Looking back on the career of one of Britain’s best-ever ghters
IN 1986, author John Harding was the right man in the right place at the right time when he attended a meeting of the London Ex-boxers Association. He was searching for old friends of the 1930s footballer Alex James, the subject of a planned biography. John got more than he bargained for when he spoke to the engaging, eccentric ex-world champion Jack “Kid” Berg. “What d’you wanna write a book about him for?” asked Berg, before suggesting his own story would be a better subject.
Harding was so taken with Berg that he put the James biography on hold to pen a book on the “Kid”. In so doing, not only did Harding preserve the memories of a legendary champion, but he put on record an outstanding account of a fistic era that was about to fade from living memory. It’s 31 years since Harding’s superb biography of Berg was first published. So who exactly was “Kid” Berg? Jack “Kid” Berg was the nom de guerre of Judah Bergman, a Jewish East Ender of immigrant parentage born in Whitechapel in 1909. Berg’s entry into pro boxing was unconventional and unexpected. In 1923, Berg was outside the famous Premierland boxing hall, minding a car for a man who had paid him to keep it safe. When an older youth spat on the vehicle and pushed Berg, Jack tore into him. The commotion caused one of Permierland’s owners, Victor Berliner, to come out. “Why fight for nothing?” he said, and offered the 14-year-old Berg a bout on one of his shows.
From that humble start sprung a career that would cement Berg among Britain’s greats. Starting at Premierland, then graduating to bills at the Royal Albert Hall and finally America, Jack proved himself the best of a generation of exceptional British-jewish boxers. His scalps in Britain included champions Johnny Cuthbert, Harry Corbett and Johnny Curley, and future world featherweight titlist Andre Routis. During two spells in America, Berg beat the best around, including Bruce Flowers, Mushy Callahan and ex-world feather champ Tony Canzoneri.
US fans loved Jack’s relentless, swarming style and soon considered him a worthy world title contender. In February 1930, Europe’s promoting king, Jeff Dickson, matched Jack with America’s Mushy Callahan for the ‘juniorwelterweight’ (140lbs) world title at the Albert Hall. The only trouble was, this relatively new division did not exist in Britain, and even in America its validity was questionable. When the name ‘junior-welterweight’ was announced before the fight, Lord Lonsdale sprung from his ringside chair and yelled: “There is no such title!”
Nevertheless, Berg beat Callahan in 10 to claim the crown. Back in America, the new champion won 12 bouts in 14 months and defended his title six times against tough opposition. In a career-best win, Jack snapped the unbeaten record of Cuba’s Kid Chocolate (then 55-0-1).
In 1931, America’s NBA formally recognised Jack as ‘junior-welter’ world champion, presenting him with a belt. But Berg lost the title in a crushing threeround defeat to previous victim Tony Canzoneri when he challenged for Tony’s world lightweight belt. Jack then lost a close return for both titles and never fought for a world championship again.
In 1934, Berg returned to Britain. Though just 25, his frantic fight schedule had taken a lot out of him. Even so, he was still good enough to wrest the British lightweight crown from the gifted Harry Mizler. Jack fought on for 11 years.
For decades, Berg was in the absurd position of being feted in America while denied recognition as a world champion in Britain. That changed when the BBBOFC brought in a 140lb weight class, and today recognition of Jack’s achievements is universal.
The Whitechapel Whirlwind: The Jack “Kid” Berg Story by John Harding is now available in paperback from Pitch Publishing.
Alex Daley@thealexdaleyHistorian & author