As. a boy growing up in Chicago, Barnet Rasofsky planned to be a Talmudic scholar and Hebrew teacher. In 1924, however, when Barnet was 14 years old, his father, an immigrant rabbi and grocer, was shot and killed by two men who robbed the family store. Barnet’s mother, left with five children to support had a nervous breakdown and was sent to live with relatives. Barnet and his oldest brother, Morrie, went to live with a cousin; his three youngest siblings were placed in an orphanage.
In his grief, Barnet Rasofsky renounced his Orthodox faith and sought revenge on the world by becoming a petty thief, numbers runner and brawler. He vowed to make enough money — by whatever means he could to reunite his family. Barnet took up amateur boxing, pawning the medals he won for the few dollars they would bring. Sometimes, he would take six fights in a week. Barnet grew tougher with each confrontation. At age 19, he turned professional and took the name Barney Ross, so his mother, now back on her feet, wouldn’t know he was fighting. As Barney Ross, he won championships and election to the Boxing Hall of Fame.
Ross’ big break came in 1933, when he fought tough Tony Canzoneri in Chicago for the world lightweight (137-pound) title and won by a split decision. To prove that his victory was no fluke, Rose agreed to a rematch in Canzoneri’s hometown, New York City. Before a pro-Canzoneri crowd of 60,000, Ross won a unanimous decision. Never a powerful puncher, Ross showed unflinching courage by counterpunching when hit hard and always staying on his feet, a formula that served him throughout his life.
Ross entered the ranks of boxing’s greats in a brutal series of three fights for the welterweight (147-pound) crown against Jimmy McLarnin, who outweighed Ross by several pounds, was a harder puncher and had a reputation for beating Jewish boxers. In their first fight, Ross defeated McLarnin in a bloody battle by a split decision. Ross offered McLarnin a rematch five months later, and McLarnin avenged the defeat in a vicious battle, ft only fight in which Ross ever suffered a knockdown. When they met again for the third time, Ross took the rematch in a fight that showed his clear superiority as a boxer.
Ross’ most courageous prize fight was his last, in 1938, against Henry Armstrong, the only man to hold the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight crowns. By the time he fought Armstrong, Ross — although only 28 years old —had fought almost 300 times. Although he started strong, Ross fired after the fourth round and Armstrong pummeled him at will. After the tenth round, the referee asked Ross if he wanted to stop, but the champion said no. After the twelfth, the referee approached Ross’ managers, asking them to throw in the towel, but, Ross told them, "You do that and I’ll never talk to you again. I want to go out like a champion." To Ross that meant standing on his feet when the final bell sounded, Through rounds thirteen, fourteen and fifteen, Armstrong pounded away at the exhausted Ross, who would not go down. Voices in the crowd pleaded with the referee to stop the fight, but he respected Ross’ wish to end his career never having failed to go the distance. In the last minute of the fight, Ross rallied and stood toe to toe with Armstrong, exchanging blows. The crowd was on its feet many with tears in their eyes, cheering for Ross, knowing they had seen the heart of a true champion.
Ross retired after that fight and opened a restaurant. When the Japanese, attacked Pearl Harbor, Ross — beyond draft age at 32 — received a waiver to join the Marines. Assigned to serve as a boxing instructor, Ross instead asked for combat duty and was shipped to Guadalcanal, sow* of some of ft bloodiest fighting in the Pacific. On patrol one night Ross and three comrades were attacked by a superior force of Japanese troops. All three of Ross’ comrades were wounded. He gathered them in a shell crater and defended them through the night by firing more than 400 rifle rounds. When he ran out of bullets, Ross threw 22 grenades at enemy machine gun positions. Ross claimed that he said two hours of prayers, "many in Hebrew," hoping to make it through the night. Finally, at dawn, with two of his three comrades dead, wounded in the leg and foot himself and out of ammunition, Ross — who weighed less than 140 pounds — picked up his surviving wounded comrade (who weighed 230 pounds) and carried him to safety. Ross, whose helmet had more than 30 shrapnel dents, was awarded the Silver Star for heroism.
At the military hospital where he was treated for his wounds, medics gave Ross all the morphine he asked for. When he got out of the hospital, Ross toured military plants to raise morale among workers, but couldn’t shake his need for morphine. When his habit began to cost him $500 per week and his wife left him, Ross sought admission to a federal drug treatment facility. While few gave him much chance of breaking the habit, Ross went "cold turkey" and, after much agony from withdrawal, emerged 120 days later having kicked the habit. While he lived in constant pain from his wounds, Ross spent the remainder of his life speaking out against drug abuse. Hollywood later turned Ross’ autobiographical account of his addiction into the movie "Monkey on My Back."
In his autobiography, No Man Stands Alone, Ross recounted that a rabbi once told him that, since he was a Jew in the public eye, he would have to lead an exemplary life. Barney Ross did not let his rabbi — or his people down. But of all the things Ross achieved in his life and all the obstacles he overcame, the one that meant the most to him was having earned enough money in the first Canzoneri fight to reunite his mother with her three youngest children who had been placed in an orphanage.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). Photo of Ross in uniform courtesy of Greg Powers from the papers of Kenneth P. Behr.