Les Kennedy: “I coulda been a contender…”

By Norman Marcus on September 19, 2013
Les Kennedy: “I coulda been a contender…”
The paper trail on Les Kennedy, which was thin to begin with, has almost disappeared.

He won just a bit more than he lost, but he stepped into the ring with Dempsey, Baer, Carnera, Braddock and Walker. Not a bad resume for any boxer…

When people think about the big name heavyweights of the 1920s and 1930s, certain guys come to mind. Some names just pop into your head, like Dempsey, Tunney, Stribling or Louis. Other fans might think of Sharkey, Baer, Schaaf or Loughran. There are plenty more whom we could mention.

There was a second tier of boxers however, that also had the love of the fans and sportswriters. These were men such as “Rubber Man” Johnny Risko, “Kingfish” Levinsky, or “The Basque Woodchopper” Paulino Uzcudun. They were all big names in those days.

Journeyman boxer Les Kennedy was not in either of these groups. He was never a highly ranked contender but fought some of the best of them. Les didn’t get the space in the newspapers that the champs and contenders did. This makes a guy like Kennedy hard to research and write about. The paper trail on him, which was thin to begin with, has almost disappeared.

Let’s try to take a close look at Leslie Ambrose Kennedy anyway. Les was a heavyweight who began to box in Montana but later fought out of Long Beach, California. He was trained and promoted by James J. Jefferies, the great ex-heavyweight champion. Jefferies was the “great white hope” who came out of retirement in 1910 to take the title back from black champ Jack Johnson. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way for Jefferies, who was way past his prime. On July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada, Jim’s corner threw in the towel after 15 rounds. Years later, “The Boilermaker” opened a boxing club in Burbank, California and spent most of his time mentoring Les Kennedy and other up and coming boxers. 

It’s interesting to note that the young Kennedy’s grandfather was Edgar Kennedy. Edgar was a stuntman and comedy star for the old Mack Sennett and Hal Roach Studios in Edendale, California (a precursor to Hollywood). He was famous for his “slow burn” routine, a series of hilarious facial expressions that showed him trying to control his temper but to no avail. Grandpa had also been a boxer that held the Heavyweight Championship of the Pacific Coast in 1912. He claimed he once went 15 rounds with a young Jack Dempsey!

As an amateur, grandson Les was a sparring partner for that same Jack Dempsey. According to his nephew Bill Kennedy, his uncle was “allegedly fired when he got in a fast punch which decked Dempsey…Les could never get a fight with the champion, Jack Dempsey, because Doc Kearns, Dempsey’s manager remembered how Les had decked his meal ticket on at least one occasion.”

Kennedy was fast and strong. He quickly ran up a professional record of 23 wins and 3 losses. Les had a good right hand and could take a punch. As he developed into an experienced boxer, the competition he faced naturally got tougher. Family legend has it that Les was briefly ranked as the #3 contender for the world heavyweight title and held the little known title “Champion of the West Coast.” (Ring Magazine shows no such ranking for Kennedy during the 1930s.)

Finally with that record, he wound up on May 5, 1930 at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, California. His opponent that day was Frankie Campbell, an up and coming heavyweight on the West Coast that year. (Campbell will always be remembered as the guy Max Baer later killed in the ring with a right hand blow to the head.) This bout with Les was a 10-rounder and Campbell stopped Kennedy in the fourth round.

On July 15, 1930, Les faced Max Baer at the Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles.  It was another 10-rounder and Kennedy went the distance with the young, right hand happy Baer. Officially it was a win on points for Kennedy. To be fair, Baer was ahead on points in this fight but fouled Kennedy very late in the 10th round. Baer’s wild swings sometimes got him in trouble with the judges but Les proved his ability to take all Baer had to offer that night.

Les took on Paulino Uzcudun at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles on March 10, 1931. Uzcudun, a Basque from Spain, had a great left hook. He used a low crouching stance in his defense. Some described it as “crab-like” in appearance, a scurrying   side-to-side movement. It was hard to penetrate and land anything on the Basque, when you had to punch downward. Paulino took out Les in the fourth.

