The Aldgate Sphinx: Ted “Kid” Lewis

By Ben Hoskin on April 11, 2013
The Aldgate Sphinx: Ted “Kid” Lewis
Tyson thought Ted "Kid" Lewis was “probably the greatest fighter to come out of Britain."

Nat Fleischer and Charley Rose ranked him as the fourth best welterweight of all time and Bert Sugar had him as the thirty-third best boxer in history…

There have been many great Jewish fighters from the United States, particularly in the early to mid years of the twentieth century. Not so many came from the shores of the United Kingdom, but the men that did can lay claim to being not only the finest boxers their country had produced, but valid argument can be held regarding their position amongst the world’s elite.

The first real Jewish champion from the British Isles was a man by the name of Daniel Mendoza. Though he fought in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, his exploits rectified the general impression of debility many felt about the virtues of Jewish men. Though only a middleweight he won the English heavyweight crown and was also bestowed with the World Heavyweight Championship weighing a mere one hundred and sixty pounds. His methods were revolutionary for the time, even writing a book on how the modern man should adopt his scientific approach to contests within the squared circle. “The Art of Boxing” was incorporated into the regimen of many of the fighters who followed. His techniques and teachings included utilizing a high guard, sidestepping and hitting with a straight left. He advocated guile and speed of foot movement to counter larger, heavier hitting foes. Like the thousands of pugilists who followed, retirement brought a tapestry of vocations he embarked upon yet eventually, like a well-worn novel, the conclusion to his life had the exact same ending as many other boxers, penniless and bereft. His is another tale yet his exploits in his prime were a beacon for the men of Jewish faith who would shine later.

Fast forward some fifty-seven years later and a child entered the world, who would go on to become one of the United Kingdom’s greatest ever exponents in the history of boxing, not only for his achievements but also for the extraordinary longevity that he operated for. Gershon Mendeloff was born on the 28th of October 1893 in the dirt poor Aldgate Pump suburb of London’s East End. One of eight siblings to Russian parents who escaped the persecution of their homeland, Gershon’s early childhood was impoverished. Such was the struggle his family encountered in his early years that some days all he had to survive on was a mug of water and a slice of bread covered thinly in sugar. Having older brothers toughened up Gershon sufficiently enough that he started hanging with a local gang of Jewish boys who had clubbed together to fight back against the numerous coteries of gentiles who would beat up on Jewish boys purely because they were perceived as being different. The continual skirmishing imbued a tough and defiant streak in Gershon and these persistent altercations soon educated young Mendeloff in the invaluable smarts of street fighting. The sagacity of appreciating his situation in these mass fistic conflagrations enabled him to evade the attentions of the local constabulary for quite some time till eventually he was “collared” by one of the boys in blue. Fortunately for Gershon, instead of a visit in front of the beak, the policeman insisted his panache in the cobbled exchanges would be much better served in a boxing club. A course had been set for a true boxing legend.

The Judean Athletic Club shaped the fledgling career of Gershon. Prize-fighting in the East End of London was big news from the latter half of the nineteenth century up until the outbreak of the Second World War and Aldgate Pump and its surrounding suburbs provided a veritable nursery of willing talent. Gershon decided early in his training that he couldn’t use his real name if and when the time came for him to make his debut as his strict parents wouldn’t countenance such a vocation. It is suggested he took the surname of the current World Welterweight of the time, Harry Lewis and added the Kid as there were many famous fighters of that era operating under that moniker. Ted came later for the benefit of the American audiences he entertained. It should also be pointed out his elder brother was a boxer fighting under the name of Lon Kid Lewis so its feasible he followed his sibling’s lead. At least he could direct the wrath of mum and dad onto Lon if his secret was uncovered! His professional debut was on September 13,1909 when he attended the Judean Club one Sunday afternoon purely as a spectator. One of the nominated boxers was a no-show so Lewis as he shall be now known jumped at the chance and went the full six rounds but lost quite convincingly to Johnny Sharp. He wasn’t yet quite sixteen but strict regulations had not been put in place at that time to prevent minors taking to the ring. Whilst the novice hadn’t got the decision he did receive a hot cup of tea and the princely sum of a sixpence for his exertions. From little acorns do mighty oaks grow and his defeat didn’t chastise Lewis’ appetite for the fray, it galvanized him. Less than a week later, his arm was raised for the first of many occasions when he defeated Joe Lipman in another six-rounder. His father caught wind of his new career. He began a lengthy apprenticeship, mostly fighting at the Judean Club, then when his experience increased he got opportunities at Premierland which was the venue to be seen at in the East End. His path wasn’t all plain sailing as he suffered several reverses along his early contests. His style would never be described as orthodox, his early childhood spent running over London’s cobbled streets barefoot or with badly fitting shoes had left him flat-footed allied with a condition known as “hammer toes.” Having the toes bent for a considerable amount of time causes the muscle to shorten resulting in Lewis having this deformity. The disability of his feet caused him to adjust his ring nous as he couldn’t fight on his toes so he countered this with lightning quick fists, holding them low to his waist as he stalked his prey.

