Lew Tendler: Champion Without a Title

By Norman Marcus on April 2, 2013
Lew Tendler: Champion Without a Title
Lew Tendler, aka Left Lew, started fighting professionally when he was fifteen years old.

“I wish someone would drive up this minute and drop me off a carload of Lew Tendlers,” Doc Kearns said. “I’d lick the whole world…”

Nat Fleischer, publisher of The Ring, called Lew Tendler “the greatest southpaw in ring history.”

Lew Tendler was born in Philadelphia on September 28, 1898. His parents were Jewish immigrants. He grew up at Sixth and Reed Street in South Philly. Lew learned to fight on the streets, as did many kids in those days. It was common for a newsboy like Lew to stake out a street corner and wait for customers. If someone else tried to muscle in on your spot, you had to know how to fight to keep it. Out on the sunny streets of Los Angeles, future champions Jackie Fields, Fidel La Barba and Mushy Callahan would learn to fight in exactly the same way.

Lew’s mother was against his prizefighting. He tried to keep it a secret but started coming home with welts and bruises on his face and body. One day his mother, with tears in her eyes, confronted him and asked if he was a prizefighter. The boy could not lie to his mother and answered in the affirmative. Mrs. Tendler began to sob. Lew took the money from his pocket and put it on the kitchen table. It was more than his father earned in a week. His mother stared at the money before turning to her son. “From fighting?” she asked. Lew slowly nodded his head. “When can you fight again?”

Tendler started fighting professionally when he was fifteen years old. He was only 5’6’’ tall with a 70” wingspan (fingertip to fingertip). Dripping wet Lew weighed about 135 lbs. In his first pro bout on November 6, 1913, he faced Mickey Brown in a six-round bout at the Broadway AC in Philadelphia. It ended in an official no decision. Lew did however win the NWS6 (newspaper decision) as reported by the Philadelphia Record and Philadelphia Inquirer.

Most fights in those days ended in no decisions. It was the law in Pennsylvania and most other states. Boxing had a bad reputation back in the day (not much has changed). The authorities assumed that many of the judges and referees were shady and on the take. They believed that a fight ending in a no decision could not be fixed. It kept the sport honest! Nobody could bet or win any money except by knockout. A knockout is not subjective. It is what it is. You could knock the other guy down ten times but if he got up and stayed up, it was a no decision! Thirty-seven of Lew’s next thirty-nine fights were just that, no decisions. Because of the ND law, fans began relying on the newspapers to pick a winner—NWS. I guess they felt that newspapermen were honest.

This bizarre law was finally repealed in most states around 1920.

On May 5, 1922 at the Madison Square Garden in New York City, Tendler, aka Lefty Lew, fought highly ranked contender Johnny Dundee. Lew was a boxer-puncher who carried a knockout punch in his left hand and the fans loved him. Tendler beat Dundee that night on points. The win earned him a shot at the great Benny Leonard, The Ghetto Wizard. The fight for the lightweight title would take place at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey on May 27, 1922.

There was, however, one small problem. New Jersey, unlike New York, still used the no decision rule.

Leonard was a super smart boxer with all the necessary tools to be champion. Benny was quick on his feet. He was a good combination puncher, with a pinpoint left jab and a strong right hand. He also had fast hands that packed a wallop.

Reuters Telegram covered the fight: “Sixty thousand people saw Benny Leonard defend his Lightweight Championship against Lew Tendler. The latter had the best of the first 5 rounds and gave a splendid exhibition. Leonard, who was groggy, began to recover in the 7th round and thereafter had the best of it, in the opinion of the newspapermen, some of who favored awarding a draw. The bout was officially 12 rounds and a no decision.” The ringside press called it a NWS12 loss for Tendler. But many felt Lew dominated Benny throughout the fight. Inasmuch as Tendler failed to KO the champ, and the fight was New Jersey, Leonard kept his title!

The Vancouver Journal had a more revealing take on this fight: “In the 8th round Leonard was nearly out on his feet. His knees sagged and his eyes were glazed but he was still able to talk.”

