“A man cannot jump over his own shadow.” Yiddish proverb
Of all the Jewish fighters regarded as potential heirs to Benny Leonard in the late 1920s—a shortlist includes Solly Seeman, Ruby Goldberg, and Sid Terris—only Abraham “Al” Singer actually managed to win the lightweight title. For a while, Singer even fought under the imprimatur of “The Ghetto Wizard.” Today Singer is little more than a historical footnote, regarded as lightly, perhaps, as Jimmy Goodrich or Rocky Kansas, but at his peak, from 1928 to 1930, Al Singer was a bona fide sensation.
“It makes no difference who he fights,” Madison Square Garden promoter Jimmy Johnston once said, “a bum off the streets or the champion, we will sell out.” Indeed, Singer, who fought 65 of his 73 bouts in New York City, was one of the greatest attractions ever to step into a Big Apple ring. Some of the box office numbers are astonishing. Both of his fights with ferocious Roaring Twenties hangover Bud Taylor drew 20,000 spectators; 19,000 watched him decision Stanislaus Loayza; and 21,630 amassed for his first brawl with Tony Canzoneri in 1928. Even bouts with less distinguished figures overworked the turnstiles: sellout crowds gathered to see Singer outpoint Davey Abad and annihilate Jersey City hero Young Zazzarino. Those were heady days for Al Singer, “The Next Benny Leonard,” but they did not last for long.
Born in New York City on September 6, 1909, Al Singer spent his early years on the Lower East Side before his father, a successful businessman, moved the family to Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. Unlike most fighters of his era, Singer did not turn to boxing out of poverty or hardship. While still in high school the athletic Singer was apprenticed to a diamond cutter but found that fame–the kind that drew the ladies as well as a certain glamorous notoriety associated with speakeasies and Tommy Guns–came easily with his natural talents: remarkable speed and a concussive right cross. Singer turned pro in 1927 as a featherweight under the guidance of Hymie Caplin and Harry Drucker.
His first bout, for which he was paid $75.00, was a third round knockout of Jim Reilly on July 2, 1927. Over the next two years Singer fought nearly fifty times, lighting up local clubs and arenas from the Ridgewood Grove in Brooklyn to Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue. Not since the days of Ruby Goldberg had there been so much ballyhoo over a Jewish fighter. Singer spit out combinations with the speed of a Chicago Typewriter, snapped a sharp staccato jab, and stepped around his opponents with the swiftness of a champion jitterbug. Outside of the ring his cocky attitude and dark looks created a stir among the ladies, Jew and Gentile alike. Apart from a few early points losses (typically avenged in rematches), Singer resembled The Spirit of St. Louis reincarnated in trunks and gloves. In fact, whispers concerning the ease with which some of his opponents were being outstripped soon began to echo.
From the beginning Singer was haunted by the shadow of the underworld. “I always fought to win and I thought the other guy was out to do the same thing,” he told Stanley Weston. “Sure the mobs were around then. Every tough guy had his fighter. Just like he had a moll and diamonds. It was the style. But nobody ever asked me to ‘dump’ one or to make a deal.”
If nothing else, Singer seems to have cornered the “Guilt By Association” market. Harry Drucker, for example, was a member of a small but lethal crew of stick-up artists and gangland kidnappers. On October 7, 1927, in something out of the pages of Black Mask, Drucker was taken for a one-way-ride by two overcoats posing as detectives. With his partner gone the way of Judge Crater, Caplin now assumed full managerial duties for Singer. Caplin also had a habit of traveling under partly cloudy moral skies. His brother, immortalized by Herbert Asbury in “Gangs of New York,” was the notorious mobster Nathan “Kid Dropper” Kaplan, and Hymie himself was eventually sentenced to a stretch at Auburn State Prison in 1941 for grand larceny. Singer also spent may nights hobnobbing with notorious mobster Champ Segal, and several of his fights were accompanied by the kinds of dark rumors all too common during an era when Owney Madden, Legs Diamond, Al Capone, “Boo Boo” Hoff, Waxey Gordon, and Dutch Schultz all owned fighters.
