No Joke: Jack Kid Berg
Names like Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, Ted Kid Lewis and Abe Attell are just a fraction of the all-time greats who happened to be Jewish…
The Jewish people have known suffering throughout their history. They have been victimized, downtrodden, persecuted and exterminated. It’s not just the maniacal tendencies of an Austrian lunatic who dehumanized their beliefs. The Russians also initiated a series of pogroms in the 19th century which led to many Jewish families escaping to the relatively sanctity of Western Europe and the United States. Bigotry’s malevolent talons are razor-sharp through all eras.
As a people, the Jews have an inbuilt resilience unlike any other on this planet. The collective success they have made of their lives through the ages has led to discrimination from those with avarice and malevolence in their hearts. The hardships the Jewish people have collectively suffered has fostered a determination to succeed, be it in a scholastic or mechanical field. The relatively new state of Israel perfectly encapsulates the character of its citizens. Marooned in the middle of hostile territories, its very existence is constantly threatened. She addresses these challenges with diplomacy and if the situation merits she will punch well above her weight.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a much larger percentage of Jewish boxers plying their trade in the squared circle than currently operate. A contributing reason for this was that in the early to mid-20th century, boxing was the number one attraction in all of sport. These athletes earned the mega-money of the day. Whereas in today’s society, basketball, football and baseball reward its participants with huge salaries, boxing has by and large regressed for the average fighter. Of course the modern-day superstars of boxing still command mammoth purses but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Human nature dictates man will chase higher reward for less risk. In this day and age, most young Jews can earn money by using their brains rather than their brawn, but a century ago, times were much harsher and using their fists was one way out of impoverishment. The fact that so many Jewish boxers were carving out reputations early last century encouraged the young and impressionable from their faith to also try their hand. Some of the greatest to lace up the gloves have worn the Star of David on their shorts. Names like Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, Ted Kid Lewis, Abe Attell and Maxie Rosenbloom are just a fraction of the all-time greats who happened to be Jewish. It was one of the aforementioned, Ted Kid Lewis who inspired the larger-than-life character, born Judah Bergman, whose amazing life story is truly inspiring.
Jacob and Millicent Bergman escaped the oppression that befell them in Odessa, Russia, simply for the fact they were Orthodox Jews. They headed for the safe environs of London’s East End for a life free of religious tyranny. Judah Bergman was born in Whitechapel on the June 28, 1909, the second son and the fourth of seven siblings. Life for a family of nine was no picnic in a two-bedroom flat with neither heat or hot water in the repressed eastern suburbs of London. Jacob was a tailor by trade and his salary of two pounds a week made life a continual struggle. Sadly, the Bergman’s situation was commonplace throughout the district. The destitution they suffered fostered a resolve amongst his family and in a wider context, the community around them.
Though Britain was certainly more broadminded to religions other than the mainstream Anglican faith, there was still a seam of apartheid inherent in its society. Being Jewish could lead to ostracism from boys his own age so Judah took shelter with fellow Jews to prevent the Gentiles from bullying him. He teamed up with the Whitechapel Boys Gang who were always up to a spot of mischief. He wasn’t averse to a spot of pickpocketing and had a little racket going where he’d string a line of cotton across the street and remove a gentleman’s hat. Judah would then go fetch the hat and return it to the unsuspecting mark, who would tip him a shilling for his kindly act! Another sideline the young larrikin enjoyed was setting up a human boxing ring and going hell for leather with a fellow member of his gang. Men passing by would throw nobbins onto the cobbles for the boys to pick up in appreciation of their efforts. Judah had begun to develop an inimitable style and it wasn’t long before he joined a local boxing club, the Oxford and St. Georges on Betts Street.
Judah left school as soon as it was permissible as he hadn’t set the classroom alight with his impudent nature. He was apprenticed as a lather boy in a barber’s shop but his continuing development at the boxing club set in stone a change of direction and career for Judah. He made his professional debut three weeks before his 15th birthday at the Premierland Boxing venue, a fertile breeding ground for East End fighters in the boom years of the 1920s. Judah’s first bout ended in an eighth round stoppage of Johnny Gordon. Judah’s strict and religiously devout father was appalled at his son partaking in a sport such as boxing as he felt it was a rejection of his authority and at odds with Jewish values and Jewish heritage. Ever the pragmatist, Judah changed his name to Jack Kid Berg, which was the English equivalent of his given name with the added moniker of Kid in homage to another great Jewish warrior from London’s East End, Ted Kid Lewis. Paying homage to Lewis was a smart move on Jack’s part. Born Gershon Mendeloff, Ted Kid Lewis became one of Britain’s greatest boxers of all time, being the first from the land to claim a world title on American soil. Lewis defied his family to embark on a remarkable journey through the boxing panorama. Using Lewis as his template, Jack managed to assuage his father’s disappointment. The extra money from the purses also eased any reticence on the elder Bergman’s part as it was far in excess of an apprentice lather boy!
