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Philadelphia Southpaw Lew Tendler

by Chuck Hasson

For many years, when discussing the greatest southpaw boxers of all time, one name was usually at the top of every list – Lew Tendler! Of course, in recent years, with the resurgence of left-handed boxers, Tendler’s position of supremacy has been challenged by the likes of Marvin Hagler and Pernell Whitaker. Even in Philadelphia, some local fistic followers rate Tyrone Everett as the best portsider ever developed in the city. While opinions on this matter may vary, one fact remains certain and that is – Tendler is one of boxing’s legends.

Tendler was born in Philadelphia on September 28, 1898 and raised around 6th Street and Reed.  In his youth, he was a wiry little guy who was always looking to hustle a buck to help out at home since times were tough and extra money was hard to come by.

Eventually, he became a newsboy, which during this period was a very rugged occupation for a youngster. Philadelphia then had eight daily newspapers and circulation wars were raging across the city. Many papers hired “sluggers” in order to hawk their sheets at prime corner locations and run off any competitors.

Soon, Lew came under the wing of Phil Glassman, an older youth who organized a group of paperboys to combat the sluggers. To Glassman’s surprise, scrawny Lew became quite proficient at holding a corner. Before long, Glassman and Tendler both had ideas that maybe his ability to hold a street corner and hawk newspapers was not the extent of Lew's talents, they started thinking they might make some long green in the boxing game which was flourishing in the city at this time. Philadelphia had seven clubs running successful weekly boxing shows plus frequent activity in the outlying areas of Camden, Chester, Allentown, and Lancaster that provided many paydays for a rugged and colorful lad.

Young Tendler knew the only obstacle in his path was that his parents, particularly his mother, had strong objections to “prize-fighting.” At first, he intended to box on the sly so that his folks would not find out. But, after coming home with a few too many bruises and not enough adequate excuses, Lew was soon confronted by his mother who asked “have you been prize-fighting?” As the histrionics continued and Mama Tendler sat down and began to cry, Lew went to her and put ten bucks in her lap. She looked up and said “Lew, where did you get this money?” “Fighting, mom,” he said. Hearing this, Mrs. Tendler wiped her eyes, looked at the ten bucks and said “Lew, you are a great son. When is your next fight?” Lew Tendler was on his way.

The non-stop, all-action style that Lew used at the beginning of his career quickly caught on with the Philly boxing fans and he became a sensational attraction at all the clubs. Glassman realized that Tendler had something special and he was soon negotiating Lew’s services with the highest bidder.

Sellout crowds were the norm for his bouts at the National AC (at 11th Street and Catharine), the Olympia Club (at Broad and Bainbridge), and the Broadway AC (at 15th and Washington). He met and defeated Philadelphia’s legion of top flight bantams and featherweights including Eddie O’Keefe, Benny Kaufman, Louisiana, and Young McGovern. Before long, Lew became a highly skilled craftsman with a terrific body attack that made him a feared battler.

His first national attention came when he whipped the future World Bantamweight Champion, Pete Herman, at the Olympia. This was during the “No Decision” period in Philadelphia and all the papers had Lew winning against the great New Orleans scrapper. This prompted the promoters to import the best talent from around the country at a time when there were literally hundreds of top notch performers in the lighter weight classes. The list of boxers that Lew defeated read like the “Who’s Who” of his day.

Lew ran up a remarkable record and was virtually unbeatable for a stretch of five or six years and well over one hundred matches. It was far from an easy run though. He had many rugged battles and some close calls. A case in point, and one of the most discussed and debated bouts in history, was his affair with New York’s vicious punching Willie Jackson at Shibe Park on August 11, 1919, for the promotional combine of Herman Taylor and Bobby Gunnis.

Jackson, who was one of only two men to ever knockout the great Johnny Dundee (a man of 330 bouts) in a sensational affair at the Olympia in 1917, came out fast against Tendler and caught him cold with thunderous shots, dropping him flat on his back and seemingly out to the world. But, the fast work and “savvy” of the Glassman corner team, which included trainer “Scoodles” Rhinefeld and the notorious - and feared – Max “Boo Boo” Hoff (famous as a manager and promoter, and infamous as a bootlegger and rackets boss), saved Lew.

