Despite prevailing ethnic stereotypes, the boxing ring used to be a prominent arena for a number of dominant Jewish fighters. In a history that has been noticed mostly by boxing purists, Jewish fighters like Benny Leonard and Barney Ross emphatically represented their people by absolutely dominating the boxing ring. In the wake of the death of perhaps history’s greatest unknown Semitic slugger, Jews are suddenly making their mark once again in the sweet science.
Pugilists like Leonard and Ross, the son of a rabbi who was believed to be the first Jewish-American to have a ticker-tape parade in his honor, made their mark on American sports before World War II. In the decades since, the Jewish boxer who made the biggest headlines may have been Salamo Arouch, who passed away in April at the age of 86. An inmate at the Auschwitz concentration camp, Arouch survived the Holocaust largely by competing in exhibition boxing matches staged by Nazi officers. His incredible life inspired the 1989 film Triumph of the Spirit, which starred actor Willem Dafoe as Arouch.
While Arouch’s boxing career wasn’t as high-profile as Leonard’s, his final years saw the sudden resurgence of Jews once again competing at a high level in a number of professional weight classes. The most prominent of late has been Dimitriy Salita, a New York junior welterweight born in Ukraine who is undefeated in 31 fights. In arguably the biggest and most intriguing fight of his career, Salita will face British world champion Amir Kahn in England this December. While the Jew-Muslim context has magnified the hype surrounding the fight, neither boxer has commented on the match’s religious undertones.
With undefeated Israeli Ran Nakash’s transition from Krav Maga to the cruiserweight ranks and the championship runs of fellow Israelis Yuri Foreman and Roman Greenberg, Jews have been conspicuously making their mark in the ring at a rate not seen in generations. Many of these fighters have even brandished Stars of David in the ring, ushering in what may be a new golden age of Jewish boxing.