There is supposedly a Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times!". I don't know if this is an actual Chinese saying, but there is much truth in this, without a doubt. Researching this week's hero, I couldn't help but think of Forrest Gump. In the very unlikely case you haven't seen the movie, Forrest Gump is a simple-minded, peaceful and likeable man who inadvertently and ignorantly finds himself in the midst of some of the most significant events in American history post - World War 2. He unknowingly affects and is affected by several events yet is indifferent to all of them. Other people's attitude towards "interesting times" could not be more different.
But our story begins in 1933, when the welterweight title picture was in a bit of a funk. For the past 7 years, ever since the legendary Mickey Walker lost the title and moved up to middleweight, all welterweight champions had lost the title in their very first defense. It had gotten so bad, that the newspapers referred to it as the "Welterweight title jinx". But the never-ending round robin of boxers like "Young" Jack Thompson, Tommy Freeman, Pete Latzo and Hall Of Famers Jackie Fields and Lou Brouillard finally had a winner. The hugely underrated Young Corbett III had run the gauntlet, beaten all available contenders and emerged as welterweight champion after dispatching Jackie Fields 3 months prior. He came into his May 29th defense 81 years ago this week with an amazing 69-1-9 record in his last 79 bouts. His only loss in that stretch was to contender Sergeant Sammy Baker, a man he also easily beat in the same stretch.
Opposing him was a youngster whose fame was ever-increasing, a knockout artist with a thunderous right hook and who had spent the last few years fighting only the very best in the world. At only 25 years of age, Jimmy McLarnin had beaten all time great lightweights Benny Leonard and Sammy Mandell (twice), history-making Filipino icon and long time champion Pancho Villa, Hall Of Famers Louis "Kid" Kaplan, Jackie Fields, future world champions Al Singer and "Young" Jack Thompson, contenders Ruby Goldstein, Sid Terris, Billy Wallace, Sammy Fuller, lost a competitive decision against HOF-er Lou Brouillard, went 1-2 against HOF-er Bud Taylor and most recently had gone 2-1 against HOF-er Billy Petrolle.
The size advantage for Corbett, his superior record (101-8-22 vs 51-8-3 for McLarnin) and the challenger's recent loss to Lou Brouillard made the champion a significant favourite going into the bout, 81 years ago this Friday. But McLarnin would shock the world by pulverizing the champion in the first round, thus continuing the "Welterweight Jinx". The New York Post called it the "most spectacular upset the welterweight division has known in many years".
The loss was a big shock for Corbett, who took almost a year off from the ring, but emerged rejuvenated in the middleweight division, where he would go on to beat the likes of Mickey Walker, future light heavyweight champion Gus Lesnevich and future light heavyweight champion Billy Conn (who famously almost beat Joe Louis years later). Corbett even managed to win the middleweight title against Fred Apostoli, making him a two division world champion. After losing the title in a rematch with Apostoli, Corbett retired with a record of 121-12-22. He was elected to the IBHOF in 2004.
Meanwhile, the win brought unprecedented fame to McLarnin, who was praised by journalists as the best fighter in the world, at any weight (even though the term P4P had not been invented yet).
As the saying goes among old fighters and actors, Jimmy went big in New York. For most of the time he went real big in New York and becoming champion of the world seemed to confirm Jimmy McLarnin's transformation into the slick, street-smart Irishman, the eponymous hero of Peter Quinn's "Looking for Jimmy".
But McLarnin, as it turned out, was more eager to enjoy his new-found celebrity status than he was to defend his title. First of all he had already cleaned out the division; most welterweights wanted no part of him, demanding huge sums of money to get in the ring with him, or just flat out refusing.
And this is where the main character in our story comes into play.
