As a young boy in East Baltimore, Phillip Levin got to know his grandfather, Benny Levin. Sometimes Benny, a cab driver who could barely make ends meet, would give his grandson a cigar band or a pull tab and tell him it was a ring.
"Stop giving him trash," Phillip recalled his grandmother telling her husband. "He's going to cut his finger."
Benny Levin, who came from a large Jewish family, also told his grandson stories about his life as a boxer.
"He was the best of the worst," Phillip Levin said. "He boxed on Exeter Street near the main post office. It was the Jew vs. the Italian. The Jew vs. the Irish guy. West side vs. east side. Everyone followed their ethnic group. The Jews were always the underdogs. Max Baer was a hero back then in Jewish Baltimore. It was entertainment -- not everyone wanted to go to Yiddish theatre."
Benny came from a big family and did menial jobs. He took his share of lumps in the ring.
"He wasn't the sharpest," Phillip said. "And I never said he was any good. He just did it."
Phillip Levin wrestled in high school, became an attorney and started a family of his own. He named his son Benjamin after Benny.
"Ben was crushing a Wiffle ball at 18 months," Phillip said. "He wanted to box and I told him no."
Phillip taught his son to wrestle and became his coach.
"He was a punishing wrestler," Phillip said. "Aggressive. He hated being on his back."
Ben wrestled at McDonogh and won a state title.
"I ran off the mat and gave my dad a hug and cried in his arms," said Ben, who turns 30 in November. "It was the moment where all the weight cutting together growing up and all the early morning drives to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio paid off."
Ben wrestled at Navy until a shoulder injury he suffered during his junior year ended his career. He left the Naval Academy in 2012 and took a job at Petco. It was there that a customer invited him to a gym in Eldersburg, Md., called Shaddock MMA Fitness.
"I figured there was no time like the present to learn mixed martial arts," Ben said. "I was working at Petco, coaching wrestling at McDonogh, going to school full time and training."
Now Ben, who lives in Canton, has two bachelor degrees and is finishing his project management certificate. He works as a medical device salesman. His first MMA fight was a learning experience. It took place at Harrington Raceway & Casino in Delaware in 2013.
"I was knocked out in 42 seconds," he said. "It showed me that wrestling isn't the dominant force in MMA."
That didn't stop him. As he says, the tenacity to get to the next level translates deeply within him. His great-grandfather is also on his mind.
"I never knew the guy, but he has always crept up in conversation about me," Ben said. "He wasn't good with money and I'm not the most frugal of the crop. There's definitely some sort of lineage working through me in his name. This winter I bought a trilby hat to wear with an overcoat. Apparently, he wore one too."
As for now, Ben is having fun with boxing and MMA; he is 2-3 as an amateur MMA fighter. He said he is drawn to the physicality of combat competition.
"I just find that primal aspect of the sport invigorating and it gives me a lot of joy," Ben said. "I will fight until I can't fight anymore."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Phillip Levin
Issue 257: September 2019