As mentioned earlier his path to the top was a long and winding road and when he was put up in class he came unstuck against experienced pros with good resumes. Fred Halsband and Young Joe Brooks both beat Lewis on points in consecutive bouts in August of 1912. Lewis would not be deterred from his ultimate goal of claiming a world strap, realizing he had to learn valuable lessons from his reverses. He avenged Halsband with a ten-round decision and finally on the sixth of October 1913, Kid Lewis claimed his first title with a stoppage in the seventeenth round of Alec Lambert for the vacant British and European featherweight title relinquished by the great Jim Driscoll. He was struggling to make the featherweight limit yet his incentive to claim this first title enabled him to overcome his burgeoning physique. There were still some detractors of Lewis’ technique, many arguing he had immense power but his deficiency in the adroitness of ring craft and his recklessness for engaging would be his undoing. This seeming weakness had a flip side—crowds loved his all or nothing application. That it took him well in excess of one hundred and twenty bouts to realize his first title is testament to his character and fortitude and the man was still two weeks shy of his twentieth birthday! He defended his European strap against the Frenchman, Paul Til at Premierland, one of London’s iconic stadiums. The partisan crowd and the British practice of the time, which had the referee refereeing from the ring apron as opposed to in the ring with the fighters disoriented Til and he was disqualified in the twelfth.

Lewis had two non-title contests before embarking on a tour to Australia to test his mettle against some of the finest the proud former convict colony had to offer. Whilst there was a sense of superiority with many of the British regarding her Empire, the astute were fully aware of the fortitude and incredible teak-like toughness the Australian man brought to any situation he was placed in. So it proved, with Lewis having five contests in a little over sixty days. Each went the allotted twenty rounds with Kid getting the nod in four of them. Having fought three times in one of the great stages in the world, White City Stadium in Sydney would certainly be an experience Kid could draw on a little later when he ventured to the hotbed of boxing, the United States of America. With Lewis’ contractual agreements concluded in Australia instead of the planned return to England, manager Charley Harvey deduced an opportunity to get some action in the States would be beneficial to their pockets and his profile. He made his American bow in the hallowed hall of Madison Square Garden in November 1914 with a newspaper decision over Phil Bloom. Two more victories courtesy of the newspapermen saw Lewis, now known as Ted, make a trip to Havana, Cuba as funds had dried up to beat Frankie Mack on points. Unfortunately, promoters then were even more slippery than today’s iteration and Ted didn’t make a penny. He did however have the pleasure of meeting and sparring with the great Jack Johnson, though the big man would surely have “gone easy” on the wee Englishman!

