Barney Ross: A Most Violent Life

As Joe Louis and Ray Robinson boxed in exhibitions and posed for photos in pressed uniforms another world renowned fighter had a very different experience of the Second World War. As bullets flew over the head of a three weight world champion, he felt as comfortable as ever, thriving in chaos and violence.

Barney Ross was born Dov-Ber Rosofsky to a strict Jewish family in New York. His father was a Talmudic scholar who had narrowly escaped persecution and death in the Belarusian pogroms  of Brest-Lovisk. He was instilled from birth with an acute sense of injustice and a desire to fight back against the anti-Semitism that was so prevalent in the society of the 1910’s, 20’s and 30’s.

He fought against it with his fists, unlike his father who used words. When the family moved to Chicago so Barney’s father Isidore could become a rabbi the two began to clash. Barney liked fighting, and in the prohibition 1920’s, the golden era of Chicago violence, he began to make his name. His father strongly disapproved; “Let the goyim (Non Jews) be the fighters,” Ross later recalled being told. "Let the trumbeniks (Boastful people), the murderers fight - we are the scholars.”.

Almost prophetically, the murderers of which Isidore spoke, would kill him. He was gunned down in his vegetable shop, trying to stop a robbery. The family was destroyed, Barney’s mother had a nervous breakdown and his siblings were taken into care. Aged fourteen Barney became a child of the streets. He was devastated and for a time he turned his back on his religion and identity. He became Barney, not Dov-Ber, and began a life of unimaginable hardship and violence.

Barney’s fists became hard quick on the mean streets of Chicago. To stave off the hunger he became accustomed to feeling, he did odd jobs for the Capone syndicate. Fighting, stealing, money laundering and delivering messages became his job. Run-ins with rival gangs and the police would almost always explode into violent confrontations. He formed a close friendship with another stray Jewish kid, who would later live in infamy as Jack Ruby, the man who killed the man who killed the president, Lee Harvey Oswald.

They both frequented a local boxing gym to hone their street fighting capabilities and as the years went on this forked their relationship. Jack, less talented, drifted away from boxing and  deeper into the clutches of the mafia, Barney however, began a stellar boxing career. The sport taught Barney to channel his anger, to use it effectively. In a tale that has been repeated a thousand times since a street kid abandoned crime and took up pugilism, fighting in the ring instead of street corners. Chicago and Interstate Golden Gloves wins preluded the greatness he would take into the professional ring.

He won his first world title when he won the lightweight crown in 1933. Going life and death twice with the great Tony Canzoneri but winning both bouts. Then came Pete Nebo, Bobby Pacho, Sammy Fuller and others as he moved up, won and defended the light welterweight title. He had the reputation of a smart fighter, a boxer and a mover with tremendous heart and stamina. He could take what he could dish out but you had to be a damn good fighter to hit him.

All Business, Ross and Canzoneri face off

Throughout this period he had come back to the vision of his Jewish heritage his father had always wanted for his children, Barney began to embrace the community he had abandoned. Anti-semitism was not as today, the preserve of neo nazi zelaots and fringe biggots, it was main stream. The Ku Klux Klan, and its nearly 100,000 members, at that time were targeting Jew’s as well as African Americans. Mainstream figures of American society were openly antisemitic and drew huge followings. Henry Ford, Charles Coughlin,Gerald L. K. Smith, and Gerald Winrod all espoused abhorrent views towards the Jewish American community, much to Barney’s increased disgust.

As Barney entered one of the all time great trilogies in boxing, his three fight saga with world welterweight champion Jimmy McLarnin, he had found his voice. He became a representative for the Jewish people, speaking on Jewish issues and representing them on the global stage. He spoke out against the newly formed facsist dictatorships in Germany and Italy and for this he gained a huge amount of respect among his peers.

The same peers that bought fifty, sixty and seventy thousand tickets to see him win one, lose one and win one back against McLarnin, and with it become a two time welterweight champion. In just 6 years as a professional he had become a three weight world champion, recognised as one of the best fighters ever, a legend in his own time.He became heralded by the Jewish community as their best since Benny Leanord and took on the moniker, ‘the Prince of the Ghetto’, in homage to Leanord’s ‘Ghetto Wizard’.

