The Providence pugilist

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Rhode Island can claim two champion boxers – at least to my admittedly imperfect knowledge –  George Araujo and Vinnie Paz. If I have slighted anyone, please let me know. Since boxing is not a sport of interest to me, or of which I know very much, you may ask why I am writing about champion boxers. The pugilist of the title was actually an “almost-champion,” a Jewish bantamweight boxer who captured the hearts of boxing aficionados in our state. His name was Morris Billingkoff, professionally known as Young Montreal.

Morris Billingkoff was 7 years old when the family left Russia in 1904 and emigrated to Montreal. A year later, they moved again, this time settling in Providence’s North End. After what was described by Benton Rosen (in a 1968 article in the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes) as a “limited education,” Morris began selling newspapers downtown.

The young man’s interest in boxing and a demonstrated flair caught the interest of Sam Feinberg, familiarly known as The Nose. Feinberg was described as quite knowledgeable about the fight scene in Rhode Island, and he became Morris’s guide through the intricacies of the local pugilistic world. After a period of training, Young Montreal, at 5 feet 3 inches tall and 118 pounds, was ready for his first professional bout. It took place on Feb. 23, 1916, in the flyweight division. Three years later, he won the American flyweight championship, but vacated it the following year when he decided to fight as a bantamweight.

Young Montreal, or Monty as a local sportswriter called him, fought 106 professional bouts, winning 11 by knockouts and 46 by decision. During his career he was knocked out only once. Although he fought reigning champions, the bouts ended in stand-offs. To uncrown a champion, the contender needed to score a knockout. Early in his career, according to an article in the Providence Journal from Dec. 28, 1933, Monty was approached by a matchmaker at the New York Garden. The gentleman made a special trip to Providence to discuss a possible title bout. Based on Monty’s past performance, he had confidence that Monty could easily win. Although he did not have a written contract with his local manager, Monty decided to honor that commitment.

Young Montreal often headed the boxing card at Infantry Hall in Providence and Marieville Gardens in North Providence. He was, by all accounts, a “scrappy” and “exciting” boxer who took on the best bantamweight fighter in the world. Young Montreal retired in 1929. After 16 years and 106 fights in the ring, the only outward sign he had been a boxer was his cauliflower left ear. 

For years after his retirement, Young Montreal frequented the bouts at the old Rhode Island Auditorium. Whenever he was introduced, he was greeted with enthusiastic applause. In his later years he volunteered his services as a boxing coach to orphanages and the Catholic Youth Organization. They gratefully accepted.

Before his retirement, in 1927, he made a gift of a large quantity of gym and locker room equipment to the new Jewish Community Center. The gift was  accepted by the Board, but the director of he JCC diluted any sense of gratitude when he said in a report in September 1927 that while not opposed to athletics, the primary object of the agency was to serve as a social and educational outlet.

One final question: why Young Montreal? Young because many bantamweight fighters used pseudonyms with the first word “young.”  Montreal, he once explained, because after his family moved from that city to the North End, the kids called him Montreal. That was probably due to the fact, he said, that they couldn’t remember Billingkoff.

Morris Billingkoff died June 27, 1973. He was survived by his wife  Lea (Bachrach). He is buried in Lincoln Park Cemetery.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.