Cyber Boxing Champion
Barney Ross, Tony Canzoneri & Jimmy McLarnin comprise the holy trinity of lighter weight fighters of the late 20's to mid-30's. They do so in the same sense that Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns & Marvin Hagler are symbolic of the 80's. Like the modern trio, Ross, Canzoneri & McLarnin engaged in a round robin of bouts that enthralled the sporting public. Demographically they were a publicists dream: A Jew, an Italian & a native son of Ireland.©1996 Cyber Boxing Zone
Like Sugar Ray Leonard some 50 years later, Ross emerged as the dominant fighter after a grueling series of wars with the other two. Of all of the six boxers I have so far discussed, Barney Ross (real name: Beryl Rossofsky. Born: New York City, December 23, 1909), was the most implausible one to have emerged as a great fighter. Physically, he was not particularly blessed. His lack of power was exerbated by small hands & brittle bones on a slight frame with very slim arms. What was never measured however was his heart, which was boundless.
When Barney was 14 years old, two punks robbed the dairy that Barney's dad, Isadore, who was also a rabbi, operated in Chicago's West Side. Finding only nickels & dimes in the cash register the enraged louts shot & killed Barney's father.
His mother who struggled grievously too keep her brood together after the calamity, suffered a nervous breakdown & had to be taken care of by relatives. Barney & his older brother moved in with a cousin & the three younger siblings were placed in an orphanage. At this point, Ross became almost pathologically obsessed with reuniting his scattered family. He was so desperate to make a buck that he even turned to Chicago's main form of earning a living during the Roaring 20's . . . Racketeering. Barney was soon busted for running illegal crap games & went to work for various gangsters including "Scarface" Al Capone. During his brief apprenticeship, Ross decided he liked the work & wanted to join the mob full time.
The story may be apocryphal, but supposedly Capone himself, denied young Barney the entree to a life of crime. "Scarface" felt it wasn't appropriate for the son of a rabbi to become a "made" man. The story goes that he gave Ross a twenty dollar bill (more than a week's wages for many during the Depression), & told Barney too," . . . Get off the streets." When Barney began to protest, Capone snarled, "Beat it, before I get mad!"
With his options severely limited Barney turned to amateur boxing to raise some desperately needed shekels. Sometimes fighting as often as five times a week, almost always winning; Barney would hock the medals he won for three dollars apiece.
Barney trained at the Catholic Youth Center were the boxing coach was the very clever old-time fighter, Packy McFarland. Barney being a smart lad, wisely absorbed all the tricks of the trade that the old cutie, McFarland taught him.
Well schooled by the venerable Paky & inspired by the brilliant success of fellow Chicago ghettoite, Jackie Fields, Barney fought an estimated 250 amateur bouts culminating with his winning the intercity featherweight Golden Gloves title in 1929.
Ross turned pro shortly thereafter & from 1929 to 1932 he racked up an impressive 38-2-2 record. Then on August 26th he faced the redoubtable veteran, Ray Miller. Miller was a battle scarred veteran of over a hundred fights whose left hook was not only the scourge of the lightweight division; but was one of the best left hookers of all-time according to Hank Kaplan. While Miller was a top contender, more importantly, he was the baddest lightweight in Chicago. Young Barney, who many thought was in over his head, pounded out a victory in a grueling battle of left hooks. That was also the night that Ross proved he had a chin made out of granite -- as further testified to by his never being knocked down, much less KO'd during his long career.
A little over two weeks after the Miller fight, Barney faced Frankie Petrolle on September 15th (KO-2). This bout was significant because Frankie was the great Billy "The Fargo Express" Petrolle's brother. This created a natural rivalry & Billy was matched with Barney six months later. Before facing Petrolle, Ross dispatched five foes; the most notable being the very tough former featherweight champion (1929-1932), Battling "Bat" Battallino (yet another classic moniker!).
The bout with Billy Petrolle was the turning point of Ross' career. Petrolle, along with Sam Langford, Lew Tendler & Charley Burley was one of the greatest fighters to have never won a championship. No champion or top contender wanted to fight him . . . Ever. Ross bested Petrolle (W-10), in a torrid match that had Chicago fight fans buzzing for months.
That fight earned Barney a shot against the reigning lightweight & jr. welterweight champion, Tony Canzoneri, who at the time was considered the best fighter pound for pound in the game. Ross narrowly edged Canzoneri (W-10), in Chicago, on June 23, 1933 & won both titles; becoming the first fighter since the beginning of the Queensbury Rules era to win two titles simultaneously.
Many years later, Ross was quoted as saying, "Winning the titles was almost an anti-climax. My big thrill came a few weeks before the fight. That was when I was able to take the younger kids out of the orphanage asylum & reunite them with Mom". Barney had moved his family into a spacious apartment with the rent pre-paid. This was the fulfillment of a vow that had obsessed him since the tragic events that had scattered his family. This meant more too him than any titles. That was the kind of man that Barney Ross was . . .