Jack cut a swath through the local landscape. In his first two years in the paid ranks he won 35, drew three and lost three, all decisions to vastly more experienced opponents. The 110-bout savvy veteran Harry Corbett managed to quell the exuberant style of Jack by continuously tying him up in clinches and cunningly pinching his biceps whilst doing so. The prodigious output of punches Jack produced during his bouts was curtailed to such an extent he could hardly lift his arms at the end of the 15th stanza. Upon drawing with Corbett in a return, Jack embarked on a 19-fight win streak. The frenetic all-action style favored by Jack was more rapier-like than bludgeon and it earned him the “Whitechapel Windmill” moniker, endearing him to boxing fans. The forward-thinking Berg saw a bright future west over the pond and 1928 saw Jack throw some speculative leather in the lucky country, the United States of America. He was nineteen years of age!
Despite having undoubted raw talent, Jack’s great fortune was being able to call upon the nous of one of the most fabulous trainers of his age, or for that matter any age, Ray Arcel. Whether it was a fellow Jew in need of direction or more likely Arcel liked the cut of Jack’s gib, the two certainly made an impression on the American scene. If first impressions count, Arcel’s hopes for a potential superstar were found wanting. The fresh-faced limey was more akin to a girl as he stepped off the cruise ship, but Jack’s combative talent soon assuaged Arcel of those fears. His first contest saw Berg up against the awkward Pedro Amador who confused the Londoner with angles for the first few rounds. Jack had never encountered such trickery, as the European style of boxing was more upright and conservative. Jack soon got to grips with this unorthodox style and eventually overpowered Amador with his relentless pressure and won a unanimous decision.
Whether it was a deliberate ploy on Jack’s part or perhaps the astuteness of his handlers, he began to overtly display his Jewishness before his bouts—in marked contradiction to his actual beliefs as he wasn’t particularly religious. What it did do was market him to the huge Jewish fraternity in the U.S.A. Ben Sharav noted in The Ring how Berg entered the ring wrapped in tallis, the prayer shawl worn in synagogues. Around his right arm and on his head he wore tefilin, the small leather box containing scripture, trailed by leather straps, which observant Jews put on for early morning prayers. Jack would then go through an elaborate ritual of slowly unwinding the leather straps from around his body, tenderly kissing them and placing them in a gold-embossed velvet bag which he then carefully handed to Arcel. The Star of David was always adorned on his trunks like many other fistic protagonists of his faith. If it was for the benefit of his deeply religious father or a ploy to garner popularity or infamy it surely succeeded. The audiences loved the commitment the Londoner brought to the squared circle.
Jack’s rising profile and popularity had introduced a damaging distraction from his ring exploits. He was devilishly handsome and quite the bon vivant and the fairer sex were naturally drawn to the suave pug. Three more victories saw Jack matched with the Fargo Express, Billy Petrolle in Chicago. A 10-round draw resulted in a rematch one month later that resulted in Berg receiving a monumental beating. Nine times on the canvas in the first round, once more in the third and finally a technical knockout in the fifth mercifully halted proceedings. Jack later explained away the humiliating defeat on his dalliance with “a broad.” In fact it should be noted that in his later years, Jack blamed all his defeats bar one, which will be dealt with later, on his trysts with the fairer sex. “Weakened the legs” he claimed and who can argue with that?
The reverse didn’t deter the Londoner and he commenced upon a series of bouts in both the U.S. and England. Going unbeaten in 18 fights, Jack took on the supremely talented Tony Canzoneri and delivered a fantastic performance in securing a split decision over 10 rounds. The general consensus was that Jack had administered one of the worst whippings Canzoneri ever experienced, yet the referee made the final verdict interesting to say the least. Jack Kid Berg’s finest hour came on February 18, 1930. He stopped the world champion Mushy Callahan in the 10th round at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the light welterweight title. Typical of the Machiavellian politics of boxing, Callahan had been stripped of his National Boxing Association title prior to the bout, possibly in anticipation of defeat at the hands of the Englishman. At this time there was also differing bodies recognizing weight classes in the U.K and the U.S. Observing the light-welter division, the New York State Athletic Commission ceded Jack as the world champion. Universally recognized or not, the Whitechapel Windmill was atop the world! Berg was officially sanctioned as the NBA’s world champ when he defeated Joe Glick in Madison Square Garden two months later.
