Benny “The Bull” Sinakin had already taken some verbal jabs by the time he stepped into the ring for the Philadelphia Golden Gloves 15-16 heavyweight championship bout.
During the weigh-in on March 30, his opponent told Sinakin to bring a pillow into the ring to help cushion the fall when he knocked him out.
“I thought, this guy better be great the way he’s talking, because if not, I’m going to teach him a lesson,” Sinakin said of his opponent, Chad Johnson.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound teenage boxer had little reason to cower. When Sinakin stepped into the ring, he was wearing gold trunks with a Star of David emblem on the left leg, following the tradition started by Max Baer, the Jewish fighter who knocked out German heavyweight Max Schmeling in 1933 at Yankee Stadium.
He sees the star, also sometimes described as a shield, as protection.
“The star means a lot to me because when I go in there, I’m not just fighting for me, I’m fighting for my name. I’m fighting for the people I represent,” said Sinakin, a sophomore at The Academy at Palumbo, a magnet school in South Philadelphia where the young amateur fighter lives with his family.
The people he represents, aside from the wider Jewish community, he said, are his father, Lincoln Sinakin, and his older brother, Demetrie Sinakin, 19, a boxer who also fought for the city championship and is known as the “Jewish Brown Bomber.” (Their mother was born on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent and both sons have her dark complexion.)
The three-round fight at Kensington’s Front Street Gym ended with the judges ruling that Sinakin had won each round, meaning that he advanced to the regional championship in May. As always, his father, Lincoln, whom he credits with first getting him interested in the sport, was in the audience.
“It makes me very proud because I feel, of all the sports, it’s the most difficult. It’s the biggest character builder of all sports,” said his father, a retired owner of a retail clothing business who flirted with boxing as a teenager and has loved the sport ever since.
Over the years, the elder Sinakin, 67, has become an amateur boxing historian, even designating a room of his house as his own “boxing hall of fame.” The walls are lined with plaques of the 100 greatest boxers. Each boxer’s picture and biography is framed in black, with the exception of three — Benny Leonard, Benny Bass and Philadelphia’s Lew Tendler — Jewish fighters whose plaques are framed in blue, like the Israeli flag.
“The thing that people don’t realize is that of all the sports in America, the Jews have been the most successful by a long shot at boxing,” he said.
Sinakin said he and his two sons would watch old matches on ESPN Classic together and the father would talk about strategy, greatest matches and best fighters. Then one day his older son asked him how he knew so much about the sport, he recalled. He told him he had trained for six months and fought once in 1962. The match ended in a draw and he then dropped out of school and started a job taking inventory at drug stores along the East Coast.
After hearing his father’s story and passion for the sport, Demetrie, the older brother, said he wanted to start fighting.
Sinakin said he asked his two sons to wait until they turned 13 — neither had a Bar Mitzvah but they were, in his words, then Jewish adults capable of making their own decisions.
Was he worried about them getting injured? Not really. To him, boxing isn’t some crude sport where the thrill comes from watching fighters take blows to the head, he said. The sport requires concentration on tactics and has a rich history and demands a relentless work ethic, he said.
He sees football as the more dangerous sport; only there, the blows to the head are less overt. In amateur boxing, the fighters wear protective headgear, and a match is immediately stopped at the first sign of injury.
“People have become less enchanted with the violence, but if you do it, it doesn’t feel like a violent sport. It feels like a scientific sport,” Sinakin said.
For his part, Benny Sinakin said the best way to prevent injury is hard work. He spends four or five days each week at a gym in South Philadelphia, training with Andre Horne, a former professional heavyweight fighter.
“If you’re not committed, you’re most likely going to get caught in the ring. And if you get caught, you’re going to have to keep thinking about it and thinking about it,” said the young fighter.
The teenager’s ultimate goal? Rio de Janeiro, for the 2016 Olympics.