May 1, 2008
‘Golden Boy’ Art Aragon keeps the faith
"My grandfather wouldn't let my mother marry him because he was a real swinger," Aragon's son, Brad, recalled recently. "So he offered him $100,000 to just leave. And my dad said, 'I can't be bought.' Then my grandfather said, 'Well, Irene, he's not Jewish.' So he converted."
Aragon, who died last month at his Northridge home after suffering a stroke, was buried at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, a worthy resting place for someone who shrank his conversion certificate so he could be a "card-carrying Jew." He was 80 when he was buried on April Fools' Day.
"Everybody expected, because he was such a joker, him to wink his eye and say, 'Just kidding,'" Brad Aragon said.
The boxer was a strikingly handsome pug as well known for his Hollywood persona as his 89-20-6 record; he was given his nickname, maybe apocryphally, by actor William Holden and was often seen cavorting with starlets like Marilyn Monroe.
"He said he didn't like boxing," his son said. "He liked to make people laugh, but he was good at boxing."
Though not encouraged by Jewish tradition, there is a respectable history of Jewish pugs. Fighters like three-time world champ Barney Ross, many of whom embraced boxing as a ticket out of New York's immigrant ghetto, emerged from a very different world than Aragon, who was raised Catholic in East Los Angeles.
With no qualms about the righteousness of pummeling his opponents, Aragon was a notorious fighter who relished packing the Grand Olympic Auditorium downtown and bringing the crowd to its feet, not with cheering but raucous booing.
"People loved to boo Art, and at his funeral I made people stand up and give him a standing boo," said Julian Eget, executive vice president of the World Boxing Hall of Fame, which inducted Aragon in 1990. "That is what he lived for, all his life that was his trademark."
In the process, Aragon helped transform Los Angeles from a boxing backwater and became one of the few fighters world renowned without winning a title fight.
Eget, who attends Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills, said Aragon wasn't very religious -- eating Jewish food was his highest level of observance.
"But he was very proud to be a Jew," Eget said. "It was incredible for me. It just doesn't happen; most of the time it goes the other way, people changing their names and trying to hide from being Jewish."