Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836) is considered to be the originator of modern boxing and was the most celebrated Jewish athlete of his time. He became the sixteenth heavyweight boxing champion of England.
Mendoza was born in the west London neighborhood of Whitechapel on July 5, 1764. His parents were artisans and reputedly descended from Spanish nobility. He received a Jewish education and spent much of his life defending that education and religion with his fists. The West End of London was the home of many professional fighters of the time. At least 20 major Jewish fighters grew up there.
Athleticism, particularly violent sports like boxing, were not a strong part of the Jewish tradition. Although some rabbis encouraged ball playing, calisthenics, and moderate exercise to promote health, Jewish people were generally advised to avoid violence, preoccupation with the body, sensuality, and physical force. Instead, they were encouraged to cultivate learning, intellect, and spiritual values. At the time, England was not a particularly comfortable place for Jews, who faced widespread discrimination. Like present-day minorities, young Jews turned to boxing as a way to gain respect and disprove stereotypes. Then, as now, boxing was a way out of the ghetto. As Jeffrey T. Sammons wrote in Beyond the Ring, "Discriminated against at all levels of society and ridiculed for their appearance, language, and manner, some Jews turned to boxing as a way to earn respect, a sense of belonging, and, for a few, money."
Boxing at the time was very different from what it is today. Although Jack Broughton had introduced new rules in the mid-1700s, making the sport less brutal than it had been in the past, boxing was still not well regulated. The new rules banned hitting a man when he was down, grabbing him by the breeches or below the waist, and kicking, but they did not prohibit hair-pulling, ear-pulling, holding-and-hitting, or wrestling. A favorite tactic was to throw the opponent with a hip lock or to trip him, and then "accidentally" fall on him, smashing a knee or elbow into his rib or face.
Men fought bare-knuckled, without gloves, and a round lasted until one punched or threw the other to the ground or to his knees. Between rounds, they had 30 seconds of rest, after which they had to be "at the scratch" and ready to fight. If a man was not standing up and ready, he lost. Fighters had "seconds," or friends who would help them up if need be. Usually, if a second came in, this meant that the boxer could not stand without help and he would then lose. During fights, boxers usually bled, and spectators often bet on who would bleed first and how soon it would happen. Occasionally, boxers were killed in the ring, but authorities usually did not prosecute the killer.
After Mendoza's bar mitzvah, at the age of 13, he wanted to become a glazier or glass cutter. However, he lost his job when he beat the son of the man he was apprenticed to in a fight. After this, he found work in a fruit and vegetable shop and then in a tea shop, where he beat up a customer who was threatening the owner. A crowd gathered to watch this fight. One of the spectators was a famous boxer, Richard Humphreys, known as "The Gentleman Boxer." Humphreys was so impressed with Mendoza's fighting ability that he offered to be his second in the fight.
Word got around that a new fighter had appeared and, a week later, Mendoza was set up to fight a professional boxer. He won the fight, was paid five guineas, and received the nickname "The Star of Israel." Mendoza soon got a job in a tobacco shop, but could not stop getting into fights with customers. More than physical fights, he saw these disputes as battles against injustice, prejudice, and brutality. Mendoza believed he was justified in defending himself.
In 1790, Mendoza won his first professional fight. This attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, who became his patron. He was the first boxer to have royal patronage and, because of this favorable attention from royalty, helped to change attitudes toward Jewish people in English society. Proudly, he called himself "Mendoza the Jew."
Christina Hale noted in English Sports and Pastimes, "Prize-fighters like Mendoza, Cribb, Belcher, and Gregson were national heroes; when Mendoza defeated Martin in 1787 the enthusiasm of the crowd broke all bounds, and the victor was brought back to London by a vast horde of jubilant supporters who carried lighted torches and sang 'See the Conquering Hero Comes' all the way home."
Mendoza's wife, however, was not happy with his constant fighting. He promised her he would give up the sport, but only if he could first fight his most hated rival. Surprisingly, that rival was Richard Humphreys, the same man who had gotten him involved in the sport.
