An aspiring rabbi turned street hustler, professional prizefighter, and celebrated war veteran – Barney Ross fought some memorable battles in the ring, but faced his toughest conflicts outside of the squared circle. Despite neglecting his faith after tragedy derailed his life during his early teens, he is remembered as an important figurehead of the Jewish community across America. These are the life and times of Barney Ross.
Beryl (Dov-Ber) David Rosofsky was born in New York in 1909, to father Isidore “Itchik” Rosofsky and Sarah Epstein Rofosky. His father had fled to the States after being subject to a pogrom in his home country of Belarus, in which he nearly lost his life.
Once ‘LittleDov’ arrived, the family relocated to a Jewish neighbourhood in Chicago and opened a small vegetable shop in Maxwell Street – a crime-ridden, poverty-stricken district of the inner city. Jack Ruby and Jacob Guzik (Al Capone’s trusted financial advisor) were both peers of Dov, who escaped the confines of the same ghetto and went on to achieve notoriety.
During his early years, Dov helped his family by working shifts at their grocery shop, but his dream was to become a rabbi – a Jewish scholar or teacher. Despite his virtuous aspirations, the temptation to join one of the local street gangs pervaded throughout his teenage years.
His father, a respected rabbi himself, shielded his son from the negative influences surrounding him but life would change forever during an attempted robbery on his parents’ vegetable store. When his father refused to surrender the contents of the cash register, it resulted in his senseless killing.
The murder of Isidore ravaged the Jewish family. Dov’s mother Sarah suffered a nervous breakdown and her children were sent to an orphanage. He and his older brother Morrie refused, so were instead placed under the care of their cousin. He quickly dropped out of school and was left to fend for himself on the tough Chicago streets at just fourteen-years-old.
During the prohibition era of the 1920s and 1930s, Chicago became a hotbed of organised crime, with Johnny Torrio and Al Capone controlling much of the ‘Windy City’s dirty dealings. With no family and little direction, Dov joined a local gang and gained a reputation as a brawler. Boxing supplied him with honest amounts of cash and fuelled his desire to one day reunite what remained of his broken family.
During this time he became running buddies with a fellow Jewish kid from the ghetto, Jacob Rubenstein, who would later become (as Jack Ruby) world-famous for murdering Lee Harvey Oswald – the killer of President John F. Kennedy. The pair would run errands for the larger than life Capone, who was building his reputation as the most violent gangster in the country. But when they weren’t hustling, Dov and Ruby could be found training together in the local youth centre or boxing club.
It was a popular trend amongst Jews to assume American names to help settle into their communities, so Dov adopted the new name ‘Barney Ross’. This also meant his mother wouldn’t recognise his name in the local newspaper when the amateur boxing results were announced.
The strong-minded Jewish kid from Chicago climbed his way up the amateur ranks, competing over 250 times, becoming the Intercity and Chicago Golden Gloves champion by the age of nineteen. It is believed that Capone would often purchase tickets to his amateur fights to help support the young fighter financially.
In 1929, although still an amateur, Ross had become a popular figure within Jewish communities across the States, during a time when Adolf Hitler and his supporters were propagating their anti-Jewish agenda. Despite somewhat neglecting his faith, he embraced becoming a figurehead for American-Jews during the 1920s and 30s, proudly providing an alternative narrative to the tribulation of European Jews.
In September of that very same year, Ross would make his professional debut, beating Ramon Luga over six rounds. He would enjoy a ten fight winning streak before tasting defeat for the first time at the hands of Carlos Garcia.
Ross was incredibly versatile and would employ various styles to deal with his opponents. Some describe his style as an aggressive boxer-puncher – just without the punch – his tiny hands didn’t carry concussive power. His biggest attributes were toughness, resilience and a granite chin, which allowed him to absorb more punishment than other fighters at the time.
