When a Cohen was the world champion boxer

By Marcus Dysch, February 16, 2012
"Gambuch" - world boxing champion Robert Cohen

"Gambuch" - world boxing champion Robert Cohen

Growing up in Algeria in the 1930s, Robert Cohen was teased for his diminutive stature and labelled "Gambuch" – short legs.

Little could he, or the playground bullies, have known that those jibes would inspire him to take the first steps in a boxing career that would lead the 5ft 2in tall, religious Jewish boy to become a champion.

At the age of 23, in front of a crowd of 70,000 which included Thailand's king and queen, Cohen reached the pinnacle, winning the world bantamweight title.

It was a career that took him around the world, fighting throughout Britain, France and Africa. But for 60 years Mr Cohen's story has largely gone untold. Now, as a book about his life is prepared for publication in France, and the prospect of a film, too, he looks back on his rise to the top.

Almost as remarkable as his sporting success was his commitment to his Jewish roots and loyalty to his religious family. Wherever Mr Cohen boxed, he visited local synagogues, carried his tefilin with him and requested kosher meat - posing many difficulties in the 1950s.

French magazines lauded Cohen the champ

French magazines lauded Cohen the champ

Now 81, speaking from his home in Cape Town, Mr Cohen explained how he started boxing: "There was no trouble between the Jewish community and the Arabs in my town, Bone. We all mixed and there were no problems. But I was short and all the bigger boys used to pick on me. That made me aggressive and I began boxing. My family was very religious. It made boxing difficult, but I respected all the Yomtovim."

After early successes as an amateur in his home country, he moved to France to further his career. Professional boxing titles soon followed, but Cohen initially struggled to be accepted: "The French saw me as 'the little Algerian'. When I won the French title I became 'the little French boy from Algeria'. When I won the world title, they adopted me completely."

In 1954, he won the European title with a knock-out victory over John Kelly in Belfast. The JC reported that, on the morning of the fight, he went to a local synagogue and was called up to the Torah.

After defending his title in Italy, he went on to challenge for the world title later that year, travelling to Bangkok where he took on a local boxer. Again "Gambuch" was victorious, winning on points despite damaging his hand in the fifth round. He was world champion.

"It was a great honour," he said. "I was so proud, especially for my family. Everybody made fun of me when I said I wanted to become world champion. I told them, 'wait and see'. My determination made me world champion."

At the height of his career, Robert Cohen worked hard to stick to his religious beliefs. The JC reported that, on arrival in Thailand, he asked to be taken straight to a local synagogue, but found the city had no shul and no kosher meat. His agent said his refusal to eat non-kosher food had left him "so weak we had to take him to a doctor," before he went on to win the title.

After the fight there were offers from around the world as boxers queued up to take on the newly crowned champion. The referee who presided over his points victory declared: "Cohen is one of the greatest bantamweights the world has ever seen."

But his spell at the top was relatively short. Within two years of becoming world champion he had retired, hampered by injuries.

He moved with his wife, Zita, to Congo and began working in his father-in-law's textile and retail business.

Mr Cohen explained: "I could have continued, but my wife did not want me to. She hates the sport, so I stopped to make her happy. I was hurt, mentally and physically. In boxing you have to know when to stop.

"Boxing was my life. I was not meant to be a businessman, I was meant to be a sportsman."

Mr Cohen opened a boxing gym in Congo in the early 1960s but, after some initial success, the gym was nationalised and his best fighters left for Europe.

Jonathan Hasson, Mr Cohen's nephew, said the family hoped the publication of the former champion's life story would bring some long-overdue recognition. "His is a story of hope and an example to modern society."

Last updated: 1:36pm, February 16 2012