His return to America cemented his reputation as a top-flight operator in boxing circles. March 26, 1915 saw Ted matched up with the “Boxing Marvel”, Jack Britton. His agent in the States, Jimmy Johnstone, did the Kid a great turn matching him with Britton as he was a world-class opponent in the welterweight division and Ted’s frame could no longer boil down to the featherweight limit. In today’s age men fighting each other two or three times is considered plenty, these two goliaths of their weight class locked horns in an incredible twenty occasions! It’s testament to their amazing matchups that the paying public desired more of the same. When we can digest Gatti-Ward and Pacquiao-Marquez on three and four times respectively, what can be deduced on Britton-Lewis times twenty? What inflamed the rivalry further was the enmity betwixt the pugilists. Despite losing the first contest on a newspaper decision, Lewis had finally arrived. That he had to do it the hard way, via Australia and America made it all the more satisfying.

Harvey, his manager, began a campaign of hawking his protégé to all-comers, with the promise of a winner-takes-all pot. All lightweights and welterweight were put on notice that this alter-ego of the former Gershon Mendeloff was willing and able to best the cream of the American system. His star was polished further when he got the better of top welterweight contenders in Kid Graves and Mike Glover. The clamor for a title fight became deafening and in August of 1915, Lewis fought for the World Welterweight Championship against none other than Jack Britton, who had beaten Lewis with a ten-round newspaper decision earlier in the year. Nobody could accuse the Kid of being ring rusty for his big opportunity as he’d indulged in three bouts of the very same month he would vie for the title. The acerbity between the men was apparent at the weigh-in when Britton cried foul as the Kid came under the agreed weight limit the champion’s team had set for the fight. Britton then refused to weigh in, which technically made the fight a non-title affair. The bad blood between the two had started from their first contest when Britton claimed Lewis was a dirty fighter. A proud Irish American, Britton had further cause to despise Lewis as he represented the country which was allegedly causing bloodshed and mayhem on the Emerald Isle. The scene was set for one of the most magnificent series of contests boxing has been party to.

The first round was barely out of the first minute when Britton cried foul at a heinous act Lewis was perpetrating. The Kid was wearing a gumshield of sorts which was anathema to the boxing cognoscenti of the day. Lewis threw the shield to the apron and the action continued with an extra frisson of animosity effervescing under the surface. Lewis proved his doubters wrong with a clinical display, dropping the obdurate champion in the eleventh on the way to a points victory. It would take another seven decades before a British fighter wrestled a World Welterweight title on American soil when the underrated Ragamuffin Man, Lloyd Honeyghan dethroned the seemingly unbeatable Cobra, Donald Curry. The shenanigans with the weigh-in emitted a foul stench of wrongdoing in the Britton camp, mainly due to the histrionic diatribe of manager, Dan Morgan. A rematch was ordered and the result remained the same, a unanimous decision for Lewis.

Successful defenses against Joe Mandot, Willie Ritchie and Kid Graves were followed by another meting with old antagonist, Britton. This bout ended in a draw and it could be argued that Lewis had reached the acme of his career. He had participated in over one hundred and fifty paid contests at this point and many would have accepted if this great warrior could hang up his gloves.  This was no ordinary man though. He lost his title on a newspaper decision to none other than Jack Britton and subsequent attempts were rebuffed to his nemesis and to Lockport Jimmy Duffy. He stepped up in weight to try for Mike Gibbons middleweight crown, but the heavier man easily got the nod from the newsmen. Draws, losses and wins against the man Lewis loved locking horns with punctuated the next couple of years till June 25th 1917 saw the Aldgate Sphinx wrest the world welterweight crown once again in a titanic twenty-round bout. Despite several losses through the eyes of the sports correspondents in non-title bouts, Lewis successfully defended his hard-fought strap against Bryan Downey then lost it again to Britton in ten. Beating Johnny Tillman over twenty rounds in the middle of 1918 saw the Kid reclaim his title. He retained it with a workmanlike performance over Johnny Griffiths and then scored a credible draw with the incomparable Benny Leonard. It appeared Lewis was on the slide after this bout at the elite level. The title was lost with a ninth round kayo to Britton in March 1919 and a subsequent loss in July to Jack seemed to herald the end. The teak tough East Ender had further ambitions however and a gallant though fruitless attempt at the middleweight crown came to naught when he dropped a decision to Mike O’Dowd.