Barney Ross is a strange case in the study of mid-20th century history. His life story, like Forrest Gump's, reads more like a history book than a biography. His real name was Dov-Ber David Rosofsky, son of an immigrant Jewish family who fled a pogrom in Eastern Europe to come to America. Barney’s father, Isidore Rosofsky, had been a Talmudic scholar, but in America he opened a small vegetable shop in Chicago’s Jewish ghetto. But the family's and Dov Ber's life would take a tragic turn in 1923, when two men shot and killed his father, while robbing the Rosofskys’ family store. His mother, distressed and depressed by her husbands death, would suffer a nervous breakdown forcing the family to be divided, sending the three younger siblings into an orphanage and Dov-Ber on the tough Chicago streets. It was in these streets that he would join first the Miller, then the Capone crime family. Although there is no actual account, and maybe more legend than actual fact to it, the story goes that Capone himself denied young Barney the entry 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) and told Barney to "Get off the streets." With limited options, Dov-Ber turned to boxing and changed his name to Barney Ross, as was common among many Jewish fighters of the time. But the Capone crime family continued to sponsor his early career. As would later be revealed in an FBI investigation into matters of deep significance that would go down decades later...
Al’s brothers, Ralph and Matty Capone, Frank Nitty, Murray Humphries, "Tough Tony" Capezio, and "Machine Gun Sam" Hunt were close followers of Ross’s often sponsoring his amateur career and present while a pro. When Ross began his career he trained at the Kit Howard Gym in the loop area of Chicago. Al Capone would often purchase all the tickets for the gym, giving them away to the fans that supported Ross. The gym had 125 seats at a cost of a quarter a piece. Big money during that time.
In retrospect, there was nothing special about Barney Ross as a fighter. He was not particularly big or long, had limited power (only 22 KOs in 81 bouts at the end of his career), was neither fleet of foot nor quick of hands, he mostly moved forward and his defense was his chin and toughness. But boy was he tough and relentless! Over and over again, he found himself in with fighters bigger and stronger than himself, slicker or more talented than himself and he would always find a way to grind out a win.
About the same time in 1933 that McLarnin was destroying Young Corbett III, Barney Ross got his biggest win, beating all-time great Tony Canzoneri in a terrific bout to win both the Lightweight and Junior Welterweight world titles in the same bout. A brutal, bloody rematch later in September produced another tight, famous win for Ross, who had now firmly cemented himself as the no.2 P4P fighter in the game behind McLarnin. And then, on 28 May 1934, also this week in boxing history, 364 days after McLarnin had won the title over Corbett, the Junior Welterweight champion stepped up to challenge the Welterweight champion in one of the biggest bouts of the decade, between the no.1 and no.2 best fighters in the world.
The preparations for the bout couldn't have been more different. McLarnin continued his celebrity lifestyle and was the talk of the town:
The "Toronto Globe and Mail" reported:
McLarnin was the toast of Broadway, hobnobbing with Mayor Jimmy Walker, teaching Babe Ruth to box over drinks at Dinty Moore's and eating a slice of lemon pie with gangster Legs Diamond.
Training was done JCC Jr. - style, at random hours in the ballroom of whatever hotel he happened to be staying at.
Barney Ross on the other hand was channelling his inner anger. You see, Barney Ross was prizefighter by accident, or perhaps circumstance. But in reality, he was simply a fighter. To him, fighting meant fighting back, and Dov-Ber Rosofsky felt he had a lot to fight back for. From his father who was taken away from him, his family who had been scattered in orphanages, and the life of criminal wealth he had been denied, Barney Ross spent his entire life feeling wronged. And in the turbulent worldwide context of the mid-1930s, Barney Ross had a new reason to fight back.
A quote by Barney Ross from Jimmy McLarnin's biography:
One thing that cast a cloud over my training was the headlines from Germany which reported new pogroms by the Nazis against the Jews. To make matters worse, some two-bit sports writer from an out-of-town paper said that the Jewish fighters who had fought McLarnin in the past lacked the fighting spirit and that I'd probably fold up the way they had. The item burned me up and the last days of my training period I was irritable and tense... During the last few weeks of training, I "lived" with McLarnin. Every time I punched a bag, I saw him taking the punch. When I ran on the road, he ran with me. My sparring partners all of a sudden took on his face. (...) I had never been so keyed up and so tense before a fight. The news from Germany made me feel I was fighting for my people.
Today we look at the Nazi politics of Hitler as the most obvious example of evil, but before Pearl Harbour, the Nazi doctrine and institutionalized anti-Semitism were quickly gaining ground around the world, including in America.
Again from McLarnin's biography:
The rise of Hitler and Mussolini had prompted a mixed response among the people of New York. Black-shirted Fascists met in East Harlem, Brown-shirted Nazis marched in Yorkville, Communists organized throughout the Five Boroughs. The largely Irish "Christian Front" was both anti-Semitic and violent.
