Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom And The Art Of Evasion

Concussive power is the ultimate equalizer in boxing; It can rescue a fighter from the jaws of defeat.

Look no further than Randall Bailey’s victory over Mike Jones in 2012. Bailey was down on all scorecards in the eleventh round and looked to be heading home beltless. That is until he completely turned the tide with one devastating shot. Bailey slipped a jab with his back to the ropes and countered with a monstrous right uppercut that splattered Jones. Bailey, known as the “KO King,” went from overlooked to titleholder in the blink of an eye.

However, not every fighter is blessed with dynamite in their fists like Bailey. Other pugilists have to rely on sublime technique and discipline to earn the victory. Warriors with limited power can’t afford to fall behind on the scorecards because they don’t have the tool that can answer their Hail Mary prayer. Such feather-fisted combatants have to be on point every round, knowing that they will likely go to a decision.   

When it comes to light-punchers who rose above their lack of pop, there is no better example than Maxie Rosenbloom, the light-heavyweight legend who reigned as champion in the early 1930s and took on all comers in a 16-year career. 

Rosenbloom was born in Connecticut in 1904, but grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. Maxie quit school in his early teens, which even included a reformatory stint. According to Great Jews in Sports by Robert Slater, Rosenbloom first took up boxing at the Union Settlement House in New York. 

But he wasn’t a precocious talent from the moment he first laced up a pair of gloves — quite the opposite. In Mike Silver’s Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing, Rosenbloom is said to have lost 20 of his first 25 amateur bouts. His experience fighting in the streets was not translating to the squared circle. But as he kept training and developing his skills, his results began to improve. 

Rosenbloom transitioned to the pro ranks in 1923 at 19 years old, after competing in 200 amateur bouts. Early on in his career, he beat a southpaw puncher in a fight that would be the impetus for his unique style. 

He beat Hambone Kelly by decision after six rounds, but it was far from smooth sailing. As Silver notes in Stars in the Ring, the fight was “an important turning point for Rosenbloom. He had let himself be drawn into a slugging match against a dangerous opponent. Maxie won the fight, but the bruises and aching hands he incurred, plus the damage he caused to Kelly, got him thinking there had to be a less strenuous way to win. He had another fight scheduled just eight days later. What if he was the one who suffered the broken nose and had to pull out of his forthcoming match and forfeit a payday?” 

Although there is no available footage of his fights on YouTube, Silver describes him as a fighter who “appeared to enjoy his work as he darted about, hands dangling at his sides, bending, ducking, slapping, and weaving to and fro as his opponents became ever more frustrated in their futile attempts to land a haymaker. The slapdash style had a clownish quality, an image that was reinforced after journalist Damon Runyan dubbed him “Slapsie Maxie.”

Rosenbloom’s style is undoubtedly a key reason for his sustained longevity, allowing him to amass close to 300 fights. However, that same style also led to his share of detractors. Fans crave action and are captivated by fighters who take risks to score knockouts. Maxie certainly wasn’t that type of fighter. He placed a much greater emphasis on evading blows and counterpunching. Of his 297 career bouts, he only scored 19 knockouts, representing one of the lowest knockout percentages of all-time. 

Despite his polarizing style, Rosenbloom’s ring achievements speak for themselves. His resume of conquered foes includes fellow Hall of Famers Jimmy Slattery, Dave Shade, Tiger Flowers, Young Stribling, Ted Lewis, Jim Braddock, John Henry Lewis, and Micky Walker. 

Of those greats, it was Slattery who was his chief rival, and against whom he competed six times. That includes his title-winning triumph in Slattery’s hometown of Buffalo on June 25, 1930. Although Slattery had already conquered Rosenbloom several times before, the “Harlem Harlequin” refused to be denied with the title at stake. 

According to the New York Times, “Rosenbloom had to fight one of the best battles of his career to win the crown. The Slattery of tonight was not the Slattery of old, it is true, but he had trained steadily and conscientiously for this battle and entered the ring as near physical perfection as it is possible for him to be now, and prepared to make a gallant stand. He did and went down with colors flying, simply because Rosenbloom was not to be denied in the realization of his life’s ambition.”  

Throughout his career, Rosenbloom averaged 18 fights per year and he even increased that average to 23 fights in the two years leading up to winning the title. Amazingly, he maintained that pace once he became champion; During his four and a half year reign, Rosenbloom competed over a hundred times, including eight title defenses. 

The most culturally and socially significant of those title defenses was his triumph over Adolph Heuser of Germany in March 1933 at Madison Square Garden. In front of 13,000 spectators, “the Harlem battler easily tamed the German, who despite his courageous rushes and wild swinging, rarely was able to reach the clever titleholder after the fourth round.” 

The bout with Heuser was significant because, according to the New York Times, it was “considered a factor in Germany’s decision to ban its athletes from competing with Jewish athletes to avoid contradictions of the Nazi claim of superiority over ‘non-Aryans’.” Although Rosenbloom was far from the first Jewish world champion, he proved once again that Jews could fight with the best of them. 

Rosenbloom lost his title to Bob Olin in 1934, but it wasn’t exactly a fair fight. The New York State Athletic Commission prohibited hitting with an open hand, which deprived Maxie of one of his greatest strengths and around which he built his entire style. Still, Silver notes that the majority of ringside sportswriters thought he deserved to win.  

Even after losing the title, Rosenbloom was far from finished. In the twilight of his illustrious career, he moved up to heavyweight and notched wins over several respected contenders, including Kingfish Levinsky, Roscoe Toles, Lee Ramage, and Bob Nestell. 

Despite those wins, what he is most known for as a heavyweight is a fight that never materialized: a proposed bout with the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis. According to the New York Times, promoter Joe Levy had wired Louis a guarantee of $100,000 to fight Rosenbloom for the title in 1939. Legend has it that Louis’ management team declined to accept, not because they didn’t think Louis could win but because Rosenbloom’s awkward style would make him look bad. And while we will never know the outcome of that fight, the fact that the handlers of arguably the most devastating puncher in boxing history stayed away from Rosenbloom shows how much the experts respected Maxie’s skills in his heyday. 

When Rosenbloom retired in 1939, at almost 35 years old, he was still a top-ranked heavyweight contender. Fortunately for him, he was able to transition smoothly into a post-fight career as a Hollywood actor. He was successful in showbiz, as he made 100 movie and television appearances, often portraying a punchy ex-boxer who took a few too many blows to the head. 

Unfortunately, what he commonly portrayed on-screen would eventually become his reality as he would experience side-effects of pugilistic dementia in his later years. Not even a legendary defensive master like Rosenbloom could avoid the pitfalls of a career in trading punches; No matter how many punches he slipped during his career, he couldn’t slip them all. Rosenbloom also suffered from Paget’s disease, a painful, chronic bone disorder. As a result of Rosenbloom’s health woes, he spent his last years at the Braewood Convalescent Hospital in California, where he would pass away on March 6, 1976, at 71. 

Even though Rosenbloom’s fighting style was not universally appreciated during his time, it was universally respected. And one thing that is beyond reproach is the results he achieved. Winning more than 200 fights, many against other Hall-of-Fame talents, shows how exceptional “Slapsie Maxie” was. That proves that you can succeed as a boxer without punching power so long as you have additional skills in your toolbox. Rosenbloom sure had all the others.   



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