Talk? Yes, Leonard talked Tendler out of a championship. Leonard whispered, “You are not winning,” the Journal reported. “You will miss the next one,” the champion hissed through a hole in his jaw where a tooth had just been knocked out. Tendler was badly rattled and tore in another left hook which missed. Leonard then went into a clinch, and in the next round took the lead.” Others at ringside claimed that Leonard spoke to Tendler in Yiddish (an Eastern European dialect which fused German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages) which broke Lew’s concentration.

Leonard had just stalled for time. As he whispered his trash, albeit in Yiddish, to Tendler, he felt the blood returning to his legs. If Lew had just ignored Leonard’s nonsense… If he had just kept punching… It was a moment Tendler would relive for many years to come.

The gate was $450,000. Leonard the champion got $190,000. Tendler the challenger received $90,000.

A year later on July 24, 1923, the two men fought again. There was a great demand for the rematch and a great deal of money to be made. The second fight took place at Yankee Stadium. The “House That Ruth Built” was packed. A crowd of 60,000 paid over $452,650 to watch the rematch. It was the first championship fight to be held at the new ballpark.

The fight turned out to be anticlimactic. The champion wisely chose to not mix it up with Lew. Benny carefully boxed the hard punching Tendler. He used all of his skills and coasted to an easy UD15.

Frustrated again, Lew decided to move up to the welterweight division and campaign against bigger men. He took on the two top contenders in the division. First, Ted Marchant was KO’d in four rounds at the Arena in Philly on March 17, 1924. One month later, on April 15, 1924, he decisioned Sailor Friedman at the Mechanics Building in Boston. That earned Tendler a shot at The Toy Bulldog, Mickey Walker, for his NBA welterweight title.

Tendler met Walker on June 2, 1924 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. A crowd of 25,000 fans came out to watch the hometown favorite. At the opening bell, Walker unleashed a vicious body attack on the challenger and didn’t let up for the whole fight. At the end of 10 rounds Tendler was spent. Walker’s body shots had done the trick. The judges gave all 10 rounds to The Toy Bulldog.

Lefty Lew continued to box for another four years. Doc Kearns, who was Walker’s manager, is quoted as saying, “I wish someone would drive up this minute and drop me off a carload of Lew Tendlers. I’d lick the whole world.”

Lew Tendler retired from the ring in 1928 with a record of 59-11-2 (NWS 87-5-6). Because he was a great storyteller, Tendler became an after dinner speaker. Years later, he opened a restaurant on South Broad Street in Philadelphia called “Lew Tendler’s Steak House.” The place was a landmark and gathering spot for sports fans and local politicians for decades. He remained a Philly guy his whole life. Lew Tendler was a champion without a title.

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  1. Tex Hassler 07:21pm, 02/28/2015

    Lew would have been a champion in almost any other era but the one he was in. I highly respect Nat Fleischer’s opinion. He knew boxing and boxers like few men who ever lived. Great article.

  2. GALILEO 10:52pm, 02/16/2015

    Follow the history both past and present of Jews in the sport of boxing through the documentary film: IMPACT: Jewish Boxers in America…www.impactthefilm.com….for more information contact: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


  3. Abbe Tendler Nelson 07:34am, 06/12/2014

    Thanks for the great story!  I am his great niece and was named Abbe Tendler after his brother Abe (My grandfather).

  4. JimmyD 09:20pm, 04/05/2013

    Great article Mr. Marcus about a lesser known fighter of a long gone era. Enjoyed it. Keep up the good work.

  5. Marc 06:03am, 04/05/2013

    Mr. Marcus, great article.  I was really drawn into Tendler’s story, especially the part on street conditioning.  Thanks for sharing this story.

  6. Clarence George 02:32am, 04/03/2013

    A champion without a title…true of some of the very best.

    My type of article, and very nicely done.

  7. Mike Casey 01:08am, 04/03/2013

    Lew was indeed a champion without a title, Norm - a very dangerous and talented man and one of the greatest southpaws. Can you imagine being that good and having Benny Leonard as a contemporary?

  8. the thresher 12:46am, 04/03/2013

    Nice history lesson. Thanks Norman.

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