Father Charles E. Coughlin, the "celebrated radio speaker from Detroit" reached over 30 million people with his weekly broadcasts. His messages had a populist, New Deal slant, but he developed a strong, anti-Semitic stance regarding the nefarious power of the "International Jew".
And this context was not lost on the interested parties of the upcoming welterweight championship fight:
In addition to the "Baby-faced Assassin", the "Irish Lullaby" and the "Beltin' Celtic", [McLarnin] had become known as the "Jew Beater", "Jewish Nemesis", the "Scourge of the Fighting Sons of Israel", owing to his having dispatched in relatively short order Kid Kaplan, Ruby Goldstein, Al Singer, Joe Glick, Joey Sangor, ackie Fields and Sid Terris. And for Jewish fight fans, the ultimate indignity came when McLarnin knocked out the most revered of all modern Jewish pugilists, the "ring-wizard", Benny Leonard himself.
On fight night, Ross weighed in at 137 pounds, essentially coming in as a lightweight, and McLarnin also came in at a lean and trim 142 pounds. 60 000 spectators filled the Madison Garden Bowl in Long Island to watch the fight and were treated to one of the great fights in history.
Both men hit relentlessly at each other for 15 rounds. It was a non-stop flurry of power punches both ways as McLarnin tried to keep the fight at mid-distance and find an avenue for his killer right. Ross elected a surprising strategy by standing and trading with McLarnin, but whenever Jimmy tried to uncork his big right hand, Barney immediately stepped inside of it to get in close and smother him with punches. The New York Times reported the fight was "bitterly, systematically and, at times, savagely waged". While McLarnin's punches seemed to be visibly harder, Ross successfully managed to stay away from the big right. Until the 9th round, that is, when McLarnin caught him hard and down went Ross. It would be the first and only knockdown of his over 320-bout career (pro and amateur). The knockdown infuriated Ross, who jumped right back up before the referee had managed to start any count. Ross simply fed on anger and adversity and he ferociously went right back at McLarnin and 45 seconds later decked him right back. But in an amazing show of grit, Jimmy also jumped right back up without a count and went at Ross. By the end of the round, Ross was in survival mode. At the final bell, both men were bloodied but still standing.
The bout had been a nightmare to score, with both men throwing as much as was physically possible in each and every round. This produced some of the strangest scores in the sport's history: 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! The welterweight title Jinx continued as Barney Ross was crowned the new champion. Personally, I don't think I've ever heard of a fighter have one judge score 13 rounds for him, while another scored just 1 for him. The disparity in scores was the talk of the town for a while. Many observers agreed with the decision, but some, like ringside observer Gene Tunney, scored the bout for McLarnin. For his part, Jimmy was gracious in defeat and did not complain about the decision, but spent the night quiet and brooding over his loss. Barney Ross was overwhelmed with emotion. He cried in the arms of his brothers.
The bout was so good, the purse it generated was so large and the result was so controversial, that a rematch was quickly arranged.
In september of the same year, the two met again in another high-profile bout at the same venue. This time, both fighters had adapted their strategies and the roles seemed reversed. McLarnin tried to outbox Ross and used more jabs and more counter-shots. Ross attempted to attack McLarnin more and hurt him. It took him 7 rounds to start finding his timing and his angles but beginning in the 8th round, he really started smacking McLarnin around the ring. He closed McLarnin's left eye, who, after initially deciding to fire back in the 10th (which was a great round which Grantland Rice called a "crimson carnival" because of all the blood being spilled), eventually reverted to the crouching, awkward stance he used in their first fight. This time, it served him well, as he spent the last few rounds of the fight trying to mostly evade and counter Ross's attack, arguably giving away a few rounds. At the end of 15, both fighters were bleeding, but McLarnin especially was a mess. The fight had once again been close and this time the scores were very close, with McLarnin winning a split decision and regaining his title. The Welterweight Jinx continued. But the decision was possibly even more controversial than the first one. Reportedly, 22 of 29 ringside reporters scored the bout for Ross.