Another principal weapon was his left-hand. He used it mainly for perpetually flicking out the jab, but was also pinpoint accurate when thrown in the form of a left-hook – often doubled up – or switched from body to head.
After the Garcia defeat, he would build his record to 32-1-2, the most notable victories coming against former world champions Battling Battalino and Cameron Welter.
He was then pitted against the veteran Ray Miller. Despite once being a top contender, Miller was your typical boxing gatekeeper, with one of the meanest left-hooks of all-time. Barney was the underdog but managed to grind out a victory, demonstrating his impenetrable chin once again by soaking up Miller’s best shots.
Now knocking on the door of world honours, his next obstacle was the much avoided Billy Petrolle on March 26, 1933, whom he overcame via a 10 round points decision, his reward being a world title shot against the three-weight world champion Tony Canzoneri.
World championship & Tony Canzoneri
The American-Italian Canzoneri held the world championship at lightweight and light welterweight. At the time, he was considered by many as the pound for pound number one. Their first meeting took place in Ross’ home city of Chicago, where he fought repeatedly throughout his amateur and paid career.
Ross claimed the decision victory, becoming a two-weight world champion and the first man in the history of the Queensbury rules to win two world titles simultaneously. He immediately relinquished the lightweight strap and two more victories soon followed over Johnny Farr and Johnny Datto at 140-pounds, before facing Canzoneri for their rematch.
Becoming a world champion had transformed Ross’ life. Finally able to reunite his broken family, he had fulfilled two dreams at once and was on top of the world.
Their second meeting would be hosted on Tony’s turf this time, in-front of 40,000 rowdy spectators at the Polo Grounds in the Big Apple. It was a bloody battle, fiercely contested throughout – until the final few rounds when Ross had Canzoneri out on his feet. He took the points decision over fifteen rounds and returned to Chicago with the light welterweight belt.
He retained his title by decision against first Sammy Fuller, to conclude 1933 and Peter Nebo, to begin 1934, followed by a stalemate with former world champion Frankie Klick.
Jimmy McLarnin Trilogy
Every great pugilist has a rival, an equally talented or skilled fighter with whom they share a series of gruelling or exciting battles. Ross had proven his superiority over Canzoneri, so there was little appetite for a third fight – but a trilogy with Jimmy McLarnin would see the Irish-Canadian become his perfect dance partner.
McLarnin, alongside Ross and Canzoneri, was one of the most accomplished and talented fighters from the lower weights during the 20s and 30s. During his illustrious career, he beat a total of ten world champions and built a reputation for conquering Jewish fighters, which fuelled the rivalry between him and Ross. His list of Jewish victims included Jackie Fields, Rudy Goldstein, Joey Glick and Kid Kaplan – plus a post-prime and overweight Benny Leonard.
Barney opted to move up to welterweight and challenge McLarnin for his version of the championship on May 28, 1934. Sixty thousand fans filled the Long Island Bowl and were witness to a gruelling battle between two of the best fighters in the game’s history.
The pair went toe-to-toe from the opening bell, with Ross’ advantages in speed and movement giving him the upper hand. The fight exploded into chaos in the ninth round when McLarnin landed a thudding right hand that sent Ross to the canvas. Angry at touching the canvas for the first time in his career, Ross jumped up and returned fire. Forty-five seconds of action ensued, ending with two rollicking left-hooks from the challenger, which saw McLarnin slump to the deck.
After fifteen completed championship rounds, McLarnin’s face was battered, bruised and smeared in blood. Ross was awarded the decision and his third world championship. Although the outcome was correct, the scoring was bizarre. One judge had Ross winning eleven rounds, a second judge gave McLarnin the majority with nine and the referee gave the deciding verdict, with Ross winning thirteen rounds.
