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barney ross

22 may 2007

I spent my childhood in Chicago just a generation after the heyday of the great prizefighter Barney Ross, but I never heard of him until I happened across Douglas Century's new biography in the Great Neck, Long Island public library, forty years after Ross's death. Partly that's just because my father and grandfather preferred baseball to boxing. But partly, as Century emphasizes, it's because the world that reared and acclaimed Barney Ross has vanished from sight. Ross was the greatest of all the fighters in the brief ascendancy of Jewish boxing stars early in the 20th century.

Ross's story reads like life's imitation of Hollywood. We begin with echoes of The Jazz Singer, as young Beryl Rasofsky, born in 1909, grows up tough and disreputable in Chicago's Maxwell Street ghetto, while his Hebrew-scholar father makes ends meet by keeping a shop. Then, the elder Rasofsky is murdered by holdup men, casting Beryl onto the streets for good. Will our hero descend into the mobland of 1920s Chicago, or will he enter a boxing gym and learn to use his muscle more productively? The latter, of course; and, anglicized to Barney Ross, he becomes a champion in the fledgling Golden Gloves competition and then a topnotch professional fighter, winning world titles in three different weight classes.

Ross's great rivals in the 1930s, like Ross himself, embodied hyphenated America: Italian-American Tony Canzoneri, from whom Ross won the lightweight and junior-welterweight titles; Irish-American Jimmy McLarnin, with whom he traded the welterweight title back and forth three times; and African-American Henry Armstrong, who defeated Ross in 1938 to claim that welterweight title for good. In all these fights, despite great respect and friendship among the boxers themselves, the competitors stood not just for themselves but as public representatives of their ethnicities. Armstrong beat Ross to a pulp, but did not beat him senseless; and Ross, after that definitive defeat, had the good sense to quit the ring with his wits intact. He never attempted a comeback.

But more Hollywood ensued. Down on his luck after years of throwing money through parimutuel windows (Ross had been introduced to the track by Al Jolson himself), the ex-champ enlisted as a Marine private and found himself in harrowing combat on Guadalcanal. Ross emerged from the jungle with a Silver Star – and a morphine addiction. He would kick the dope habit, but would never wean himself from a chronic need to pick up checks, tip heavily, plunge on no-hope nags, and touch a whole bygone world of ring fans for the wherewithal to sustain his genial profligacy.

Ross would enter the spotlight one more time, after old Chicago nightlife hand Jack Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald, leading the Warren Commission to interview the fighter about possible links between Ruby and the mob world. A few years later, Ross would die of cancer, his last hospital bills paid by benefit checks from a who's who of boxing (Patterson, Braddock, Graziano, LaMotta) and high-rolling pals like Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason.

Never has a part of American popular culture so definitively disappeared. As Century points out, there is hardly a Jewish boxer in America any more. The Maxwell Street neighborhood is gone; the gyms and clubs and stadiums and nightspots that dominated the sport and entertainment scenes of the 1930s and 40s have evaporated from American cities. For American Jews, the fight game was a waystation on the path to something better, or at least something different: Jewish fighters, the sons of scholars, became the fathers of professionals, the grandparents of artists and writers (like Century himself).

And even Hollywood did not do its part in preserving Ross's memory. John Garfield took an option on Ross's life story after Guadalcanal, only to drop it when Ross's addiction became public. (Ross would sue Garfield for a piece of the boxing film Body and Soul, claiming that Garfield had ripped off elements of his life story.) Finally, Cameron Mitchell would star in the now-obscure Monkey on My Back, reducing Ross's life to the stereotype of the addict agonistes. When life imitates art too well, art can do little justice to life in return.

Century, Douglas. Barney Ross. New York: Schocken, 2006. [Jewish Encounters]