Like Ross, McLarnin put a lot of soul into his fights. He hated losing and every single one of his losses weighed heavy on his soul. But at the same time, he found a lot of joy in his successes as well, perhaps more so than Ross. After the bout, he was celebrating with his team while being attended to by the medics. A reporter interrupted the celebrations:
"Will you give Ross a rematch?" Jimmy was asked and Pop [McLarnin's manager] replied:
"It's a bit early to talk of that."
"Sure I will", interrupted Jimmy. "He gave me one didn't he, after he took my title on what I thought was a questionable decision? Well, I'll return the favour. He can have a shot at me any time a responsible promoter wants to stage the bout."
A third fight between was inevitable, and the conclusion of their trilogy and rivalry was booked for the exact same date as their history-making first fight, one year later, May 28th 1935, also "this week in boxing history". The bout was once again a huge event in New York City, drawing 45000 spectators and numerous celebrities. Jack Dempsey was the referee. In the front row there was an "up-and-coming Detroit heavyweight named Joe Louis, who was introduced to the crowd in his first-ever appearance in a New York prize ring".
The bout is generally considered the best in their trilogy. Both men had chosen to forgo all cuteness or awkwardness and just full-out swing everything they had. McLarnin would initiate bruising exchanges, throwing every punch he had in his arsenal and Barney Ross would just take everything and fire back shot for shot, with no regard for defense or risk of tiring himself out, until McLarnin took a step back from the exchange. Throughout the bout, Ross refused to take a single step back. As examples of supreme conditioning go, this was possibly one of the most impressive 15-round bouts in history.
Henry McLemore, the United Press correspondent, who scored the bout 10-5-1 for Ross, wrote:
As proof that condition alone didn't win for Ross, McLarnin won the fifteenth and final round; won it with as gallant a last stand as any champion ever made. For three full minutes he stood toe to toe, chin to chin, with Barney and fired his last round of ammunition. He didn't save a bullet When the bell rang he didn't have a left hook or an uppercut or a right cross left in his body. If he had to lose--and he did he certainly chose the magnificent way. He went down swinging.
Barney Ross vs. Jimmy McLarnin 350528 (via flashingswords)
The fight was sheer hell for both fighters. Like their previous two bouts, the bout was close, with observers reporting they felt it was anybody's fight up until the last few rounds. Ross supporters felt he may have edged by winning the 12th, 13th and 14th. The judges agreed and gave the fight to Ross, for the first time a unanimous decision in their trilogy. McLarnin was heartbroken by the decision, he felt he had won the fight, even more so than in their first bout a year earlier. The Jinx had struck again. It was reportedly the 12th consecutive welterweight title reign to end in the first defense.
As for Ross, it turned out that he had badly broken his hand in the 6th and had fought with it like that to the end, as well as a severely bleeding nose. After the bout, he was exhausted:
He was hell tonight. Plenty hell. And don't let my managers, Art and Sam, tell you it was an easy one. I was in there, and I know. I'll never have a tougher one.
Ross would turn out to be wrong about that.
Jimmy McLarnin fought three more times. He lost to the great Tony Canzoneri who was throwing his hat into the welterweight mix, but beat him in a rematch. And then he ended his career with a win over all-time great Lou Ambers. He retired on a high note, at 29 years of age, with his health intact and all his savings wisely invested. Unlike most boxers, McLarnin had a long, healthy and wealthy life after boxing, dying in 2004 at the age of 96.
As for Ross, he finally broke the welterweight jinx, successfully defending his title against contender Izzy Janazzo and most notably over Filipino legend and future middleweight world champion Ceferino Garcia.
But contrary to his belief after the third McLarnin bout, his greatest in-ring challenge was still ahead of him.
In the same last week of May in which Jimmy McLarnin destroyed Young Corbett III, in which Ross won his first welterweight world championship against McLarnin and in which he regained it from McLarnin in their rubber match, on May 31st 1938, the featherweight champion of the world stepped up what would be 4 weight classes today to challenge Ross. The name of that champion: Henry Armstrong.
At 31 years of age and coming off 16 straight wins after the last McLarnin fight, Barney Ross was a dominating fighter and still as hungry and as angry as ever. At just 25 years of age, his opponent was an impressive 88-11-7 and hadn't lost in about 40 bouts, but weighed in at under the lightweight limit for the bout.
