Barney Ross was more than just one of the best boxers who ever lived. A Jew whose life was largely defined by anti-Semitism, he was a hero to his people, no less than Benny Leonard before him.
Barney’s father, Isidore Rasofsky, was a Talmudic scholar who fled a pogrom in Eastern Europe to travel to America, opening a small vegetable shop in Chicago’s Jewish ghetto. His son’s roughneck ways on the streets of the Windy City naturally concerned the elder Rasofsky, who urged young Dov-Ber to leave the fighting to the “goyim.”
“Let them kill each other if they want,” he told young Barney. “We are not the fighters; we are the scholars.”
The younger Rasofsky listened. In fact, his ambition was to eventually become, like his father, a rabbi and a learned man. But that dream was shattered in 1922, along with the rest of Dov-Ber’s family, when his father was murdered resisting a robbery attempt at the vegetable store. Grief-stricken, Dov-Ber’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Orphanages and the houses of strangers became the new residences for Dov-Ber’s younger siblings, while he and his older brothers were left to fend for themselves.
Dov-Ber’s new home was the streets, his new family the local toughs and small-time crooks, his new name, Barney Ross. He became a runner for local gangsters, a thief and a streetfighter. Legend has it he was even employed for a time by Al Capone.
Later, like thousands of other young, desperate men adrift during the Great Depression, boxing appeared a viable option, a way to potentially make some serious money. Barney’s goal was to earn enough to reunite his far-flung siblings and no sooner would he win a trophy at an amateur tournament than he took it to the nearest pawn shop for a few dollars. The story goes that Al Capone even bought up unsold seats at those tournaments, on condition some of the cash made its way into Barney’s pocket.
More than anything else, what Ross brought into the ring was sheer determination, an indestructible will to win. His punching power was, at best, average; his frame was slight and he was hampered by brittle bones. But he learned the finer points of “The Sweet Science” from a pair of legends, Packy McFarland and Ray Arcel, and his ring smarts, speed, stamina and excellent defensive skills made him a game, wily fighter who found ways to win against stronger, more powerful opponents.
And he was as tough as they come. Boxing in a time of intense competition, Ross took the best from fellow greats Billy Petrolle, Jimmy McLarnin, Ceferino Garcia and Tony Canzoneri. In his entire career, he was never stopped inside the distance and knocked down only once. The fact that Ross had so much to fight for no doubt accounted for this remarkable durability. Not only was he a successful Jewish champion during a time when his people were the victims of widespread discrimination, but he was also fighting for his father’s honour and to bring his devastated family together. And he was successful. Just before he won his first title fight, against Canzoneri in 1933, he finally located all of his siblings and reunited them with his mother.
It was the 1930s, and Adolf Hitler had risen to power. Jews were the targets of hate for so many suffering through the greatest economic meltdown in history. But a Jew continued to fight and prevail, winning world titles in three weight divisions. On only four occasions as a pro did Ross lose, only to the best and only by decision. The walking embodiment of Jewish pride, he never stopped slinging leather, never gave in, never took the count, no matter how much punishment he had to endure.
There was no better demonstration of this than in Ross’s final fight, a gallant stand against the great Henry Armstrong. By 1938, Ross was near the end and he knew it. He had fought almost eighty times in less than a decade, survived scores of grueling ring wars, and it was clear his skills were in decline. Armstrong, while the same age, was still in his prime, seemingly still hungry and as vigorous as ever, his brutal wars with Lou Ambers, Ceferino Garcia, Fritzie Zivic, Lew Jenkins and Willie Joyce yet to come.
The first two rounds of what would prove to be the swan song of Barney Ross saw the champion box smartly, scoring with the jab and moving out of range of Armstrong’s attack. But after that, it was pretty much all “Hurricane Henry” as Armstrong mercilessly pounded Ross from one corner to the other. By the seventh the champion’s right eye was swollen shut and soon he was bleeding from both the nose and mouth. But the proud warrior could not be put down.
In the late rounds, ringsiders shouted for the one-sided massacre to be stopped. The defending champion’s own cornermen begged Barney to let them throw in the towel, but he just angrily shook his head in response. Defiant to the end, he knew as well as anyone why it was crucial he finish on his feet. “Homicide Hank,” on his way to becoming the first and only boxer to hold three world titles simultaneously, won his second championship by unanimous decision. But Barney Ross won something more: the eternal pride and gratitude of his people. – Michael Carbert