A Boxing Memory: Barney Ross

A Boxing Memory: Barney Ross

By Garry White

Barney Ross should never have been a prize-fighter. His father wanted him to be a scholar or a Rabbi: a man of peace and wisdom treading in his footsteps.

The old man was an advocate of peaceful resistance and didn’t believe in fighting or any forms of physical violence no matter the level of provocation. He had himself settled in Chicago via anti-Semitic persecution in his native Belarus.

In time, he became the respected neighbourhood rabbi and ran a small grocery shop in order to support his large family. On any given day, Ross, whose birth name was Dov-Ber Rasofky, could be found there leafing diligently through textbooks. Instilled with the highest ideals he sought to become a teacher or a rabbi and had no connection or interest at all in fighting.

However, everything changed when Dov-Ber’s father was killed one day resisting a robbery at his little shop. In a moment his 14 year-old son’s life was permanently recalibrated as his once stable world was thrown into a state of flux. It was the darkest moment of Ross’s eventful life and proved the catalyst for him seeking out the formerly alien world of boxing.

Out of darkness came light, and it is easy to assume that without this horror, Ross would never have felt the compulsion to lace on gloves. The future all-time great and three weight world champion would have been perpetually lost to the alternate realm of the “road not taken.”

But for all that, Ross lived his life with such a sense of purpose, courage, and commitment that he probably would have prospered in whatever sphere he pursued. Instead, conversely, Judaism may have lost ones of its great scholars.

Following the death of his father and the subsequent nervous breakdown of his mother, the Rasofky family was split up and scattered like seeds in the wind amongst distant relatives and children’s homes. At 14, Ross, alone, hungry and consumed with rage was left to fend for himself. The cruel fate of his father led him to turn away from religion. Desperate and angry he ran with street gangs robbing and stealing, even at one point finding himself on the payroll of the notorious Al Capone.

Among Ross’s crew was another local tough by the name of Jack Ruby. A boy that went on to run night clubs, exist on the very edge of probity and play an important supporting role in one of the great seismic events of the 20th century.

Ross later took to the stand as a character witness for Ruby at his trial for the murder of JFK’s killer Lee Harvey Oswald. It was actually Ruby that first encouraged Ross to take his first tentative steps into a gym. Rather than dreaming of stardom he saw it as a means of making money to purchase a house and achieve his dream of reuniting his family. 

The young street urchin soon found that he had a natural affinity for the sport, and armed with an unwavering sense of purpose, scooped multiple amateur titles.

When he turned professional in 1929, he dropped his birth-name out of reverence to his father’s abhorrence of violence, and his desire to separate his family name from it.  

In a glittering career Ross fought 79 times (72-4-3, 22KOs) over a nine-year journey immediately preceding the 2nd World War. Not the heaviest of punchers, the Chicago-man relied upon technique, guile, and indefatigable stamina.

Although, by now largely irreligious, he still carried his Jewish cultural identity proudly, to such an extent that his whole psyche was infused with a single-minded resolve and determination to show that his besieged people could fight back. This matra and his own personal sense of loss made him impervious to punishment between the ropes.

It was fitting that the man who carried the hopes and dreams of every desperate, ghetto-trapped Jewish kid was never stopped in his professional career. Any surrender, Ross, would have considered to be a betrayal of his people.

In an era when many fighters wore the Star of David on their shorts, Ross carried it on his chin and propelled it from both fists. In a decade remembered for warped Nazi ideology and religious persecution Ross became the dynamic, living embodiment of the Jewish people’s ability to demonstrate resilience and to ultimately endure.

In March 1933, a little over a month after Hitler assumed the Chancellorship of Germany, Ross fought Tony Canzoneri for the world lightweight and light welterweight titles at Chicago stadium. Coming into the fight with a record of 43 wins from 47 contests, Ross edged the bout by a majority decision. The fight reports of the time praised the Chicago-man’s high work-rate, piston-like left jab and solid defence. These characteristics proving sufficient to navigate the rugged and hard-hitting Canzoneri.

The rematch just three months later ended with the same points verdict result in favour of Ross. After some further successful defensives of the then relatively lightly regarded light welterweight belt, Ross set his sights on stepping up and challenging future Hall of Famer Jimmy McLarnin for the welterweight strap. In the space of a single year the pair met three times with the world title changing hands on each occasion. 

On 28th May 1934 at Madison Square Garden Ross snatched the belt via split decision amidst wildly divergent judges scoring. However, he had to hand it back just four months later when McLarnin triumphed by the same mechanism. It was a customarily brutal encounter where both men fought to a standstill. Many of those at ringside felt that Ross deserved at least a draw and they made their displeasure plain to the gathered officialdom through a chorus of boos.

The pair met for a final time at New York’s Polo Grounds a year to the day after their inaugural meeting at Madison Square Garden. This time Ross was able to break the prevailing narrative and retake the championship belt via a commanding and unanimous decision, in a fight where the legendary Jack Dempsey occupied one of the judge’s chairs. 

In his outstanding career Barney Ross contested 17 world title fights across three weight divisions and was victorious in all but two. Apart from McLarnin his only other reverse came in his final professional outing against the incomparable Henry Armstrong. Fellow three division champion “Homicide Hank” went on to defend the title 18 times and stake his claim to being the greatest of all-time.

In gaining the welterweight crown he dished out a 15-round hammering to Ross, who refused to quit or go down despite protestations from his own corner. Such marks of courage were integral to the Chicago man’s character.

This courage in the ring in many ways diminished into insignificance when compared to Ross’s later war record. Having been safely retired in his early 30s he still wasted no time in enlisting in the US Marine Corps. They were keen to accept him and utilise him in a ceremonial role to aid recruitment and boost morale.

However, the ex-champion insisted in serving on the frontline. Sent to the South Pacific Ross won the Silver Star – America’s 3rd highest military honour- for single-handedly defending three wounded comrades from over 20 attacking enemy soldiers. His presidential citation recorded that he fought through the entire night and by morning had neutralised all the enemy combatants before carrying his last surviving comrade to safety.

The Boxing Writers of New York named him as their fighter of 1942 regardless of him having retired from the ring in 1938.

Sadly, Ross, subsequently developed a reliance on the morphine administered to him for his battle wounds and when returning home this morphed into a full-blown addiction to heroin. He underwent rehabilitation to kick the habit and then predictably devoted his time to lecturing high school students on the dangers of drugs. His amazing life ended in January 1967 when he succumbed to throat cancer aged only 57.

In his time, Ross transcended boxing and sport to be a genuine national icon. One that has steadily and sadly diminished from view as boxing’s hold on the public consciousness has rescinded. Yet he still has his supporters among modern day pugilists and fans alike. New York’s 140lb contender Cletus Seldin known proudly as the ‘Hebrew Hammer’ once citing Ross as an influence in an interview that he gave to me with Boxing Monthly back in 2019. 

At any rate, Ross deserves to be remembered as one of the truly great Americans of the 20th century. An individual that never turned his back on anyone from: family, ring opponents or stricken comrades. A man defined by principal who wouldn’t even turn his face away from his old pal Jack Ruby as the eyes of the world pulled him sharply into focus. 

Most of all he kept that promise to his 14-year-old self and reunited the Rasofky clan. Perhaps, it is for that above all else that he was most proud.

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