The “White Tiger”—so dubbed for his background in martial arts—is a rising star in the world of professional boxing. Fleischer recently signed with Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports after a promising professional debut in January 2015, in which he scored a technical knockout in the second round. But according to Fleischer, there’s a certain historical power behind each punch.
Fleischer wants to become “the first grandson of a Holocaust survivor to be crowned world champion.” The story goes: During the war, Nazis shot Fleischer’s Jewish grandfather three times during a pogrom in Poland. His grandfather survived, only to be interned at a concentration camp. He was able to escape and later joined the Polish resistance.
When Fleischer’s in the ring, that story is in there with him, too: He never boxes without donning his grandfather’s chai necklace.
“Through the sport,” Fleischer said, “I have met and become close friends with people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and from different ways of life.” Then he pummels them.
The White Tiger had Jay-Z’s attention.
Dustin Fleischer took on that fabulous nickname as an homage to his martial arts background, and on Friday, cloaked in black-and-white, tiger-striped trunks and a predator’s instincts, he pounced on the opportunity of a lifetime.
The 25-year-old from Monmouth Beach made his professional boxing debut on a grand stage, fighting between featured bouts at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Before a buzzing capacity crowd of 4,253, including music mogul Jay-Z, singer Rihanna, Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia and actor Jake Gyllenhaal, the White Tiger scored a technical knockout of Elizabeth’s Frank Jordan midway through the second round.
The pummeling aired on Fox Sports 1, with Gus Johnson on the ringside call.
“It feels crazy that my pro debut was in Madison Square Garden and it was televised,” Fleischer said. “I smiled probably the biggest smile of my life once (the referee) raised my hand.”
It took two twists of good fortune to place his moment in the spotlight, but good karma is no accident. The White Tiger earned this break the hard way. His backstory, with ties to the Holocaust, a struggling trucking company and a horribly timed illness, would make a compelling feature film.
Let’s just say Dustin Fleischer can take a punch.
Left for dead in Poland
The White Tiger would not be here if a gun didn’t freeze in a Polish barn.
As the family tells it, Nazis shot his Jewish grandfather Bernard Fleischer three times after killing Bernard’s parents during a Holocaust purge in Poland.
“They cornered him in a barn, and they were about to finish him off but the gun froze,” said Phil Fleischer, Dustin’s dad and Bernard’s son. “They thought he was going to die anyway from the bleeding.”
He was left for dead but survived, only to later end up in a concentration camp. After escaping, he became part of the Polish resistance movement. The White Tiger’s media bio says he seeks “to become the first grandson of a Holocaust survivor to be crowned world champion.”
He wears his grandfather’s chai pendant, a Jewish symbol for life, in the ring.
“That’s a lot of inspiration, to know what my grandfather went through,” Dustin said. “It gives me confidence and strength. When I’m in the ring, it’s nothing compared to what he did. He had to fight for survival.”
Grit passed through the bloodlines. It came in handy when the bad breaks hit.
Hurt in the heart
Phil Fleischer was a pugilist too. He went 4-2 in six professional fights in the late 1970s. Dustin tagged along to the gym “since he was about 4 years old and the size of a spit bucket,” Phil said.
At age 5, Dustin began studying martial arts at John Gaddy’s Karate Studio in High Bridge.
“I have yet to have a student work harder than him,” said Gaddy, who was in his corner Friday night. “You could tell he was an elite athlete even at a young age.”
With a martial arts foundation, Dustin transitioned to boxing at age 9 and shot up the charts. Working out of the recently closed South River Knights of Columbus Boxing Club, Fleischer furnished a 112-18 amateur record, becoming a two-time state Golden Gloves champion.
Former Olympic head coach Al Mitchell took Fleischer under his wing. In 2007, he achieved a No. 5 open-fighter ranking at 132 pounds, with the top four guys being pros.
A spot on the U.S. Olympic team became a real possibility. Fleischer left Shore Regional High School after two years to attend the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Michigan. He completed his schooling there ahead of schedule and seemed poised for Beijing before contracting mononucleosis on the eve of the trials.
“It hurt me in my heart,” he said. “I had sacrificed a lot. Not only the training, but my home life.”
In his dad’s corner
Around that time Phil’s Carteret-based trucking business, Leonard Logistics, was feeling the Great Recession’s crunch. Dustin started helping out, and when a key manager had to step aside suddenly in 2010, he filled the void.
That manager was Karen LeGrand, whose son Eric was paralyzed during a Rutgers football game that October. Dustin performed her duties for three years.
“Dustin said, ‘Dad I want to help put you back on your feet,’ ” Phil Fleischer said. “I got on my feet. The business is doing fine now.”
To borrow a boxing phrase, Dustin was in his dad’s corner.
“It’s not all about what I did for him,” Dustin said. “He helped me, too. He’s taught me a lot about business and life.”
Free to turn his full attention to boxing, Fleischer pursued the destiny that seemed inevitable years before.
“Professional boxing is not a part-time thing,” he said. “It’s hard work, but it’s also easy work. If I had to pick one thing in the world I’d want to do, it would be boxing.”
Fleischer trains two or three times per day, six days a week. He runs three to five miles each morning, hits the gym for boxing in the afternoon, then does strength work in the evening.
“Some days I’ll be so tired from training, I’ll go straight to bed when I get home,” he said.
The big stage
Professional boxing isn’t all bright lights and big city. Fighters typically work their way up in makeshift venues off the beaten path.
“When people see something that could put you in the Garden in your first fight, that says a lot,” said Jamal Abdullah, Fleischer’s head trainer. “It says people believe.”
Fleischer originally was slated to fight fourth in the eight-bout card put on by the Jay-Z-owned Roc Nation Sports. At the 11th hour, his four-round welterweight bout was moved back to the “TV swing” position between the featured fights.
In other words, if the co-featured sixth bout ended early, Fleischer vs. Jordan would fill the TV air time until the main event between Dusty Hernandez-Harrison and Tommy Rainone closed out the two-hour broadcast. If the sixth bout went the 10-round distance, Fleischer’s debut would be pushed to the end of the night and off of TV.
The chips ended up falling perfectly. In the sixth fight, Alex Theran couldn’t answer the bell after five rounds against Tureano Johnson. The swing bout was needed, and the 142-pound White Tiger was ushered into the ring.
“The atmosphere was better than any boxing event I’ve ever seen,” he said. “But once the bell rings, I don’t hear anything. That’s one thing I love about boxing. Life is so hectic and stressful, but when I’m in the ring, everything is quiet.”
Using his uppercut and pounding the body, Fleischer controlled Jordan from the start. The crowd roared its approval. A minute into round two, his combination to the head backed a dazed Jordan into the ropes. Referee Shada Murdaugh jumped in and waved his arms. It was over.
The White Tiger is 1-0.
Fleischer declined to disclose his payday, saying only, “at this stage, you just want to make enough to survive.” But he hit a different kind of jackpot — a post-match chat with Jay-Z.
“He said he was really impressed with me,” Fleischer said. “I told him, ‘I’m going to be the first fighter to bring a world championship to Roc Nation.’ “