It was time for Ted to come home after the years of operating at the coal-face of top-level action in America. It would have been fair to assume it was probably time to call it a day, yet this goliath of the little men had other machinations. He claimed the British Middleweight title in 1920 with a kayo over Johnny Bee, then stopped the excellent Johnny Basham in the ninth round for the British, European and Commonwealth Welterweight titles three months later. After stopping Basham in a British and European defense by way of nineteenth round stoppage, Ted found himself in position for another tilt at the World Welterweight title. It would be prosaic to be facing an unknown opponent, for none other than Jack Britton was once again in the opposite corner. A unanimous fifteen-round decision loss was the upshot of his challenge. Lewis would never again be victorious in a world title fight but to say he would rest on his laurels and retire content with all he had achieved in the squared circle was way off the mark.

His return to Europe saw him dominate the domestic scene. He annexed the British middleweight and light-heavy belts, which meant he had won British titles from featherweight up to light-heavyweight. The triumph of securing the light-heavyweight crown of Britain came only nine months after making the welterweight limit for the Britton fight! The final world title challenge for this gamest of pugs was against the superlative Georges Carpentier in May 1922. Here was a boxer who was truly world-class in his natural weight class. To give up so much weight and reach to the peerless Frenchman was pure folly. The contest was over in the first stanza despite Lewis making a bright start. He turned to complain to the referee about some Gallic indiscretion and whilst pleading his case promptly got knocked out. At ringside, the great Jack Dempsey commented, “It was merely a matter of a game man against a good big man.”

Whilst some of the vitality coursing through this potentate of British boxing had waned he still managed to capture the Commonwealth Middleweight title with an eleven round kayo over Frank Burns and beat Roland Todd for the British, Commonwealth and European middleweight belts over twenty grueling rounds. After losing his titles in a rematch with Todd, there was still one final glorious swansong where he managed to boil down to the welterweight limit and claim the British, Commonwealth and European crowns with a twenty-round points decision over Hamilton Johnny Brown on the 3rd of July 1924. The Kid would continue to fight for the next five years with mixed results. His penultimate fight was a crack at the British and Commonwealth heavyweight title in Toronto but it ended in failure after a foul-fueled first round resulting in Lewis quitting the fight. He ended his career on a high note with a third round stoppage of old foe Johnny Basham in December 1929.

Retirement was well earned for the grizzly warrior. In a career spanning an incredible twenty years it was estimated he earned in excess of US$500,000 in America alone, which was an monumental sum for those times yet the Kid was as lavish with his spending outside the ring as he was mean within it. It was said he couldn’t walk past a homeless person without tipping them generous amounts of money. Unverified reports suggest he would regularly drive through the streets of London’s East End and throw notes and coins to the poor! He liked a flutter on the nags as well as living the fast life with fast cars, horses and showbiz friends. The silent screen hero Charlie Chaplin was a dear friend and was even godfather to Lewis’ son Morton. He tried his hand at many things after he retired including being a henchman for the British fascist Oswald Mosley. When he discovered the true nature of the “blackshirts” motives, Ted gave Mosley and two of his thugs a sound thrashing before leaving their company for good. He was also a boxing manager, nightclub owner, Hollywood actor, car salesman and a boxing tutor to the Hungarian Army. All fell by the wayside and he ended his working career as an assistant to his beloved boy, Morton, who had carved out a successful career as a film director. In 1966, the widower Ted moved to Nightingale House, a retirement home for Jewish people in Clapham. He died in 1970 at the age of seventy-seven.

