One of the most famous residents of Bethnal Green was the boxer, Daniel Mendoza, who was also known as “Mendoza the Jew”. Mendoza was born in Aldgate but settled in Bethnal Green, where he lived for over thirty years, boxed at the height of his fame and where he raised his family.
He also helped put the area on the map as a centre of boxing excellence. Bethnal Green today is still a well known location for boxing bouts, many of which are held in the area’s York Hall.
Bethnal Green and Boxing
Mendoza was the English heavyweight champion from 1792 to 1795, even though he was technically a middleweight. He was also the only middleweight who has ever won the heavyweight championship of the world, despite his relatively short height and stature. Much of his success is down to his innovative boxing style, which allowed him to take on and beat far bigger opponents. It is also said that Mendoza was the first Jew in England to talk to a king, as his fame led him to meet King George III who also offered him patronage. Mendoza did much to improve the reputation of Jews both in England and abroad and was incredibly popular for much of his life..
Boxing like Mendoza
Before Mendoza started boxing, this was a rough and technically a basic game. Boxers simply swapped punches and tried to obliterate each other. Boxers attacked each other, but did little or no defending and it was often the biggest and strongest boxer who won the bout. Mendoza is well known for introducing some style into the game.
He started to test defensive as well as offensive boxing moves. This was unheard of at the time and his ability to avoid punches from his opponents and to then land telling blows allowed him to beat opponents who he technically should have been beaten by. He had the ability and the technique to punch way above his weight.
Mendoza started boxing when he was around 16 and working for a London tea dealer. His first bout was actually a fight over a work-related issue rather than an organised bout – he fought a porter with whom he was having a dispute over payment. Although the porter was much bigger than Mendoza and the fight lasted for a gruelling 45 minutes, Mendoza won and his reputation as a street fighter began. His main claims to early fame came from bouts with his boxing hero, Richard Humphries, in the late 1700s. The last of these was also notable because it is considered to be the first sporting occasion where people paid to get in to see the fight.
During the height of his fame, Mendoza opened his own gym and wrote a seminal book on the sport and his techniques, The Art of Boxing. His influence extended across following generations of boxers in many ways. He was also responsible for a new trend where boxers cut their hair short. Mendoza wore his hair long and, in one of his last bouts, his opponent held him by the hair and pounded him with punches. Mendoza lost partly because of this and boxers have tended to have short hair ever since to avoid giving their opponents this advantage.
Mendoza’s later life
By the late 1790s, Mendoza moved away from boxing as he got older and less successful, however he was short of money and still needed to work. He became the landlord of a local Whitechapel pub, The Admiral Nelson, however still carried on teaching boxing. He was also hired by a theatre manager as a “heavy” to police the Old Price theatre riots.
This led to a decrease in his popularity as he was considered to be supporting the rich who were trying to increase theatre prices by bullying the people who were protecting against price hikes. He also gave boxing demonstrations, appeared in a pantomime and worked as a recruiter for the Army.
It is thought that Mendoza made a fortune during his career; however, he lost all his money. By the time of his death in 1836, he was penniless and he left his family in dire financial straits.
Memorials in the East End to Daniel Mendoza
Visitors to the East End can spot a couple of memorials to Daniel Mendoza in Bethnal Green. There is a Blue Plaque on the house in which he lived at 3, Paradise Row. He wrote his book, The Art of Boxing, while he lived in this house.
In 2008, the famous British boxer, Henry Cooper unveiled a bronze memorial to Mendoza. This was created to mark the 172nd anniversary of his death. You can visit this plaque on the local college campus, which now stands on the site of the cemetery in which Mendoza was buried, the Mile End Jewish cemetery.