By 1929 Singer was a rated contender as well as a supernatural gate attraction. His thrilling toe-to-toe draw with Tony Canzoneri in December 1928 established “The Bronx Bronco” as a legitimate star in the making, and consecutive wins over Bud Taylor, “The Terror of Terre Haute,” boosted his popularity as well as his bankroll. Singer would go on to earn over $500,000 in his career.
On April 19, 1929, Singer suffered an eye injury during a match with former amateur standout Patsy Ruffalo in Detroit, but, in keeping with his rambunctious ways, decided to keep a May date with crude Filipino slugger Ignacio Fernandez at Madison Square Garden anyway. Ten thousand fans watched in horror as Fernandez mauled their hero, an overwhelming favorite, in three sadistic rounds. “Singer toppled face forward,” wrote James P. Dawson of the startling KO, “rolled over and was counted out.” Singer, the only quality fighter Fernandez managed to defeat in a career that spanned more than 80 fights, stubbornly entered the ring that night with impaired vision, unable to decline the temptation of another sizeable purse. It would be a mistake that Singer would never really overcome. Eye trouble would haunt the remainder of his career.
Singer was back in the ring less than a month after his first knockout loss and regained his momentum with a win over tough Carl Duane at the Starlight Park in the Bronx, and a quick demolition job of ex-featherweight champion Andre Routis at Ebbets Field. These fights set up a match with Harlem-based Cuban Kid Chocolate, one of the true wonders of boxing in the 1920s and 30s. Chocolate, box-office gold in New York City at the time because of his smooth boxing skills and free-wheeling lifestyle, entered his match with Singer sporting a gaudy 40-0 record. In August 1929 nearly 50,000 spectators jammed the Polo Grounds and coughed up a gate just shy of a quarter of a million dollars to see “The Bronx Bronco” and “The Cuban Bon Bon” mix it up. After 12 rounds Chocolate, as slick a boxer as one will ever see, earned a slim decision disapproved of by the zealous crowd.
The fight was close enough to earn Singer a title shot with lightweight champion Sammy Mandell. But first, Singer would have to try to even the score with the only man to knock him out: Ignacio Fernandez. The rematch was set for May 23, 1930, at Madison Square Garden. In the days leading up to the fight rumors were so thick that James Farley, New York State Boxing Commissioner, visited Fernandez in his dressing room prior to the match to warn the Filipino against any shenanigans. Singer went on to score a decision over Fernandez and he was granted a shot at the lightweight title, then held by Sammy Mandell.
Sammy Mandell, trained early in his career by legendary Jack Blackburn, was a skilled boxer whose four-year title reign included decisions over Jimmy McLarnin and Tony Canzoneri. He was the first solid lightweight champion to emerge in the fallow wake of Benny Leonard, eclipsing the modest talents of Jimmy Goodrich and Rocky Kansas with ease. By the time Mandell stepped into the ring with Singer, however, he had not made the lightweight limit in nearly a year and had defended his title only four times since winning it from Rocky Kansas in 1926. Still, it seemed curious for oddsmakers to install such a respected champion as a 3 to 1 underdog.
On July 17, 1930, a crowd of 27,742 gathered at Yankee Stadium to see if the odds could be bucked. They were not. The fight, in fact, might as well have taken place in an abattoir. Apart from shaking hands during pre-fight instructions, “The Rockford Sheik” never managed to lay a glove on Singer–he never got the chance. Within thirty seconds of the opening bell, Singer caught Mandell with a left hook on the chin that dropped Mandell to the mat. Mandell rose quickly only to be dropped again by a quick flurry of rights and lefts. Once more the brave champion staggered to his feet and once more Singer bowled him over with a fusillade of punches. Mandell, although by now completely blotto, somehow beat the count of referee Arthur Donovan and was allowed to continue despite being little more than a swaying target. Finally Singer, with a sinister grin, ended matters concussively with a perfect overhand right that sent Mandell spinning into a macabre pirouette before he finally crashed flat on his back where he listened to the count of ten with faraway eyes.