Mendoza was the lightest heavyweight boxer in history: he weighed only 160 pounds and was 5 feet, 7 inches tall. If he were alive today, he would be considered a middleweight, but his chest was enormous and he always fought men much bigger than he was, and won. After getting hurt a few times, Mendoza came up with some new boxing techniques to protect himself from punches, such as sidestepping and hitting with a straight left. These methods, in which a fighter used his speed and foot movement, not just his brute strength, were more "scientific" than earlier boxing methods. When Mendoza introduced them, some spectators claimed that he was not punching away in a manly fashion, but was retreating and running away. Soon, however, Mendoza's techniques were admired and copied by other boxers.
Mendoza tested his new techniques in the fight against Humphreys on January 9, 1788 at Odiham in Hampshire. Many Jewish people, proud of their own, bet on his success. They lost when Humphreys beat Mendoza in 15 minutes. A rematch was held on May 6, 1789, at Stilton. Almost 3,000 people showed up for this fight, which Mendoza won. His fame increased. His name was mentioned in popular plays and songs were written about his win.
Boxing was extremely popular in Britain, and was enjoyed by all social classes. The prime minister attended fights regularly, as did the writers Jonathan Swift and Horace Walpole. Many famous artists drew and painted fights. Charles Dickens was also a regular fight spectator. When Mendoza fought Humphreys, a commemorative mug was produced depicting the fight. Because boxing was so fashionable, Mendoza held many public exhibitions to teach boxing to London society men. Eventually, he was making three theater appearances each week to demonstrate boxing, making 50 pounds for each appearance—quite a large sum at the time.
Humphreys fought Mendoza on September 29, 1790, and Mendoza won again. In 1794, he defeated the current English and world champion, Bill Warr, at Bexley Common, becoming the sixteenth English and world heavyweight champion. He held this title until April 15, 1795, when John Jackson defeated him by using a tactic that would be considered unfair now: he grabbed a handful of Mendoza's long hair, held him, and beat him senseless in the ninth round. Jackson's own head was shaved, so other boxers could not play this dirty trick on him.
Despite this defeat, Mendoza kept fighting. On March 23, 1896, he fought 53 rounds with Harry Lee at Grimsted-Green in Kent, and won. On July 4, 1820, he fought Tom Owen at Barnstead Downs, but lost in the 12th round. According to Robert Slater in Great Jews in Sports, an anonymous poet of the time lamented, "Is this Mendoza?—this the Jew of whom my fancy cherished so beautiful a waking dream, a vision which has perished?"
In 1820, according to Slater, Mendoza said, "I think I have a right to call myself the father of the science [of boxing], for it is well known that prize fighting lay dormant for several years. It was myself and Humphreys who revived it in our three contests for supremacy, and the science of pugilism has been patronized ever since."
Mendoza's most famous move, besides his general agility, courage, and skill, was his straight left. He traveled throughout England demonstrating this move and his other "scientific" methods of boxing. Mendoza wrote two books on boxing, The Art of Boxing (1789) and The Memoirs of the Life of Daniel Mendoza (1816). According to Mangan, he wrote in The Art of Boxing that fighters should hit opponents "on the eye brows, on the bridge of the nose, on the temple arteries, beneath the left ear, under the short ribs, or in the kidneys." Hitting the kidneys "deprives the person struck of his breath, occasions an instant discharge of urine, puts him in the greatest torture and renders him for some time a cripple."
Despite these books and his success in boxing, Mendoza ended up in debtors' prison. He then held a series of odd jobs. Mendoza worked as a boxing teacher and did some theatrical touring. He was also a recruiting sergeant, process server, and pub-keeper. When he died in London on September 3, 1836, Mendoza left his wife and 11 children penniless.
In 1965, when the Boxing Hall of Fame was begun in the United States, Mendoza was chosen to be a member. He was also elected to the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel. To this day, Mendoza is considered a great hero in the Jewish community because he countered the stereotypes, and demonstrated that Jewish people could be manly and courageous. Since his time, other Jewish fighters have considered him their role model, including "Dutch" Sam Elias, who invented the uppercut, Barney Aaron, Izzy Lazarus, and the four Belasco brothers, as well as Max Baer.
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