January 14, 1921: Leonard vs Mitchell

It’s a cold night in New York City but Benny Leonard and Richie Mitchell provide more than a little heat with one of the greatest opening rounds in boxing history. It’s a rematch after their first bout back in 1917 saw Leonard stop his man in the seventh round, and most are expecting another exhibition of “The Ghetto Wizard’s” pugilistic greatness. And those expectations would be fulfilled but not before Leonard’s fans got the shock of their lives.

Since that first clash, Mitchell had notched some thirty wins while losing only once, dropping a newspaper decision to the great Lew Tendler; Benny had been on an even more impressive tear with victories over Johnny Kilbane, Jack Britton, Willie Ritchie and Johnny Dundee.

Richie Mitchell
Richie Mitchell

Naturally the clever Leonard was feeling very confident and when famous racketeer and gambler Arnold Rothstein told Benny just before the opening bell that he had wagered $25 000 on the champion scoring a first round knockout, Leonard agreed to oblige, especially since Rothstein promised the brilliant pugilist a piece of the action. Brandishing his lethal right hand, the champion walked to ring centre in search of a quick KO and less than a minute in it appeared he would get it as he feinted and then drove home a right that put Mitchell on the canvas.

The challenger rose on unsteady pins at the count of nine and promptly clung to Leonard like a drowning man to a life preserver but the champion disentangled himself and then decked Mitchell again, this time with a left hook. When the brave challenger beat the count a second time, Leonard moved in to land a one-two to the chin that put Mitchell down yet again. At ringside, Arnold Rothstein had a broad smile on his face.

Arnold Rothstein
Arnold Rothstein

But the referee didn’t stop the fight and the gutsy Irishman rose up a third time. There was a minute left in the round and Leonard was a bit arm weary and suddenly, out of nowhere, Mitchell is throwing leather. As the crowd roars, the challenger charges, eventually getting in a left to the body followed by a shattering right to the jaw and suddenly everyone in Madison Square Garden is standing except the great Benny Leonard.

Rothstein stares open-mouthed, disbelieving. The crowd goes crazy and the walls of the Garden are shaking. At the count of seven a dazed Leonard climbs to his feet, blood trickling from his mouth, his eyes glassed over. The people in his corner are jumping up and down, shouting, “Box! Box!” and the Jewish hero nods his head, but then does the most confounding thing: he stands flat-footed, scowls at Mitchell and beckons to him with both hands to come and fight.

The great Benny Leonard. Drawing by Damien Burton.

The gesture shocked everyone, including Mitchell who, instead of springing to the attack to try and batter senseless an already hurt opponent, feared a trap and warily kept his distance. The seconds ticked away as both men held their ground, ending one of the most thrilling first rounds in boxing history, and marking a rare loss for the wily Rothstein.

Back in his corner, Leonard quickly recovered, telling his handlers he was fine. He went on to outbox and punish Mitchell for the next five rounds, flooring him four more times before the one-sided drubbing was halted in round six. The outcome was not surprising, but that opening stanza was a thriller, one of the most exciting rounds in Garden history and one of the most memorable in Benny Leonard’s amazing career.     — Robert Portis 

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