“On the fourth and final knockdown,” wrote James P. Dawson, “the Yankee Stadium was transformed into a veritable bedlam. Hats flying in air, newspapers and programs tossed aloft, canes waving, husky throats booming, all mingled in a greeting for the new champion.” It was all over in one minute and forty-six seconds. Al Singer, not yet 21, was now the lightweight champion of the world. But not everyone was impressed.
“It would only be keeping the record straight to say that this fight,” wrote Westbrook Pegler, “like all other important prize fights in the New York ring nowadays, was preceded by rumors that Mandell was certain to lose and that his manager Mr. Kane had been voted a block of stock in Singer to compensate for the loss of his income from Mandell.” To make matters worse, Mandell soon emerged with a cloak and dagger tale worthy of Agatha Christie or Eric Ambler: he had been, he insisted, poisoned before his match with Singer. This kind of skulduggery has occurred before in the often lawless world of boxing, but was it really such a shock to see Singer obliterate a fighter who had entered the ring with the wear and tear of ten years and nearly one hundred and fifty professional fights? “I guess inactivity had a lot to do with it,” Mandell initially stated. “Inactivity and not fighting regularly at the weight.” That sounds reasonable enough, but much of the press remained unconvinced. Pegler has the last word: “Mandell was a set up and any fairly aggressive lightweight would have knocked him out as easily as Singer did that night. Such things have happened before, but the most curious factor in this case is that all the leading gamblers in the Broadway delicatessen district were overwhelmingly confident long before ring time that the championship would pass to Al Singer.”
For his next fight Singer brazenly demanded, and received, a match against dangerous Jimmy McLarnin, the dynamic welterweight who had earned, as Bert Sugar aptly put it, “almost permanent possession of any and all Jewish fighters.” Jackie Fields, Sid Terris, Ruby Goldstein, and a geriatric Benny Leonard on the sad comeback were some of the brilliant buxfytehs who were knocked out by McLarnin. Singer, and Hymie Caplin, of course, knew that a bout with the wildly popular Irishman would guarantee another blockbuster payday. They were right. For this non-title tilt Singer would earn $33,341—an outrageous fortune during the depths of the Depression. What Singer could not know at the time, however, was that Jimmy McLarnin, one of the greatest little men in the history of boxing, would effectively end his career.
On September 11, 1932, Singer and McLarnin faced each other at Yankee Stadium. For two rounds Singer did his best Benny Leonard impression and smoothly outboxed an onrushing McLarnin. Within a minute of the opening bell, in fact, Singer dropped the “Baby-Faced Assassin” to his knees with a hard right cross, and nearly 30,000 fans in the Bronx erupted simultaneously. Could this be it? Was Singer going to be the one to put an end to the Irish hex? McLarnin rose quickly, and the two matinee idols, both among the top draws in boxing at the time, slugged until the bell. In the second round McLarnin outworked Singer to the body and sent the lightweight champion into retreat with pressure and volume punching. Singer returned to his corner with a small cut over his right eye.
In the third round, Singer began to exchange with McLarnin in an effort to get respect. What he got instead from McLarnin was a thudding left hook and a whipping right that caught him square on the jaw. Singer went down as if smacked with a quarterstaff. “He hit me a right on the chin and I fell so hard, I actually thought my neck was broken,” Singer told Boxing & Wrestling in 1955. “I am not fooling. I thought my neck had snapped.” So, apparently, did McLarnin. Halfway through the count, McLarnin, no doubt believing his opponent was through for the night, executed his traditional handspring in the neutral corner; when he popped to his feet again an instant later he saw Singer charging forward, ready to swap more leather. The Irishman obliged, dropping Singer for ten with a final crippling left. It would take nearly four more years before Barney Ross, the last great Jewish fighter, broke the incredible McLarnin jinx. By then Al Singer would be washed up.