Never one to waste time, Ross defended his jr. welter title on July 26th in Kansas City against rugged Johnny Farr (KO-6). Since the first fight with Canzoneri, there had been a lot of speculation -- especially from the New York press -- that Canzoneri had been jobbed by a hometown decision. Ross, who never ducked anybody, gave Canzoneri a rematch on Tony's home turf in New York City. The return bout, on September 12th, before more than 40,000 roaring, stomping fans in the Polo Grounds, was a major Big Apple event. The celebrity's in the crowd included members of the Presidential Cabinet, governors, mayors, famous mobsters & movie, radio & recording stars.
This time scheduled for 15 rounds, the fight was a brutal, bloody, bout. It wasn't until the last few rounds, when Ross had Canzoneri out on his feet, that Barney was able to develop a clear cut edge. After the fight, Ross indicated that he was glad he had not knocked out the gallant Canzoneri. Immediately following the fight, Ross relinquished the lightweight title due to weight problems. (This brings up an interesting question: If the jr. titles were so disparaged in those days, why did Ross hang on to the jr. welterweight title? The claim of weight problems is questionable since Ross later defended his welterweight title more than once, fighting at 137-138 lbs. Not only did he hang on to the supposedly spurious title, but he defended it regularly during most of his reign as welterweight champion).
My guide into the mysteries & inequities of our beloved sport, the incomparable boxing historian, Hank Kaplan, has as usual, straightened out my chemically induced flights of imagination. He suggests that the I'm way off base (this has never been suggested before!), & that Ross wasn't hanging on to a then spurious title, but that the proto-Arum's (my analogy, not Hank's), were using the hook of a title match much like modern day promoters & the TV network's use specious WB-what-ever titles to promote their telecasts . . .
At any rate, Ross followed his 2nd conclusive victory over Canzoneri by defending the jr. welterweight title against Sammy Fuller on November 17th in Chicago (W-10).
On January 24th, 1934, Ross gave Billy Petrolle a rematch in New York (W-10). He followed this with a string of jr. welter title defenses against the likes of Pete Nebo (W-10), Frankie Klick (W-10) & Bobby Pacho (W-10); before facing "Baby face" Jimmy McLarnin for the welterweight title on May 28th in New York City.
Despite Barney's victories over Canzoneri, who at the time was considered the best fighter pound for pound, McLarnin had come to be recognized as Canzoneri's successor as the best fighter in the game. McLarnin was a great fighter who beat ten world champions during his storied career. He seemed to specialize in flattening Jewish fighters & he'd already KO'd the likes of, Jackie Fields, Joey Sangor, Kid Kaplan, Sid Terris, Joey Glick, Ruby Goldstein & a come backing Benny Leonard.
Because of McLarnin's propensity for flattening Jewish opponents (similar to Roger Maywether's rep as a Mexican destroyer in the 80's), Jewish fight fans turned out in record numbers in anticipation for this fight.
Sixty thousand fans attended the fight in the Long Island Bowl & were treated to one of the great fights in history. Both fighters went at it hammer & tongs with Ross gaining a slight edge with his speed, despite being out weighed by 10 pounds, which frustrated McLarnin who was unable to reach Ross' chin with his vaunted right. Finally in the 9th round he caught Ross with the right & down he went. Angry because he had never been down before, Ross jumped up without a count & tore into McLarnin. Forty five seconds later McLarnin was on the canvass as a result of two vicious left hooks. McLarnin also roze without a count & recklessly attacked Ross, who used his considerable defensive skills to avoid McLarnin's haymakers until the end of the round. By the end of the fight McLarnin was a bloody mess & the decision was given to Ross, although the scores were controversial. One judge awarded 11 rounds to Ross, 2 to McLarnin & 2 even. The second judge had it 9 rounds for McLarnin, 1 round for Ross & 5 even. The referee"s scoring was even more bizarre, 1 round for McLarnin, 13 rounds for Ross & 1 even! Talk about seeing things differently!
On September 17th, 1934, Ross gave McLarnin a return bout & Ross lost another controversial split decision over 15 rounds. Of the 29 reporters covering the fight, 22 of them had Ross winning.
Ross still had his jr. welterweight title & continued defending it for the rest of the year & the next until he was rematched with McLarnin for the rubber bout exactly one year from the date he first won it.
Like the other two, the rubber match was a bruising savage struggle. In the 6th round Ross badly broke his right thumb. Fighting the rest of the fight in agony, Barney persevered & had McLarnin's number; this time he won a convincing unanimous decision in 15. Barney also was the first fighter to ever win a title twice on the same date.
Following this fight Ross relinquished the jr. welter title to campaign exclusively as a welterweight. Ross proceeded to beat the very tough bolo punching Ceferino Garcia twice in 10 round non-title bouts & defended his title against Izzy Janazzo (W-15).
