lenny was a hard puncher who actually hurt his hands because of his punching prowess.
The Joe Gans-Terry McGovern fight was only the fifth one ever filmed, McGovern scored an easy KO. Fifteen months later, Gans became champ by beating Frank Erne, Buffalo’s first world champion.
The Ad Wolgast-Indian Joe Rivers bout was a wild and wooly affair. A rare double knockdown took place and the referee finally decided the issue when both fighters fell and he hlped Wolgast up and counted out Rivers.
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