Barney and Benny, Ghetto Superstars

Violence though, was never far behind Barney and this time it manifested itself in the most vicious little man of all time, Homicide Hank, Henry Armstrong. No one ever in a ring, gym or on the mean streets had ever quite hit Barney the way Hank did. “I’ve never seen a beating like it”, one boxing reporter remembered, it was hellacious, unrelenting, but Barney refused to give up.

His corner team begged Ross to let them stop the fight, but he refused. After the fight he would say he wanted to prove Jews could fight, prove he wouldn’t go down and neither would they. Cheered in defeat, as he had been so many times in victory, Barney retired more loved by his people than Isidore had ever dreamed.

Barney takes a beating

The beating he sustained that night may have ended his boxing career but kickstarted the true fight of his life, the crusade against global fascism.

In 1942 ,after four years of rest Barney knew it was time to answer his country's call and enlist to once again fight for his beliefs, and his faith. He enlisted in the United States Marine corps, shunning the chance to take a ceremonial role in the military, the likes of which had been given to Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. Barney chose active duty.

He was fighting though long before he flew into battle. An ill informed officer, abusing his troops in a way that was common, then made an anti Semitic remark to Barney, a mistake he would soon grow to regret. Although Barney hadn’t been boxing, his fists were still as proficient as ever, his Chicago mentality took hold of him and he knocked out the officer with a single booming right hand.

This nearly derailed his military career before it had started but luckily Captain Berthol E. Davis was assigned the case. Jewish himself and a big boxing fan, it’s no surprise that within a month Barney was flying out to the Pacific theatre, ready to go to battle.

Almost immediately Barney and the rest of B Company 1st Battalion, 8th Marines were dropped into the middle of one of the most pivotal battles in human history, Guadalcanal. A battle that ultimately would see the destruction of fourteen hundred planes, sixty seven battleships, cost twenty six thousand lives and ultimately turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.

Barney's war would come in the middle of the night. He and three comrades were camped in a foxhole when suddenly they were awoken by the sound of Japanese Type 11 light machine guns ripping through the humid night. Returning fire, everyone apart from Barney was wounded, each dropping harder than the next, as the enemy encroached on their position. Barney grabbed all of their guns and grenades, leapt from the foxhole, with no regard for his own safety and began to fight back with everything he could.

He fought all night, no food, no water, no rest nor reinforcement. The Japanese attack was relentless, one by one they stepped up but one by one Barney cut them down, doing everything he could to save his fallen brothers in arms.

He battened back the first attack, single handedly killing 24 Japanese soldiers. The Japanese were shocked, ordering a second wave of attack with the sole purpose of killing Barney. Knowing he couldn’t survive another assault he jumped back into his foxhole. Two of his company were dead, one clung to life.

Sergeant Ross takes aim

The lone survivor weighed two hundred and thirty pounds, Barney weighed one hundred and thirty nine. Again though Barney was not phased, despite being wounded himself he lifted the dying man over his shoulder and retreated, carrying him some distance through thick jungle to the nearest field hospital.

The man who he saved recommended him for a commendation, for exceptional bravery. The army agreed and Barney was awarded the Silver Star, America’s third highest military honour for  "Gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States". Such was his achievement Franklin Roosevelt personally invited him to collect his medal at the White House.

Boxing too recognised his tremendous bravery and he was also awarded the Edward J. Neil Trophy as the outstanding boxer of 1942 by the Boxing Writers Association of New York, despite not setting foot in the prize ring.

Despite the success, one final failure would dog the coming years for Barney, opiates. The trauma and pain of a life lived so fast and with such violence caused him to become dependent on morphine, the drug prescribed initially to help him heal his wounds from Guadalcanal. At his worst he spent five hundred dollars a day on the drug, however, like every trauma he had experienced in the past he created from it triumph.

Barney recovered from his addiction and began to tour the country teaching the dangers of drugs. He married again and earned a good living doing celebrity appearances and philanthropy until his untimely death aged just fifty seven from throat cancer. Fifty seven years for such a life, so many achievements in so little time. Each of them birthed from violence, horror of which for most of us could fill a lifetime of far longer.

He was a gangster, a boxer, a soldier, a hero, a drug addict, a teacher and a leader. Barney Ross overcame every dark moment with an unbelievable heart. An unrelenting desire to represent his religion and make his father and his people proud,and that, he most certainly did.

Article dedicated to the memory of Barney Ross and Isidore Rosofsky

Ewan Breeze of SimBoxx

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