On September 23rd 1937 Ross granted Garcia a title shot. Ross fought with a severely bone bruised left hand, but was still able to out smart & out speed his slow thinking but much harder hitting opponent. After 11 rounds Ross had the fight well in hand when he was caught by a crushing bolo uppercut in the 12th. Ross' knees buckled, but he managed too hang on. In the 14th Garcia landed powerful combinations that badly bloodied Ross' face & almost put him away. By this time Ross was fighting on courage & instinct alone, but somehow he mustered a fusillade of punches in the 15th to pull out the decision.
Barney finally came to the end of his championship days on May 31st 1938. On that day he faced a human hurricane named Henry Armstrong. Armstrong who was the featherweight champion was jumping 4 divisions too take on Ross. From an artistic standpoint it was a totally one sided fight. Barney held his own for the first 3 rounds. By the middle of the fight it had turned into a massacre. Ross' managers wanted to stop the fight, but Ross pleaded with them thru swollen bloody lips, "If you stop it," he said, "I'll never talk to you again!"
Famed referee Arthur Donovan, went to Ross' corner following the 11th, 12th & 13th rounds & Barney begged him to let the fight go on, "I've got to go out like a champion," he pleaded, "Let me finish. I have never been knocked out."
Armstrong later divulged that he carried Ross for the last 3 rounds. "How are you feeling?" he asked Ross in the 13th. "I'm dead," replied Barney. "Allright," snapped Armstrong, "just shoot your left, but if you shoot your right, you're dead!"
All Ross could do was lean on Armstrong the last 3 rounds. Following the unanimous decision loss, Ross retired. He had 81 fights, winning 73 & only losing 4.
After his retirement, Ross seemed content as a proprietor of a very successful Chicago lounge that bore his name. When World War II broke out in 1941, Barney who was 33 at the time & too old for the military draft insisted on enlisting & joined the Marines. The war & the events that unfolded forever changed Ross' life. Combat gave Ross yet another opportunity to prove what a valiant warrior he was. Against insurmountable odds, he & 4 other Marines defended a fox hole against squads of Japanese soldiers. In an article for the Jewish Digest in 1968, Father Frederick Gehring, who was the Catholic chaplain stationed on Guadalcanal with Ross, gave the closest thing we have to a first hand account about what happened:
"In the fierce fire fight the other four . . . were seriously injured. They found refuge in a shell hole, where Barney, although eventually wounded himself, proceeded to hold off the enemy force, two of his wounded companions loaded while he fired. When reinforcements finally rescued them, the Marines had been in their hole for thirteen hours. Around them lay twenty two enemy dead. Two of the Marines had died & the other two had to undergo amputations. Barney had shrapnel in his legs & sides & was shaken with fever."
Corporal Ross was promoted too Sergeant on the spot & was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross & a Presidential Citation from President Roosevelt. Barney was confined to a Guadalcanal hospital for many months while he was treated for wounds, dysentery, malaria, migraines & otalgia. Sympathetic corpsmen administered large quantities of morphine too help alleviate Ross' suffering. Unfortunately this had the consequence of heavy narcotic addiction.
By the time he was released, Barney's dark hair had turned grey & he still suffered painful bouts of malaria as well a the demons of addiction. Ross remained heavily addicted for four years. During those years he lived the terrible life of a junkie; stealing morphine tablets from hospitals & doctors his life devolve into a nightmare of needles, syringes & droppers. The merciless drug dealers bled Barney's savings dry. He estimated he went thru half a million dollars feeding his habit. Eventually Ross lost everything, his lounge, his wife & his self esteem. Finally he bottomed out & voluntarily turned himself over to a government recovery facility in Lexington Kentucky & after six months of treatment he was cured of his addiction & released. A few years later the movie Monkey On My Back was released starring Cameron Mitchell as Barney. The movie purported to show Ross' life a drug addict. Barney denounced the movie as, ". . . filth, bilge & cheap sensation. Ross threatened to sue United Artists for $5 million dollars, but settled out of court for $10,000.
When his health was restored, Barney went into the gun running business unsuccessfully, trying to smuggle arms into Israel during the 1948 War Of Independence. Finally too make ends meet, he got a job through a friend as Secretary-Treasurer in charge of labor relations for the Eureka Shipbuilding Corporation in Newburgh New York. In his spare time he toured the lecture circuit, lecturing on the evils of drug addiction. After finally finding a measure of peace in his life, Ross developed throat cancer & after a long, painful battle, his arduous life came to an end in Chicago, on January 17th, 1967 . . .
Barney Ross represented Every Man. To the sport of boxing, Barney Ross exemplified everything that is noble in this bloody, back stabbing, brutal arena we call a sport . . . Barney Ross, roze above his impoverished ghetto existence to become a shining example of the American Dream at it's best & it's most unforgiving . . . Today's sports heroes could learn a lesson from Ross: No matter how hot you are today . . . Life & the tumbling dice, the Bitch Angel keeps rolling . . . has an eternal way of chillin' your ass out . . .