These days, the once-proud sport of boxing has fallen on hard times. With so many weight classes and (corrupt) managers, the fighters may make millions—yet often lose their way.
Simple put, the “sweet science” is no longer a “haimische” (homey) activity.
There was a time when strong young men from quality families entered the ring—not so much for the fame and glory, but to show they could fight to help themselves and their families make it in the world. Those men had names like Leonard, Ross, Goldstein, and Rosenbloom, and in the 1920s they ruled boxing as few other groups of boxers from the same cultural group have.
Today more Jews are in management and promotion than in the ring itself, but there are a few exceptions like Yuri Foreman and Dmitry Salita (both of whom refuse to fight on Shabbat), former World Boxing Council (WBC) champ Dana Rosenblatt, and Ron Aurit (who went by the name “The Yid Kid” when he fought Sugar Ray Leonard).
James Ford Nussbaum is seeking to uphold the legacy of Jewish boxing not in the ring itself, but through the big screen. The award-winning film producer is about to release “Impact: Jewish Boxers in America”.
Nussbaum says his grandfather, Newton Ford, a candy salesman and avid boxing fan in Philadelphia, was the inspiration for the film. But while Nussbaum had an affinity for boxing in his Jewish blood, few others seemed to share that.
“The amazing thing about doing this film was that many people, when told about this project, would react in awe asking, ‘There were Jews who boxed?’” the director tells JNS.org. “It’s a part of our Jewish history that not many people recognize and accept.”
In fact, Nussbaum suggests, in some circles Jews boxing is considered to be “almost a taboo topic.” He says that, despite their good upbringings, many Jewish boxers historically fell in with organized crime and other less-kosher activities, as many of their gentile fellow sportsmen did.
“Most Jews got involved with this sport to make a name for themselves,” Nussbaum points out, “and the thing that they all share in common with Irish, black, and Italian boxers and other ethnicities is poverty. They all came up from nothing and used the sport to promote themselves in a way that would excel them to a new socioeconomic level.”
As such, the director/producer poses his piece not as a film about the dark side of a dimming sport, but rather as “an incredible American Dream story of being able to come up from nothing in this country and be able to become a success.”
Over the course of two years, Nussbaum delved into the worlds of some of the best Jewish boxers from today and yesterday, including Cletus Seldin, Ron Lipton and Ed Gersh, by making time with them at home, in the gym and in the ring.
“The Jewish aspect of the sport is something out of the ordinary,” Nussbaum says, noting how many Jewish boxers still display the Jewish star somewhere on their trunks or robes.
Even so, he says, there has been what he sees as “an impressive number of boxers in the sport as well… a real diverse group with names like Bummy Davis, Slapsie Maxie Rosenthal and Barney Ross.”
Some Jewish boxers changed their names to protect their families. Many Jewish parents still look down on the sport, even if they had participated in it themselves.
“Most Jewish boxers like Barney Ross and Benny Leonard didn’t want their kids involved in the sport,” Nussbaum explains. “There are very few if any boxers that have children that continued in the sport of boxing. Most of them went on to become lawyers and doctors.”
Nussbaum got so involved in the lives of his subjects while shooting that he even required medical attention.
“One year into shooting… I injured my eye,” he recalls, detailing that his detached retina became one of his “favorite” parts of shooting the film because it was a typical “boxer’s injury.”
“It seems that I not only produced the film and directed it, but also lived a firsthand account of what the boxers go through on a day to day basis,” he says.
As he regained his own sight, Nussbaum gained even more insight into what the professional fighters he was featuring need to do to make it in their brutal, but still at times beautiful, sport.
“I had become a boxer myself,” he says, “determined to make this film and living a life that was very similar to them. I regained my sight and lived through an injury that made me feel exactly how some of these fighters feel… struggling to make this film as real and poignant as possible.”
Such experiences also drew Nussbaum’s subjects closer to him and encouraged others to seek him out and participate in the film.
“Many of the boxers in the film came to me after hearing what I was attempting to do,” he says. “They loved the idea and were so happy to learn that someone was interested in telling their stories the right way… from their perspectives.”
The finished film is set to air in more than 300,000 homes through Cablevision Systems in Morris County, NJ, and will possibly be distributed through The Jewish Channel on pay-per-view cable, but Nussbaum is also working to get it into film festivals and theaters nationwide.
“It is our hope to show and use the Jewish boxer as an example for accomplishing the American dream,” Nussbaum explains, “and proving once again that anyone can succeed in our great nation.”
Nussbaum also hopes that the film will “put an end to so much of the hatred that exists right now towards Jews and other minorities.”
“This is a part of Jewish and national history that many people are unaware of, and it is our hope to give viewers a behind-the-lens, honest rendition of what it is like to be Jewish and box in the USA,” he says.