MONMOUTH BEACH, New Jersey – The first time Dustin Fleischer stepped into the ring as a competitor it was not an even match. Not by a long shot.
True he and his opponent were the same age, 10 years old. And of course they were the same weight, about 80 pounds. But his rival was the New Jersey Silver Gloves champ and had already fought in 15 matches. The referees asked Fleischer if he was sure he wanted to go through with it.
“I remember being nervous, but also thinking: ‘Let’s do this,’” Fleischer told The Times of Israel last week. And so the match continued.
Fleischer’s father Phil also remembers that day 15 years ago at Dukers’ Gym in Newark with the utmost clarity.
“One of the things Dustin had then, and still has now, is the ability to be relaxed and mentally focused. So he went into the ring and he out boxed the kid for three rounds,” said Phil Fleischer, who once boxed professionally.
From then on people took notice. Father and son started crisscrossing the country. Fleischer fought in Maryland, Texas and points in between.
Today the 25-year-old welterweight aims to win a championship belt with the same quiet confidence he showed in that first fight. If his recent fight at the Barclay’s Center – the second of his professional career – is any indication, he’s well on his way to achieving his goal. Fleischer scored a quick knockout against Kareem Milner in 66 seconds.
But what sets “The White Tiger” apart isn’t necessarily his impressive career, it’s also the way he wears the mantel of his grandfather’s past and channels it for the future.
His grandfather Bernard Fleischer was born in Poland. He was in more than one concentration camp. After trying to escape from one of them he hid in a barn. The Nazis shot him three times and before they could fire the last lethal shot, the gun froze. They left him to bleed to death. Instead he lived and joined the Jewish resistance.
His grandfather’s story of survival and resilience pushed the young boxer on his mission to become the “first grandson of a Holocaust survivor to be crowned world champion,” according to Fleischer’s website.
“It’s just my story,” said Fleischer who grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Monmouth, New Jersey.
To honor that story Fleischer’s tiger stripe patterned boxing shorts are embroidered with a large Star of David. He also wears his grandfather’s Chai every time he walks into the ring. It’s his way of keeping his grandfather close.
His grandfather, he said, delighted in knowing Fleischer is part of a long line of professional Jewish pugilists. In the late 1700s David Mendoza rose to prominence as England’s heavyweight champ; Barney Ross, born Dov-Bar Rosofsky served as a U.S. Marine in the Battle of Guadalcanal and was decorated with the Silver Star. Abraham Washington “Abe” Attell reigned as featherweight championship between 1906 and 1912.
Now there’s Orthodox fighter Yuri Foreman, who hails from Belarus and lives in Israel, and Dimitry Salita, a Ukrainian-born American welterweight boxer who calls Brooklyn home.
There’s even a new exhibit at New York City’s YIVO, “The Yiddish Fight Club,” that pays homage to these men and the words they used.
While Fleischer may not speak the Yiddish slang of his pugilist forbearers — knak, hard punch, or shtaysl, an uppercut — he does speak the language of fast hands, quick feet, and discipline.
He’s up and running every day by 9 a.m. After a three to five mile run he heads to Gleason’s Gym and, depending on the day, spends several hours training on the heavy bag and the speed bag. He will shadow box and he will spar. After a mid-day break it’s back to the gym for a few more hours of training.
But Fleischer didn’t always know he wanted to box.
“When I was in nursery school my mom thought it was fun to dress me in bow ties, suspenders and khakis. I was getting picked on and would come home crying. [The movie] ‘Karate Kid’ was really big then, and I started taking lessons,” Fleischer said. He was four at the time.
The teasing stopped and his confidence grew. Plus, “my dad bought me new clothes,” he said.
Fleischer trained under John Gaddy. To this day Fleischer credits Gaddy with teaching him fluidity and grace. His boxing nickname “The White Tiger” is a nod to his martial arts background. Nonetheless, as much as he respected his sensei, Fleischer started feeling constrained in the Dojo. He didn’t like the point fighting in karate.
“You would hit someone and score a point. But you had to stop after you did. I always wanted a little more than that,” he said. He used to go to the gym and watch his father spar.
So at the age of nine he laced on a pair gloves and set to work.
‘Without a doubt I leave the aggression in the ring, a match leaves me more humble and more calm’
He loves the adrenaline of boxing, the feeling of getting in a mental zone where everything else falls away, even the impact of a punch. He’s also come to appreciate that what happens in the ring, stays in the ring.
“Without a doubt I leave the aggression in the ring, a match leaves me more humble and more calm,” he said. “There’s really an understanding during a fight that you have to take care of business. Afterwards it’s all about sportsmanship.”
