Muhammed Ali is probably best known for his classic adage “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Today we are familiar with the lithe bobbing, weaving, and defensive techniques employed by professional boxers. But in 18th century England, boxing looked very different from the dance-like grace of today’s rings. In fact, English boxing back then was pretty much just two guys exchanging punches until one fell down. Needless to say, the bigger guy almost always won… that is until Daniel Mendoza hit the scene.
The life of this fascinating character is the jumping off point for next week’s production of The Punishing Blow. Written by New York Times’ columnist Randy Cohen (“The Ethicist”) and directed by and starring Seth Duerr, The Punishing Blow follows "Leslie," a professor who, as punishment, must deliver a lecture about an influential Jew: he chooses Mendoza. It will be presented at the Museum on Wednesday, March 25 at 7 p.m. You can read about it in the latest issue of The Jewish Week and purchase tickets here.
At 5’6” and 160 pounds, Jewish bare-knuckle boxer Mendoza was not a heavyweight. In order to capitalize on his speed and small stature, Mendoza developed a method of “scientific boxing” which included super-complex concepts such as “blocking,” “ducking,” and “trying not to get punched unconscious.” Some criticized this method of being cowardly, though maybe not to Mendoza’s face: he was after all, the English Heavyweight Champion from 1792 to 1795.
But while Mendoza was bright enough to revolutionize the sport, he forgot that wearing one’s hair long makes it easy for an opponent to grab onto you and punch. This is, in fact, how he lost his title to “Gentleman” John Jackson. Holding his long hair with one hand while he pounded his head with the other, Jackson pummeled Mendoza into submission in around ten minutes. Boxers have worn their hair short ever since. This has proven an inadvertent but important contribution to the sport as well.
Nevertheless, Mendoza’s accomplishments far outweigh his losses. Not only did he achieve personal fame and notoriety, but, ever proud of his heritage, he showed England and the world just how wrong they were in their stereotypes of Jews as weak and cowardly.