On November 23, 1931 at the Auditorium in Oakland, California, Baer got his revenge in a rematch KO’ing Les in three rounds. Primo Carnera later took Kennedy on at the Arena in Boston on November 4, 1932. Da Pream won it on a KO 3. Next came the “Cinderella Man” Jimmy Braddock who faced Kennedy at the Oakland Arena in Jersey City, New Jersey on June 21, 1933. Les lost the 10-round bout on points. A fight with Germany’s blond, blue-eyed Walter Neusel (Hitler’s other champion) followed on November 4, 1933 at Ridgewood Grove, Brooklyn, New York. Neusel beat him on a TKO 6. (In Germany at that time, Neusal was ranked higher than Max Schmeling.) Mickey Walker had little trouble with Kennedy on December 4, 1933 at Laurel Gardens, Brooklyn, New York. The “Toy Bulldog” beat Les easily on a KO 2.

Kennedy left boxing with a record of 46-32-2, 24 KOs. He won just a bit more than he lost, but he stepped into the ring with Dempsey, Baer, Carnera, Braddock and Walker. Not a bad resume for any boxer.

After his ring career was over, Kennedy found himself working on the docks, like Jimmy Braddock. Bill Kennedy stated, “Les later became a foreman on the waterfront with the longshoremen who were starting up on the West Coast in the ‘30s. They needed fighters and his pugilistic skills were useful in organizing the waterfront.” 

Terry Malloy, Budd Shulberg’s fictional character in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront” mirrored some of Les Kennedy’s later life. Les, like Terry, “coulda been a contender,” maybe…

Author’s Note: Personal information on this Kennedy clan, comes from “The Fighting Irish Kennedys,” a family research project.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles

Comments

This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Paul Malloy 11:01pm, 06/05/2016

    Les Kennedy was my uncle. He was married to my mother’s( Helen Malloy) sister(Dorothy Maloney. We had a farm in Iowa and I remember Uncle Les loved driving the tractor around. I’ve never seen a man with such big hands. We all loved Les and Dorothy and still talk about them at family get togethers!

    Paul Malloy

  2. NEWT ANTHONY 11:07am, 06/11/2014

    BOB KENNEDY AND I WERE BEST FRIENDS GROWING UP IN WILMINGTON CA. LES ( BOBS FATHER) AND FAMILY LIVED ON THE CORNER OF BAY VIEW AND M ST. IN WILMINGTON.. HE HAD THREE CHILDREN, JOAN, BOB AND LARRY. LES USE TO TEACH BOB AND I HOW TO THROW A “LEFT HOOK” HIS FAMOUS PUNCH. BOB (MY FRIEND) PASSED AWAY AT 79 AND WAS ALSO A LONGSHOREMAN. BOBS WIFE (PAT) LIVES IN BELMONT SHORE (LONG BEACH CA) LES HAD SEVERAL GRAND KIDS AND THEY ALL LIVE IN THE LONG BEACH AREA, LES’S GRANDSON IS A FIRE CAPTAIN IN THE DEL MAR CA AREA

  3. Mark 12:42pm, 05/07/2014

    Edgar Kennedy was not the grandfather of Les Kennedy as you state.
    Edgar was born in 1890, Les in 1905 you do the math. Leslie was the son of
    Joseph W. Kennedy and Lodeema Shroll.

  4. jerry 08:20am, 11/18/2013

    I just sent this article to Les Kennedy’s grandson by marriage. His wife will have lots of info on Les! Fabulous article!

  5. Norm Marcus 05:16pm, 09/23/2013

    Tex: I did a piece on the Rubber Man, Johnny Risko a few months ago. Check it out in my archives. I think you will like it.

  6. NYIrish 05:01am, 09/22/2013

    Good one, Norm.

  7. kid vegas 10:21am, 09/20/2013

    Neat article and enjoyable to read.

  8. Ted the Bull 05:49pm, 09/19/2013

    Thanks for an interesting read, Norman.

  9. Tex Hassler 04:23pm, 09/19/2013

    Thanks for bringing Les Kennedy back to light. Johnny Risko is another fighter that needs to be brought back to the public’s attention. I agree with Clarence George’s comments.

  10. Clarence George 01:02pm, 09/19/2013

    Fascinating, Norm.  I never heard of Les Kennedy, and am delighted you introduced me to him—I have a real soft spot for neglected, forgotten, or largely unknown boxers.

    I remember his grandfather very well.  With the exception of James Finlayson, he was probably Laurel and Hardy’s most famous nemesis.

    By the way, love nephew Bill’s understated and euphemistic “his pugilistic skills were useful in organizing the waterfront.”  I’ll bet they were!

Leave a comment