By J.R .Jowett: The Last of the Tough Jews has passed to Eternity. Yes, there have been Jewish champions since, and there always will be. But Marty Feldman was the last of the subculture of great American Jewish fighters whose epicenter was NY’s Lower East Side and who spanned four decades from Abe Attell, Benny Bass, and Benny Leonard to Herbie Kronowitz, “Bummy” Davis, and Harold Green.
Marty was from Paterson, NJ, but fought out of Philadelphia. In the ‘50s, Philly was a major fight town with a thriving small club scene and promoters surely welcomed a hard-punching Jewish middleweight attraction. Marty debuted on 7/23/53 at an out-of-way venue, the Hershey Arena. But while quickly racking up a 16-0 record with 15 KOs, he was a popular attraction at Philly’s iconic small club, the Cambria. Located under an el stop in the Kensington blue-collar section, the Cambria was the Blue Horizon writ small. Fans entered through a luncheonette, bought tickets at the back, and went through a portal into a tiny arena that featured virtually every Philly great of the era. Marty’s opponents were largely nondescript, but he beat local icon “Slim” Jim Robinson, who like Marty would go on to become a legendary trainer.
Marty also fought at the Philadelphia Arena, in Allentown, and at Chicago’s famed Marigold Gardens. But on 5/11/55, he ran into 8-4-1 George Boddie at Chicago Stadium and lost a 6-round decision, his first defeat. And it was Marty’s last fight too…for a while. He returned inauspiciously on 7/1/61, getting stopped by 6-1-1 Jackie Johnson at Atlantic City’s Convention Hall. Marty may have made an impression on Jackie. Johnson never fought again. After a win over Tommy Caldwell back at Marigold, Marty launched his local comeback at the legendary Blue Horizon, amid considerable buzz! On 12/7/61, his opponent was accommodating Chico Corsey, a guy who’d fought everybody and lost to nearly all of them. But Chico came to fight and had just retired another huge local club attraction who would go on to greater exploits, Steve Traitz.
Marty had a style like a white Georgie Benton; flat on his feet for power, deep stance, rolling from the waist to avoid punches rather than circling around the ring and cutting down the action, left hand low to power the hook, right held high and tight to intercept the incoming. The fight was WWIII, with Marty dishing out punishment and finally stopping Chico in the sixth and final round. It was a grand return and fans were expectant. But it was short lived. After a comparatively easy win, a KO of Duke Johnson in Marty’s only appearance on home turf, the Gladiator Arena in Totowa, NJ (contiguous with Paterson), Feldman returned to his old familiar haunt, the Cambria. On 9/12/62, he was the main event eight against spoiler Bernie Ford. There were no stiffs and few bums in Philly in those days. Fans just wouldn’t accept the record-builder cards that are now the flavor of the day. Ford was 1-9, but all against solid opposition. A tall, rangy southpaw, Ford was a cutie who didn’t mix like Corsey. Marty won an edgy decision, but the bloom was off the rose. A month later, he went up to Madison Square Garden and lost a six to Ronnie Geoffrion, a local prospect until he ran into Hershel Jacobs. Marty’s career ended at 20-3 with 17 KOs, by one reckoning, although there may have been a bout here and there missed.
But he was far from finished! Marty opened a gym and became one of the most active trainers in Philadelphia for decades, a marquee name to a generation of young fans who barely remembered him as a fighter. Among many, he trained Augie Pantellas, “Prince” Charles Williams, and Dave Tiberi. But his most prized student was the King of Atlantic City televised fights, Frank “The Animal” Fletcher. One of the rare fighters who lived up to his nickname and then some, “The Animal” was a fearless battler who made opponents fight for their lives and so was a huge fan favorite.
Hall of Fame promoter Russell Peltz annually hosted a Christmas party that was a focal point and a huge hit among the Philly boxing fraternity. A small group including Feldman were discussing the middleweight picture. Someone asked a writer about Wilford Scypion’s forthcoming title challenge to Marvin Hagler. “He can’t beat Hagler,” answered the writer. People of vigorous accomplishments are often self-possessed, and Fletcher, who just happened to be passing by, thought it meant himself. He whirled on the writer, ready to put on a convincing demonstration! Marty just tapped him on the arm, like, “He’s ok.” And Frank went on his way.
Above all, Marty was a good guy…affable, outgoing and humorous. For some people, that’s all they can do to get along. But to be a tough guy and a good guy at the same time takes an extra measure of character. Marty became a prominent fixture in Philly boxing, even well after he ceased training boxers. Sons Damon and David are both promoters and Marty was always there, at press conferences and shows, helping out and joking with the fans.
Marty Feldman died on 2/14 at age 83. The old fraternity of great Philly fighters, and their fans, from Bob Montgomery to Bennie Briscoe are falling off. There aren’t many left who can say with this writer, “I saw Marty fight.”