Perhaps the stiffest challenge Jack Berg would ever face was an opponent many considered not only the finest lightweight lacing up the gloves but possibly the best pound-for-pound at the time, Cuba’s Kid Chocolate. Coming in with a stellar 55 victories and a draw, Chocolate was a massive favorite. Before a huge crowd at the Polo Grounds in New York, Berg took Chocolate’s unbeaten record and sent a seismic wave through boxing’s cognoscenti. 1930 was an incredible year for the East End pugilist. He’d defeated the top five lightweight contenders, which is an astonishing feat as there was only one world champion at the time. The $66,000 purse he received for beating the Cuban phenom set him up for life.
Whilst defending his crown a further four times and avenging his loss to Petrolle in a non-title fight, it appeared the whirlwind of flurries Berg produced was on the wane. Sure he was a crowd favorite both in the land of his birth and the States but he had to face a former victim in the dogged, tough man Canzoneri for the lightweight strap. Despite being only 21, Jack’s buzzsaw attack was nullified and he was battered to defeat in three rounds. Jack didn’t blame the fairer sex for this reverse; he admitted to being beaten by the better man. As it was for the lightweight title, Jack still retained his own disputed title in the light welter class, yet Canzoneri relieved him of this in a third battle with a contentious 15-round decision several months later. A further defeat of Kid Chocolate and a win over Harry Mizler for the British lightweight title were the remaining highlights of this incredible man’s career. He continued to fight into his mid-30s, finally retiring with a stoppage over the unheralded Johnny MacDonald.
It’s perhaps fitting of the man that not only the prodigious talent he exercised in the ring be celebrated but also his magnificent character outside the squared circle. Ray Arcel loved his lightweight charge like a son, but the dapper womanizer had to be watched like a hawk. Whilst engaging in ferocious sparring sessions and always being the consummate professional with his gym work, the Londoner had a weakness of the flesh! His celebrity was a magnet for the stars of the day and Jack filled his boots with their affections. It’s rumored he even made the acquaintance of Mae West, who had a penchant for boy toys. In fact Arcel had mentioned that Jack had caused a most unpleasant situation with the flamboyant but dangerous gangster, Jack Diamond. Berg had attempted to impart his well-oiled charms upon the hoodlum’s moll but received short shrift. Unfortunately “Legs” Diamond, as he was known either for his prowess on the dance floor or his ability to evade multiple shooting attempts, had been notified of the Englishman’s entreaties. Two armed gangsters entered Berg’s residence in the Harding Hotel to “discuss” Jack’s foibles and it took incredible mediation on Arcel and Berg’s part to suffocate the angst!
Jack Kid Berg’s life story doesn’t end in the usual depressing mire of squandered earnings, ill-advised decisions and tragic conclusions that so many of his fellow heroic prizefighters endured. His many admirers within the film industry enabled him to pursue a career as a movie stuntman, which would have endured his zest for stimulation. Whether it was leading ladies extolling his virtues or the actors who admired his leitmotif through his career, Jack made a success of his life after boxing, which is a rarity in this, the most brutal of trades.
Jack finally settled down with the love of his life, Moira, in 1943 and had a beautiful daughter. His hell-raising days were well behind him. The swordsman had settled on his scabbard and his life was replete. The final chapter on this remarkable character is where is he to be placed in the boxing landscape? He attained 157 victories, 61 by stoppage, drew nine and lost 26 which is an incredible ledger. Take into account he traveled to the hardest testing ground for a professional boxer, which was the United States and bested the finest that wonderful country could accommodate. Taking into account he was English, he was a huge draw with American audiences who flocked to see his all-action administrations. Such affection is testament to the qualities that he brought into the ring. His exploits saw him inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, World Boxing Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, which is the true barometer of his aptitude. He lived a long and full life, finally passing away April 22, 1991. The boxing community lost a wonderfully charismatic man, but his deeds are treasured in perpetuity.
Judah Bergman, more commonly known as Jack Kid Berg rose, from the privation of the East End of London and conquered the world. Rest in peace Jack, you were truly inspirational.