A few months later, McLarnin would avenge the defeat in a rematch. The decision, again, was highly controversial, with twenty-two of the twenty-nine ringside reporters favouring Ross on the cards. Barney eschewed a decider with McLarnin for a while and moved back down to light welterweight to defend his title against Bobby Pacho, the aforementioned Klick and Henry Woods. Brimming with the confidence of a champion once again, he pumped himself back up to 147lbs and challenged McLarnin for the title in the decider of their famous trilogy.
The rubber match would be less barbaric than their previous meetings as Ross proved himself as the superior boxer, despite breaking his right thumb in the sixth round. He seemed to finally have McLarnin’s number and cruised to the unanimous decision.
This victory would inscribe Ross’ name in the history books once again, becoming the first man to win a world title on the same date – May 28.
End of his professional career
Subsequently, Ross enjoyed sixteen successive victories, the most notable names being future middleweight titleholder Ceferino Garcia – and Al Manfredo.
In his final outing, Ross put his title on the line against Henry Armstrong on May 31, 1938. It was a brutal and regrettable ending to a spectacular career. The up-and-coming Armstrong pummelled the experienced champion over fifteen damaging rounds. Ross was running on empty and his corner wanted to throw in the towel on numerous occasions but Barney’s pride kept him from conceding.
Ross bowed out of the hurt business with an astounding record of seventy-two wins, four losses, three draws and two no-decisions, twenty-two of those wins coming inside the scheduled distance. He was later ranked #21 on Ring Magazine’s list of the 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years and inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
World War II
Most fighters struggle to occupy their time once they wave farewell to the fight game. Some replace slugging with other addictions like alcohol or drugs. Ross, however, was different – and enlisted into the United States Marine Corps in April of 1942. Despite the Marines’ desire to keep him stateside and utilise his celebrity status for propaganda, Ross was insistent on active service. Rather than accept the relative safety of a role as boxing coach, he was granted his wish and flown overseas to fight in the Pacific Theatre.
The posting was not without incident though, as the Marine Corps were planning to punish Ross for assaulting an officer who’d reportedly made anti-Semitic remarks. An intervention from Jewish Captain Berthol E. Davies persuaded the board to overlook his crime. On this rare occasion, the rulebook was thrown out the window.
Whilst in the South Pacific, he served with B Company, 1 Battalion, 8 Marines in the Battle of Guadalcanal. This is where Ross would begin a lifelong friendship with the Frederic Gehring, a famous wartime chaplain who later labelled Ross a “national treasure”.
The bravery and courage he’d demonstrated in the ring were translated into his military career, when he and three other marines came under attack from the enemy. With his three comrades wounded, Ross reportedly used their ammunition in addition to his own, eliminating an estimated two dozen Japanese soldiers over the course of the night. Two of the injured men later died, but the third, weighing 104kg, was hoisted on the shoulders of the 64kg Ross, who carried him to safety.
For his actions, Barney was awarded the Silver Star – the third-highest military honour for an American soldier. President Roosevelt subsequently presented him with the Distinguished Service Cross and a Presidential Citation at a ceremony at the Rose Garden.
Post War Addiction
Whilst recovering in hospital, he developed an addiction to morphine and upon arriving back in the States, substituted morphine for the more accessible heroin. The addiction spiralled out of control and he would regularly consume up to $500 worth a day. His demand for narcotics decimated his finances and relieved him of his career earnings.
He lost everything, including his marriage and his successful Chicago lounge bar. Realising he’d hit rock bottom, he spent the next six months fighting his addiction at a government recovery facility. Upon returning to normal life, he regularly lectured at high schools about the dangers of drugs.
In his later years, his image was used by companies, mainly casinos, to promote their brand. He remained loyal to his childhood best friend Jack Ruby, testifying on his behalf at the Oswald murder trial. Ross would later lose his life at age 57 in his beloved Chicago home, after a vigorous battle with throat cancer.
To this day, especially amongst the Jewish fraternity, Ross is recognised as a national hero in the United States. He has since been inducted into several Halls of Fame and been acknowledged for his achievements both in and out of the ring.