It mattered not, as the human buzzsaw that was the prime Henry Armstrong inflicted horrendous punishment on Ross. The first three rounds were competitive, but starting in the 4th round, the bout turned into a massacre. The last 11 rounds were so brutal, one can barely watch, and reportedly people were crying in the audience. Ross' managers wanted to stop the fight, but Ross pleaded with them through swollen bloody lips, "If you stop it," he said, "I'll never talk to you again!". 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. "Alright," snapped Armstrong, "just shoot your left, but if you shoot your right, you're dead!". After Armstrong was crowned champion, Ross was leaving the ring when sportswriter Grantland Rice shouted out from the press box "Why didn't you quit? Did you want to get killed?" The proud Ross answered: "A champ's got the right to choose the way he goes out."
After the fight, Barney Ross retired with a record of 74-4-3, having been a three-division world champion. For Henry Armstrong, the win signalled the beginning of the greatest years in his career. He went back down to lightweight to beat Lou Ambers in a violent, bloody fight and become world champion in 3 divisions simultaneously. Mind you, Barney Ross was also lightweight and light welterweight champion when he first defeated McLarnin for the welterweight crown, but he had been forced to vacate the two titles in order to be able to challenge McLarnin, something that Armstrong was not asked to do. Armstrong defended the welterweight title many times and would go on to collect many more impressive wins before retiring with a 150-21-10 record in 1945. He was named as the second greatest boxer of all times by both Bert Sugar and The Ring magazine.
Meanwhile, Barney Ross was done with boxing, but not with fighting. You see, while Ross wasn't a trouble maker, he certainly was a trouble seeker, and his thirst to fight the whole world had not been quenched with his boxing career. When the US entered World War II in 1941, Ross joined the Marines, even though at 33 years of age he was too old for service. But he insisted and used his connections until he was accepted into service. Unlike other celebrity boxers such as Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis who mostly took part in propaganda work, helping with the recruiting or fundraising efforts, Ross wanted to see active duty, he wanted to go to Europe and fight the Nazis, fight for the Jewish people.
He was sent into action, not against the Nazis, but into the Pacific theatre, finding himself at Guadalcanal, one of the bloodiest battles of the war against Japan. There, one event in particular made him a war hero. Ross and 4 other soldiers were attacked and trapped in a foxhole by squads of enemy soldiers. Father Frederick Gehring, who was the Catholic chaplain stationed on Guadalcanal with Ross, gave the following 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 to Sergeant on the spot & was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross & a Presidential Citation from President Roosevelt. While recuperating in the hospital, medical personnel gave him as much morphine as he liked, due to his celebrity status, but unfortunately this turned into a lifelong addiction that would ruin his post-war life.
After the war ended, his addiction to morphine slowly chewed away at both his health and his fortune, until he was left nearly penniless and having to commit himself to a rehab facility. In the meantime, he still had the desire to fight for the Jewish people, as he tried to help the new nation of Israel by smuggling arms for the War of Independence.
Barney Ross successfully beat his addiction and spent his last years in relative peace and quiet, touring high schools speaking about the dangers of drug addiction.
But American history would have one last place in it for Barney Ross, and just like Forrest Gump, he would unwittingly find himself summoned for one last dance with strange coincidence. In 1964, during the trials and investigations following the assassination of JFK, Barney found himself called in as a witness. The reason: implicated in the trials was one lifelong friend of Barney's, fellow Jewish kid with a scattered family, fellow minor runner in the Capone gang, fellow amateur boxer and training partner in the 1920s, fellow serviceman in the army, friend who had helped Barney obtain weapons for Israel, Jack "Sparky" Rubenstein, better known by his Americanized name: Jack Ruby.
Barney Ross, son of an immigrant Jewish family, member of the Capone gang, three-weight world boxing champion, cultural icon in the Depression era, famous Jew in the darkest days of Nazi anti-semitism, hero of World War II, fighter for Israel, witness in the JFK assassination trials, died of cancer at the Colitz's Gold Coast apartment in Chicago on January 17, 1967. He was fifty-seven. Ross was buried at the Jewish Rosemont Cemetery in Chicago. In addition to the traditional kaddish prayers of the rabbis, his friend, Father Frederic Gehring, said "Our Father."