By Kathi Kresol
Rockford has been fortunate to have many men and women whose names have put the Forest City on the map. One of these extraordinary people, named Sammy Mandell, came to light in the 1920s and ’30s. Though most people won’t recognize the name, Sammy was once the Boxing Lightweight Champion of the World.
Sammy’s story didn’t begin or end in Rockford but his name would be forever tied with the Forest City. He started boxing when he was young along with his brother, Joseph. The boys would challenge men to fight them after work.
Sammy’s next step was working with Rockford’s trainer Honk Garrett who owned a gym on East State Street. Sammy also began to fight as an amateur at Camp Grant. He was only 16 when he had his first professional fight.
It was not long before Sammy’s lightning-fast footwork and his devastating left hook earned him the nickname of Rockford Flash. Sammy also had something else going for him. Unlike most of the boxers of that time period, he was considered to be very handsome, which earned him the nickname of The Sheik. This name was chosen because of his resemblance to the very popular actor of the day, Rudolph Valentino.
Another thing that made Sammy Mandell stand out was the fact that even though he reached a place of national recognition, he remained humble and proud of his beginnings.
Sammy’s family moved here from Sicily in 1906, when he was only a couple of years old. The family left the small town where their ancestors had lived for generations. His mother passed away shortly after the family arrived in Rockford and his oldest sister filled the void left by her mother’s death. After he won his title, Sammy would buy his sister and father their own homes.
In 1923, before Sammy won the Lightweight Champion title, Rockford held a grand banquet to honor their hometown hero. The Knights of Columbus threw the grand bash at the luxurious Nelson Hotel. Over 10,000 people lined the streets along the route just to get a glimpse of this hometown boy. The crowd went wild when he flashed his famous grin.
The speakers chosen for the banquet included Mayor Halstrom and Illinois Lieutenant Governor Sterling. Sammy was presented with a beautiful Knights of Columbus ring by the Grand Knight of the local council, Edward Zeiner. Every speaker spoke of the fine example that Sammy represented for all of the citizens of Rockford.
Sammy won the Lightweight Championship title in 1926 when he was 22-years-old in the first legal fight in Illinois at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. He fought Rocky Kansas. Sammy held the title until 1930 when he lost to Al Singer.
His signature fight took place in 1924 when he faced Jack Bernstein. Sammy broke his hand in the second round. Bernstein realized that Sammy’s hand was broken and gave him such a horrible beating that most watching were surprised that the fight was not stopped. Those four rounds were agonizing to witness. Those spectators were never sure if Sammy found his bearings or he had been pushed to his limit. But when the bell rang to begin the seventh round, Sammy came out of the corner with one arm hanging uselessly at his side and gave Bernstein the beating of his life. The fight was a draw and Sammy’s reputation was born.
Sammy would participate in 168 fights that included 28 knockouts and eight losses. Sammy stayed in Rockford after losing the title and opened a gym with his brother where they trained new boxers. Sammy, Elizabeth and their son Richard moved to Chicago after World War II where he acquired a job as a collector for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
In October 1962, Sammy Mandell was inducted into the Illinois Sports Hall of Fame. His son Richard accepted the award for the ailing Mandell.
Sammy died on November 9, 1967 in Chicago and he and his wife, Elizabeth, are buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Janesville, Wisconsin. One newspaper quote from the day he died stated, ”Sammy Mandell is gone and a little more of the color and excitement of what boxing used to be died with him.” Sammy’s rags to riches story has become part of the rich tapestry of Rockford’s history.
Winnebago Public Library will host a presentation by Local Author and Historian, Kathi Kresol on Thursday, April 14 at 6:30 p.m. Kathi will have copies of her book, Murder and Mayhem in Rockford, Illinois, available for purchase. Please visit the website at hauntedrockford.com for more information.