BARNEY ROSS, the “Pride of the Ghetto”, was clever, quick, exciting to watch – and blessed with an iron chin. In 81 fights, against the best fighters of his generation, nobody, but nobody knocked him out.
Ross beat the man he always considered the most talented he ever faced, Tony Canzoneri, over 10 rounds in Chicago to earn recognition as the world lightweight champion in June 1933. The little-regarded light-welterweight title came with it.
He beat Canzoneri again over 15 rounds in New York in September 1933, and lest we consider it unimportant, defended the 140lbs championship six times in nine months, before moving up to challenge Jimmy “Baby Face” McLarnin for the welterweight crown at Madison Square Garden’s Long Island Bowl in May 1934.
These were the years of the Great Depression yet the crowds poured through the turnstiles – officially almost 40,000 people paid just short of $200,000 to watch. Unofficial estimates put it nearer 60,000.
Ross and McLarnin were so closely matched there was barely anything between them – and their trilogy of fights for the world welterweight title in the 12 months between May 1934 and May 1935 were ferocious, punch-for-punch wars.
Ross got the first on a split decision (though general opinion was that he had won clearly), McLarnin reversed that with another split decision in the second fight in September 1934, and Ross won the third, this time by a close but unanimous vote. At the final bell they fell into each other’s arms. Not surprisingly, both believed they won all three.
A month before the third fight Ross relinquished the lightweight championship, and a month after it he gave up the light-welterweight title as well.
The rivalry with McLarnin done, it was hard to replace the intensity, but Ross retained his championship twice more, against Izzy Jannazzo and Ceferino Garcia, who would go on to be middleweight champion, before his epic final fight against Henry Armstrong in May 1938.
Time had finally caught up with him, even though he was still only 28. Only McLarnin had beaten him since his days in the preliminary fights in Chicago at the turn of the 1930s, but the legs had begun to go. He was never a big welterweight himself and was only 10st 2lbs for the Armstrong fight, but “Homicide” Hank was trying to do the ‘impossible’, hold the featherweight and welterweight titles at the same time. He was only 9st 7lbs, a full 14lbs under the limit. By the end of the year Armstrong would have the lightweight crown as well.
Ross started sharply enough, but from the fourth onwards looked suddenly old, was caught by punches he would have avoided just a short time before. He could not find room for his educated, stiff jab, and he had to stand on wooden legs and fight with a man with a perpetual motion style, who was at the top of his game.
Ross said he realised during the one-sided mauling into which the fight descended that he was shot. His corner wanted to stop it, but he told second Sam Pian: “I’m not quitting. If you stop it, I’ll never talk to you again.”
Referee Arthur Donovan wanted to call it off, but Ross said: “Let me finish.” Donovan said: “You can’t protect yourself.” Ross told him: “I’ll never fight again. I promise you that, if you let me finish.”
Donovan did. Armstrong seemed to ease off in the last couple of rounds, in recognition of Ross’ bravery.
Sometimes a man is measured by his victories, yes, but also by the way he goes out.
Ross was born Dov-Ber Rasofsky to devout Jewish parents in New York in 1909, but home from the age of two was Chicago. At school he was known as Barnet David Rasofsky, at home his mother called him Beryl.
He was 13 when his father was murdered in his shop, an event that understandably haunted him and kept him close to his Hebrew faith all his life. The singer Eddie Cantor said when he visited Ross in training camp he was “hunched over various books of the Prophets and other parts of the Bible”. He was 19 when he began to earn a living by boxing.
His career done, he served with the US Marines in World War II, was wounded in the battle at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands – and in a matter of weeks at the frontline, his hair turned a mix of silvery grey and pure white. He was also treated for his pain with morphine.
In hospital in New Zealand he learned to inject himself – and back in the USA he had to fight a traumatic, long, intense battle with addiction.
He recovered, was a fixture at big fights but died of cancer in January 1967, a month after his 57th birthday.
THE night he won the title from Tony Canzoneri, Ross declined an invitation to the post-fight party. Instead, he walked his mother the five miles home from Chicago Stadium.
A good guy
“ROSS had style combatively and socially. His manners were impeccable; his generosity and thoughtfulness have become almost legendary” – Alan Ward 1967
He was awarded America’s third highest military honor, the Silver Star, and earned a Presidential Citation. He was one of America’s greatest celebrity war heroes and honored by President Theodore Roosevelt in a Rose Garden ceremony.
Born December 23, 1909 in New York City Died January 17, 1967 Wins 72 Knockouts 22 Losses 4 Draws 3 No Decisions 2 Best win Tony Canzoneri w pts 10 Worst loss Henry Armstrong l pts 15 Pros Toughness, fitness, stamina, chin Cons Lacked one-punch KO power