Although versions of this story varied as the years went on, heating up the always inter-city rivalry between New York and Philadelphia, one fact is indisputable. As Tendler lay unconscious in a neutral corner, “Hoff” ran over and threw a bucket of water on him, reviving him so he was able to reach his feet by the count of nine.

The New York contingent screamed bloody murder, claiming that referee Pop O’Brien gave Tendler a slow count and then allowed him to recuperate by admonishing his corner that Lew would be disqualified if they ever tried that again. All this took place before he let the contest continue – that was the “New York” version. The Philadelphians, of course disagreed, stating that although they were guilty of throwing the water on Lew, he was able to beat the count, resume the fray, and survive the round – and that O’Brien’s sermon came as he was counting. Anyway, Lew recovered enough to come back and easily win the remainder of the six round bout. Still, the controversy lived on for years.

By this time, Lew had become a popular attraction all over the country and had beaten the best local lightweights these cities had.  It wasn't long before the national press was writing that Tendler was perhaps the best lightweight in the world.  This was no minor feat when you consider that the champion, Benny Leonard, was considered to be “pound for pound” the greatest fighter in the world in an era when champions like Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, Johnny Dundee and Pancho Villa ruled their divisions.

Tendler and Glassman began to pressure promoters Taylor and Gunnis to secure a title match for Lew. Finally, they signed Leonard to meet Tendler at the Baker Bowl on August 12, 1921.  Interest in the match was fantastic and over one hundred thousand dollars was already in the till 3 weeks before the fight date when Leonard cancelled - claiming a broken pinky finger.  As the promoters refunded the money, the Philadelphia sports world was outraged, calling the injury a hoax and fanning the flames of the old New York-Philadelphia rivalry.

As everyone knows, the pair was matched again the following year on July 27, 1922 in Jersey City and it became one of the most famous title contests in history, as Leonard "talked” Tendler out of the title.

The fight was scheduled for 12 “No-Decision” rounds - meaning that Lew would have to stop Benny inside the distance in order to be declared the new champion. 

He got the chance in the eighth and what followed has been the subject of legend ever since.  Lew staggered the champ badly with a terrific shot under the heart.  When it appeared that Benny might fall, he seemed to say something to Lew that abruptly stopped his attack and caused him to protest what Leonard said.

The boxers never reported to the press what was actually said at that critical point, but speculation ran wild and many versions were volunteered.  Among them were "keep them up, Lew” and “that was a good shot, Lew" (Leonard accusing Tendler of hitting low). Our favorite is that Benny spoke to Lew in Yiddish and said "that was a good punch, Lew, but if you want to get fresh, I'll get fresh too" and by the time Lew translated the Yiddish to English in his mind, he had let Leonard off the hook.

Anyway, Lew lost his chance and Benny retained the title.  He even gave Lew another shot the following year at Yankee Stadium with Leonard winning by a comfortable margin in front of a record lightweight crowd of 58, 519.

Lew earned a title shot at Mickey Walker's Welterweight Championship at the Baker Bowl on June 2, 1924.  Unfortunately, Mickey's youth and speed were too much and Lew dropped a ten round decision, but he remained a top-notch, world-class fighter until he retired in 1928.

In all, Lew had 165 bouts and lost only sixteen.  He met 9 world champions a total of 14 times - including Leonard, Herman, Johnny Dundee, Rocky Kansas, Mickey Walker, and Joe Dundee.  He was stopped only once by Jack Zivic, later avenging this loss in a Philadelphia Ball Park.

After retirement, Lew opened a restaurant at Broad and Locust that became the center of activity for the sporting, entertainment, and political sets in Philadelphia.  It was a hub of activity, drawing tourists and famous celebrities from around the world when they visited the city. Lew was respected and admired by all and they were proud to call him their friend.

In boxing circles, Lew Tendler is acknowledged as one of the greatest boxers of all time and possibly the greatest southpaw ever - maybe even in Philadelphia.


Chuck Hasson is a boxing historian, a writer and the Assistant Editor of