At age 15 Fleischer was ranked the number 2 junior boxer in the nation. He boasted a 112-18 record, and had won numerous state and regional championships including the Silver Gloves and the Junior Olympics Golden Gloves.
Fleischer’s grandfather, who died about ten years ago, lived long enough to see his grandson rise through the amateur ranks.
“My grandfather was proud of me. He thought I was good at what I did, but he would have been happy with whatever I did,” Fleischer said. “More than that, he loved family. He was always telling us how much he loved us.”
When Fleischer turned 16 his father received a phone call that set him on a new course. Al Mitchell, who has trained scores of national title winners, world champions and Olympic medalists, wanted Dustin to attend the United States Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Michigan.
“He wanted to groom Dustin for the 2008 Olympics. The opportunity was fantastic,” said Phil.
The opportunity came with a price. Fleischer would have to live in a college dorm and walk two miles to classes every day. And he’d be on his own.
“I was the youngest one there and they nicknamed me ‘Baby Boy,’” he said.
Fleischer missed home; just over 1,000 miles separate Marquette from Monmouth. The training was rigorous — 5 a.m. runs kicked off the day followed with hours in the gym. As for schoolwork, that too was challenging. The New Jersey native doubled up on classes to finish the school year on time.
But Fleischer thrived and he became one of eight to qualify for the Olympic Trials. Beijing was in his sights. Then mononucleosis struck and he was forced to step down.
‘I was so depressed. It was a real let down and there was nothing I could do’
“I was so depressed. It was a real let down and there was nothing I could do. I felt that all that hard work was for nothing,” he said. He returned home to New Jersey and spent two months recovering.
As the date for the final matches to determine the Olympic line-up approached, Mitchell called to check on Fleischer. Though at the end of the virus, the young boxer hadn’t practiced in weeks. He was in no shape to fight. But Fleischer didn’t want to tell his coach on the phone. He asked his father for a favor.
“He told me that he needed to look Al in the eye and tell him it wasn’t fair to represent the U.S. Olympic Education Center if he couldn’t fight at his best. He asked me to drive him out there to say that,” Fleischer’s father said.
After he recovered from mono he realized he needed a back-up plan. He enrolled in Brookdale Community College and Dale Carnegie School.
Later that year the U.S. economy nosedived, sparing virtually no sector of the economy. His father’s trucking company took a hit and Fleischer volunteered to work there.
Fleischer didn’t hang up his gloves entirely; he sparred with amateurs and professionals. Fleischer later won the 2008 New Jersey Golden Gloves and in 2009 he won a gold medal at the Arnold National Boxing Classic.
Still, it would be some time before he returned to the ring full time. A personal tragedy hit the family business.
In 2010 an on-field collision left Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand paralyzed from the shoulders down. LeGrand’s mother Karen had worked for Fleischer’s father for 23 years, managing the warehouse. She had taught Fleischer the business and so when she left to take care of her son, he took over as warehouse manager.
Every now and then he’d see LeGrand. The two had been friendly since childhood, often seeing each other at the warehouse.
But as the economy rebounded, the family business recovered and Fleischer realized it was time to return to the ring.
In January Fleischer made his professional debut in Madison Square Garden. He scored a second round technical knockout victory in a fight broadcast on FOX Sports 1. Roc Nation Sports signed Fleischer, “The White Tiger,” to an exclusive promotional agreement soon afterwards.
Just before he went pro Fleischer called LeGrand.
‘It gives me an opportunity to do more than just fight. It’s a way for me to give back and that feels good’
“We reached out to each other. We each saw an opportunity to help the other,” Fleischer said.
Last week at the Barclay Center one dollar for every ticket purchased under Fleischer’s promotional code went to the Team LeGrand Foundation, which works closely with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation for spinal cord research.
“It gives me an opportunity to do more than just fight. It’s a way for me to give back and that feels good,” he said.
He’s scheduled for a fight on June 25 in Newark and hopes to team with LeGrand again.
Outside of the ring Fleischer has done a bit of modeling for Hugo Boss. He also enjoys connecting with fans in the U.S. as well as his growing fan base in Israel on Twitter @dustinfleischer and Facebook. He said he hopes to visit Israel in the future.
Meanwhile, when Fleischer does have a moment of downtime he might play a video game or two, and now that summer is here, he will spend time at the beach.
“I take boxing so seriously that in my leisure time I don’t really care about winning, I want to have fun. Except for Ping Pong. I’m pretty competitive when it comes to that,” he said.