Despite his loss to McLarnin, Singer was still a relatively hot commodity when he signed to face popular Brooklynite Tony Canzoneri in a rematch of the bout that first brought Singer fame. On November 14, 1930, Singer stepped into Madison Square Garden before 16,000 fans to defend his for the first time. Much had changed, it seemed, since Canzoneri and an inexperienced Singer fought to a draw in 1928. For one thing, Singer was damaged goods; for another, perhaps more importantly, Singer and Caplin were now on the outs. Canzoneri, the former featherweight champion and ex-bootblack, was coming off of a shellacking at the hands of Billy Petrolle in September. In addition, Canzoneri had not scored a knockout in seven consecutive fights leading up to the Singer match. The lightweight champion was tabbed a 3 to 1 favorite. It took 66 seconds for Canzoneri to make a schlemiel out of Singer and the oddsmakers. After staggering Singer with a right, Canzoneri connected with a left hook that dropped the lightweight champion flat on his face. Singer remained motionless until the count reached seven, and then he stirred himself into a drunken rendition of “The Crawling Baby Blues” before nearly rolling out of the ring as referee Johnny McAvoy reached the count of ten. Only twenty-one years old, Al Singer, who had won and lost the lightweight championship in a total two minutes and fifty-two seconds, was through.
Like the Mandell bout, the Canzoneri debacle baffled many. Dan Parker, irascible muckraker for The New York Daily Mirror, claimed that Singer laid down to spite Hymie Caplin. Talk of a betting coup was rampant. A few months after the upset, an incident occurred which, in retrospect, might shed some light on the whole affair.
In March 1931, Singer and Caplin met by chance in a Madison Square Garden office when things got out of control. According to reports, Singer demanded “$20,000″ that Caplin had “cheated” him out of. Before Caplin could alibi, Singer socked him on the jaw. A mêlée broke out involving Singer, Caplin, a paperweight, Louis Singer, trainer Moe Levy, Garden matchmaker Tom McArdle, and two cuspidors. Caplin came out of the rumpus with a split lip and Singer with a shiner, courtesy of a well-aimed paperweight. “I never cheated him out of a cent,” Caplin told the newswires. “In fact I made him a champion and made him wealthy. He’s just an ingrate. The fact that he grabbed those spittoons shows how much courage he has. If I managed him in a comeback I’d be afraid to match him with a good fighter even if they agreed to let him use the spittoons.”
Caplin sold his interest in Singer to French manager Leon See, ignominiously known as the man who introduced Primo Carnera to the world, and Singer began a comeback. Five easy wins followed, including a knockout over “Cannonball” Eddie Martin, before Singer faced rugged ex-featherweight champ Battling Battalino. On December 11, 1931, Battalino–on the rampage as usual–hammered Singer in two grisly rounds. James P. Dawson described the slaughter. “Singer left himself open, when Battalino overtook him in flight, to a left and right to the jaw, and the Bronx lad went down, floundering on the ring floor as he reached blindly first for Referee Haley and then for a ring rope that was beyond his grasp, to pull himself erect.” Singer promptly retired.
For the next four years Singer worked at a variety of jobs–café owner, salesman, real estate entrepreneur–before the restlessness that often afflicts ex-prizefighters settled on him. Singer mounted the obligatory failed comeback and finally hung up the gloves for good in 1935. His final record was 62-9-2.
During World War II Singer was stationed in Camp Upton, where he taught fitness and gave occasional boxing exhibitions. Eventually, Singer was declared physically unfit for service, and he was discharged. The reason? He could barely see out of his right eye, the same one damaged by Patsy Ruffalo in 1929. Al Singer died of a heart attack in New York City in 1961. He has 51 years old.
This story was originally printed in Boxing World Magazine.