The Day Benny Leonard Died

By Jeffrey Sussman on May 5, 2015
The Day Benny Leonard Died
“Benny Leonard was not some defenseless guy who would be slaughtered by Cossacks.”

“He was a skinny kid whose name was then Benjamin Leiner. He was a tough little guy. But he was fast and had great punches…”

Grandpa, an immigrant who had escaped from a Russian pogrom, arrived in New York, where he could freely pursue his love of opera, art, and boxing. Shortly after renting an apartment on the lower east side, he got a job with a Jewish burial society and joined the Fondon Athletic Club, where he took boxing lessons.

In the 1950s, I often spent weekends at my grandparents’ apartment, where I excitedly watched the televised Friday night fights. I loved to watch my heroes: Sugar Ray Robinson, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, and Jake LaMotta. One Friday night, after telling my grandfather how much I enjoyed watching Sugar Ray Robinson, I asked him who was the best fighter he had seen when he was a young man.

“It had to be Benny Leonard,” he said. “I first saw him at the Fondon Athletic Club, a few blocks from where I lived. He was a skinny kid whose name was then Benjamin Leiner. He was a tough little guy, about 5’5” and maybe 125 pounds. But he was fast and had great punches. I was just taking lessons at the club, but I never would’ve gotten into the ring with him. He would’ve knocked me cold. I knew he could become a champ. He was not some defenseless guy who would be slaughtered by Cossacks. If anything, he would go down fighting. When he turned pro, I would go to his fights in New York. You know, his hair was always neatly combed and never seemed to get messed. He had speed and strategy. He was wonderful to watch. He even made a few silent movies in the twenties; I think they were called Flying Fists or something like that.

“I would go to the fights on Friday and the opera on Saturday. I’d also go to some of the art galleries. I took painting lessons at Cooper Union and painted nude female models. One day, when I was at the fights, your grandmother threw out all the nude paintings. It was the end of my career as a painter. By then, I had a store to run and didn’t have time for painting. I still loved boxing and the opera. I would go as often as possible, but your grandmother can’t stand the fights. She pretends to watch on television, but I can see she’s napping. See. Just look at her.

“I’m not sleeping,” grandma said. “Would you like some cookies?” she asked.

“No thanks. I just want to hear grandpa’s story.”

“OK. You listen. I’m gonna have a cuppa tea.”

She left the room, and the story continued.

“The saddest day for me was when Benny died. He had lost all his money during the stock market crash in ’29. He made a brief comeback, but his speed was gone. He was too old, no longer in shape. So after a few more years, he took up work as a referee just to support himself. One night, he was refereeing a fight at the St. Nicholas Arena. It wasn’t that long ago. It was in ‘47. The crowd was excited to see the old champ back in the ring, even if he was kind of fat and going bald. Those who saw him fight in the twenties still remembered him. In the twenties, he could have been a haberdashery model. He had looked really sharp in a custom-made suit. Very smart looking. Anyway, there he was in the ring, just wearing dark pants and a white shirt. You could see he had gone soft. The fight started and then during that first round Benny collapsed. Just fell to the canvas. People jumped up to get a better view. We didn’t know what had happened. He was just lying there. His heart just gave out. It was his final knockout blow. He was carried out on a stretcher, and a lot of fans wept like kids. I’ll never forget the day Benny died. Everybody liked Benny. He was the real deal. A boxing mensch.”

Jeffrey Sussman is the author of ten books and has a marketing/PR company, www.powerpublicity.com.

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  1. Don from Prov 11:43am, 05/08/2015

    Fine piece on one of the ATG fighters.

  2. peter 03:47am, 05/07/2015

    A nice tidbit on a master of the past. I’ve always held out hope that somewhere in someone’s attic, old Benny Leonard fight films will be discovered.

  3. beaujack 11:58am, 05/06/2015

    true Nicolas. Benny Leonard was refereeing several bouts before he collapsed from a heart attack. I believe he took off his tie before his attack, probably had an angina attack. Today most likely his heart problems would have been discovered before and a stent put in his artery…

  4. nicolas 10:18am, 05/06/2015

    It has been my understanding that when Leonard died, he had been referee ring a whole bunch of fights, and that because of his death, no one referee would be allowed to an entire card as he was supposed to do.

  5. Jeffrey Sussman 06:45am, 05/06/2015

    Thanks. I’m glad you liked it. There’s never been anyone like Benny

  6. beaujack 06:34am, 05/06/2015

    Jeffrey great article on Benny Leonard, arguably the greatest lightweight who ever lived…the only time I saw my dad a tough character weep was the day Benny Leonard died of a heart attack refereeing bouts at the old St Nicks arena. My dad came from the lower Eastside of NY, where Leonard started boxing…I used to see Benny Leonard refereeing bouts at MSG and other NY fight Arena;‘s and he always got a rousing reception from the crowd. The Great Bennah as he was known…

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