It is worth considering his longevity and record when debates rage over who would lay rightful claim to the best boxer to come from the shores of the United Kingdom. He fought for over twenty years in the most competitive of weight classes, mainly campaigning in the feather and welterweight divisions. He was a world champion at welterweight at a time when there was only one world champion in each division and there were only eight weight divisions at the time. To be lucky enough to get a “shot” was incredibly hard to achieve. To win and retain a world title with all the chicanery and politics of the boxing landscape at that time was testament to a man’s talent. Talent was something Ted had in abundance. Perhaps not the most gifted of boxers but tenacity, desire and an incredible will to win enumerated a fantastic combination. His career will always be related to the fantastic Jack Britton. Twenty times these greats met. They didn’t like each other; in fact they had to be separated at promotions for their fights before the practice became de rigueur for today’s consumer satisfaction. The final tally in their war of attrition was Jack got four victories, Ted got three with one draw. The remaining twelve were no-decisions though local papers would print their verdicts, which would not affect a fighter’s record. One can only imagine the acrimony these two had for one another to continue their five-year feud.

Ted won titles at domestic level from feather all the way up to light-heavy and won European and Commonwealth titles at welter and middleweight. Nat Fleischer and Charley Rose ranked him as the fourth best welterweight of all time and Bert Sugar had him as the thirty-third best boxer in history! When such luminaries as the aforementioned bestow such praise on the man it makes this conclusion a formality. Not only did he bring immense pride to his Jewish fellows, he brought huge pride to the East End and Britain. His performances and desire to succeed were inspiring to all and to think his deeds inspired another marvelous Jewish boxer from the very same area, Jackie “Kid” Berg! The instant gratification of today’s society often means even yesterday’s news is irrelevant. Thankfully, the magnificent sport of boxing allows us the indulgence of reflecting on the enterprise of one of the most iconic figures British boxing has ever had the pleasure to call one of its own. Mike Tyson thought Ted was “probably the greatest fighter to come out of Britain” and Mike has had the great fortune of trawling through one of the most extensive boxing libraries with access to Bill Cayton’s catalogues. His record of 232 victories, 26 draws and 45 defeats will likely never be seen again along with the achievements attained. Ted “Kid” Lewis was a star in the early twentieth century and his effulgent performances are relevant nearly one hundred years on. His legacy and achievements will likely never be replicated.

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rare boxing footage Ted Kid Lewis

Ted 'Kid' Lewis vs Georges Carpentier

Ted 'Kid' Lewis vs Tom Gummer

Ted Kid Lewis

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  1. Jimmy McLeod 04:15am, 02/03/2018

  2. Adam 08:50am, 08/09/2015

    Kid Lewis - he had parents from Russia. But, who knows where they lived in Russia? Remember - in those times a part of Poland was in Russia. I’m looking for information about parents of Kid Lewis. Who can help me?

  3. Kevin Sadler 12:48pm, 04/11/2014

    Has a statue ever been erected to the great Ted Kid Lewis? If yes could someone please tell me where it is? And if no, how many others think like myself that one should be put up to the greatest boxer the UK ever produced

  4. Ted 06:31am, 04/12/2013

    Ben, I finished reading it and once again learned something that I did not know. What a wondeful history lesson. Thanks.

  5. Ben Hoskin 09:22pm, 04/11/2013

    It was a lot longer Ted, this incredible man made it nigh impossible to stop writing!

  6. Tex Hassler 06:17pm, 04/11/2013

    I agree with Mike Casey, Lewis was one of the very best in an era with super tough opposition. I do not know exactly where I would rate him but he would have to be in the top ten.

  7. Ted 06:17pm, 04/11/2013

    That was a lengthy and solid piece of work , Ben.

  8. Mike Casey 01:13pm, 04/11/2013

    The Kid was truly one of the all time great champions. I rate him 7th among the welters - one of the most quality-rich divisions in boxing. There is a very good quality film of Ted beating Johnny Basham - another very good fighter.

  9. Matt Mosley 01:07pm, 04/11/2013

    **Put a lot of time and effort**

  10. Matt Mosley 01:03pm, 04/11/2013

    I have heard quite a few say that it is between Lewis and Jimmy Wilde as the best British fighter ever, probably followed by Lennox Lewis and maybe Joe Calzaghe (depending on how you view Calzaghe).
    I will read your article later when i have more time but i can see you have out a lot of time and effort into it, judging by the length of it.  :)

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