In an effort to link the past with the present, The Jewish Boxing Blog will present monthly a short biography of notable former Jewish boxers.
Jack Portney was an internationally-known, world-rated welterweight during the inter-war period. But, despite his status, Portney never obtained a title fight because he was a southpaw. After he retired from the ring, Portney ran a successful sporting goods store.
Jack Portney was born in Horochow, Russia on June 27, 1910. His family moved to America when Jack was young, and he grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. As a young boy, he sold newspapers. By the time he was 16 years old, in 1926, he had begun a career in boxing. When his mother found out that Jack had turned to boxing, his brother Sam remembers, "My mother chased Jack with a broom."
Following a late night meal celebrating a victory in his third fight, his father felt indigestion, later had a heart attack, and died shortly thereafter. That tragedy furthered Jack's resolve to succeed in the sport of boxing. He was one of eight siblings. His large family depended on the income.
By 1929, Portney became a fan favorite in Baltimore. It was then he decided to marry his girlfriend, Berdie, who he affectionately called Butch. When Berdie's mother found out they had been dating, she slapped her daughter. When she learned her daughter had married a boxer, she fainted.
But Berdie was undeterred. She believed in Jack and helped her husband train. She was a strict disciplinarian and made sure Jack completed his road work. Berdie drove her husband all across the south to each of his fights. Before each fight, Berdie made sure she and Jack slept in separate rooms, locking her own.
Portney, standing 5'5", was nicknamed the Baltimore Buzz Saw because of his relentless offensive style. He had good power and a sturdy chin. By 1930, he had moved up from lightweight to welterweight after splitting a couple of decisions with former featherweight champion Kid Kaplan. He lost to former junior lightweight champion Benny Bass in 1933, but had amassed an impressive record by that point. Yet, he was always overlooked by the top fighters of the day, because they didn't want to take the risk of fighting Portney.
By 1934, Portney had become frustrated with not getting fights in America and found himself fighting successfully in Australia. He fought eight times in the Land Down Under and only lost once. That includes a win over former junior lightweight champion Tod Morgan. Throughout his time in Australia, he sent a letter to his wife every day. Forty years later, a visit by Jack and Berdie was big news in Australia. Their stop covered the sports pages.
Upon arriving back in America, Portney avenged his loss to Bass in 1935. But still, Portney could not get a title fight. He offered to fight Barney Ross for nothing, but Ross declined. Portney fought until 1938. BoxRec claims his record was 92-20-6 with 22 KOs (and 3-2 in newspaper decisions, where fights were not legally allowed to be decided on points, so newspapers gave their ruling the next day).
When Jack retired, he opened up several billiard parlors and a well-known sporting goods store in Baltimore. He spent his post-boxing career as a loving husband and family man, a successful businessman, and a world traveler with his wife. He died on February 11, 1991 in Baltimore after a bout with Alzheimer's.
"Jack Portney, 80, fighter and sports entrepreneur, dies." Baltimore Sun. February 13, 1991.
Olesker, Michael. "Samuel Portney keeps alive his brother's boxing legacy." Baltimore Sun. May 28, 2002.
Simon, Roger. "Fighter became 'prize husband' to one woman." Baltimore Sun. June 5, 1991.
Weiner, Deb. "The Golden Age of Jewish Boxing." Jewish Museum of Maryland: The Blog. February 1, 2011.
YouTube video with unnamed friend. "Jack Portney Jewish history."
Special thanks to Dr. Deb Weiner of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.