When it comes to Jewish boxers, the undisputed champ was Benny Leonard, who from 1917 to '23 lorded over the lightweight division. The now defunct New York City paper The Jewish Daily Bulletin proposed that Leonard was greater even than Einstein because he was not only known by millions but understood by them as well. Anthony Thompson is a Jewish boxer known by thousands and just beginning to be understood by the rest of us.
Over the past two years Thompson, a fast, flexible Philadelphia welterweight, was the most decorated amateur in North America. In 2000 he finished first in the national Golden Gloves and national Police Athletic League tournaments, and that year and the next he won the U.S. championships. Last year he also received silver medals at the world championships in Belfast and the Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia, getting outpointed in each final by a seasoned Cuban.
Unable to get by on the U.S. Olympic Committee's $600 monthly stipend, Thompson signed with promoter Cedric Kushner in February. "I could have made the 2004 Olympic team," he says, "but the fun was gone in the amateurs." On March 17 Thompson made his pro debut as a super welterweight, dispatching Elvesto Mills in a third-round TKO.
The legendary Leonard wore a Jewish star on his boxing trunks and refused to fight on religious holidays. Thompson wears a Star of David around his neck and won't box on the Sabbath unless "it's a major, major tournament." Like Abraham, he's willing to make sacrifices.
Thompson, 20, is a Hebrew Israelite, a black Judaic sect that believes its members are descended from one of the 12 Biblical tribes of Israel. Taught to read and speak Hebrew by his father, Kezz, a housing developer who until recently ran a kosher soul-food deli in North Philly, Anthony adheres strictly to the law of the To rah. After graduating from Benjamin Franklin High in 1999 with a 3.7 average, he took accounting during his one semester in college (naturally, this nice Jewish boy went to Temple) before dropping out to be a boxer. "The kid shows great discipline and humility," says middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins, a fellow Philadelphian. "For a guy who's the big topic in the neighborhood, he carries his own bags and doesn't have a big entourage. Religion must keep him focused."
Thompson, who's a slender 5'11", has one of those opaque faces that seldom divulge anything. "I like Solomon because he was smooth," says Thompson, who draws fistic inspiration from feisty Old Testament figures. He admires Judah Maccabbee: "Judah's attitude was, Fight till you die, and fall out later." He reveres King David: "Look what he did to Goliath. Size didn't matter—he just kept his faith and fought."
Thompson bore up as stoically as Job under the loss of two daughters to a genetic disorder. Ya-kira and Ya-sheva were born with Zellweger syndrome, a rare and incurable disease that affects the liver, kidneys and brain. "They were sick from Day One," says Anthony, whose sons, Na-deev, 3, and Nadriel, two months, are healthy and unafflicted. "The girls went blind, deaf, had high fevers and seizures. Every day they got closer and closer to dying."
Ya-kira, born in 1997, when Anthony was 15, lived six months. Ya-sheva, born in 2000, survived for three. "My girlfriend [and the children's mother], Tanisha, took it very hard," says Thompson. "I had to set an example. When Tanisha saw my strength, she had no choice but to follow."
Still, Ya-sheva's death was such a crushing blow that Anthony considered skipping the PAL tournament two months later in New Orleans. He wound up going and was named the event's outstanding boxer. "Anthony punches not for show but to take an opponent apart, which is rare for a boxer so young," says trainer Emanuel Steward. "He throws short, powerful shots that hurt. As good as he was as an amateur, he'll be even better as a professional."
"Not long ago Anthony's name was just a whisper in the gyms in our neighborhood," says older brother Tyonn. "Now it's a household name." For the moment, at least, most of those households are in North Philly.