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Mendoza—18th century prize fighter who turned boxing into an art

PUBLISHED: 21:25 04 September 2008 | UPDATED: 13:36 05 October 2010

Unveiling of plaque at Queen Mary Univerity in memory of Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza, 3 September, 2008

Unveiling of plaque at Queen Mary Univerity in memory of Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza, 3 September, 2008

Carmen Valino

A MEMORIAL has finally been erected this week to mark the life of a boy from London’s East End who rose to take the boxing world by storm—more than 200 years ago. Daniel Mendoza developed the art of scientific boxing’ which knocked out the brute force of prize fighting in his day. A bronze plaque was unveiled in his honour on the 172nd anniversary of his death on September 3 by a boxing hero of the 20th century—Henry Cooper. The plaque is at the site of the former Mile End Jewish cemetery, now part of a college campus, where Mendoza was buried in 1836

ABOVE: The bronze plaque to Daniel Mendoza, 1764-1836

BELOW: Sir Henry Cooper chats with artist Louise Soloway who created the bronze memorial and (inset) a contemporary drawing of Mendoza

Mike Brooke

A MEMORIAL has finally been erected this week to mark the life of a boy from London’s East End who rose to take the boxing world by storm—more than 200 years ago.

Daniel Mendoza was a tough fighter who developed the art of scientific boxing’ which knocked out the brute force of prize fighting in his day.

A bronze plaque was unveiled in his honour at Mile End on the 172nd anniversary of his death on September 3 by a boxing hero of the 20th century—Henry Cooper, ex-British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight champ.

The plaque is at the site of the former Mile End Jewish cemetery, now part of the Queen Mary college campus, where Daniel Mendoza was buried in 1836.

His is an incredible story of an East End kid who went from rags to riches through the boxing ring and ended up with a king’s patronage.

He lived in a terraced dwelling in Bethnal Green’s Paradise Row. A blue plaque can be seen today on the front of the second house down from Bethnal Green Road.

Daniel Mendoza was born in Aldgate on July 5, 1764, the son of a poor Sephardic Jewish family, and left school at 13 to work for a tea dealer.

But he turned to professional boxing after winning a fist-fight with a porter who insulted his employer.

He was taken under the wing of gentleman boxer’ Richard Humphreys who made boxing acceptable to the gentry, and introduced to people of influence—which led to his meteoric rise to fame in the closing decades of the 18th century.

Mendoza was strong, although weighing only 11 stone and generally much lighter than his opponents.

This led him to develop defensive’ moves with the ultimate aim of dodging punches and winning a match without being hit.

He originated the defensive’ concept—sidestepping, guarding’ and the straight left, techniques that became known as scientific boxing’ in an age when prize fighting meant standing face to face with your opponent with each throwing a punch in turn.

His revolutionary technique became known as the Mendoza School’ or Jewish School’ of boxing.

Mendoza’s first recorded prizefight was a knockout of Harry the Coalheaver in 1790, whom he dispatched in 40 rounds.

This attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales—later King George IV—who became his patron.

He was the first boxer to have royal patronage and the first Jew in England to meet the King, at a time when Jews suffered restrictions in public life. It helped change attitudes toward Jews in English society.

He proudly billed himself as Mendoza the Jew’ and became such a popular figure that songs were written about him. Newspapers of the day reported one of his bouts in 1789 ahead of news about the storming of the Bastille which started the French Revolution.

Mendoza laid claim to the English boxing title in 1791 when the prevailing champion Benjamin Brain retired. He beat off challenger Bill Warr twice, first in 23 rounds in 1792 and again two years later—this time in 15 minutes.

But Mendoza sought other income after 1795 and returned to his East End roots and became landlord of the Admiral Nelson pub in Whitechapel.

He turned down several offers for rematches and wrote a letter in 1807 to The Times saying he was devoting himself chiefly to teaching the art.

Nevertheless, the lure of boxing ring was strong. He made his last public appearance as a boxer in 1820 in a grudge match against Tom Owen—but lost after 12 rounds.

Mendoza made and spent a fortune in his life, but ended up in debtors’ prison and died at 72 on September 3, 1836, leaving his wife and 11 children penniless.

Today he is remembered with the blue plaque in Paradise Row and now the bronze plaque at Queen Mary college after the Jewish East End Celebration Society invited Sir Henry Cooper—Our Enery—to unveil it.

His descendants include radio presenter Mike Mendoza and the late actor Peter Sellers—prints of the boxer can be seen on the wall of Inspector Clouseau’s office in Sellers’ Pink Panther films.

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