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As a boy in Chicago, Barnet Rasofsky planned to become a Talmudic scholar and Hebrew teacher. In 1924, when Barnet was fourteen years old, two men who robbed the Rasofsky family’s grocery store shot and killed his father. Left with five children to support, Barnet’s mother had a nervous breakdown and went 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 his medals for the few dollars they would bring. Sometimes, he took six fights in a week, growing tougher with each confrontation. At age 19, he turned professional and took the name Barney Ross so his mother, now back on her feet, would not worry about his getting hurt.
After almost 200 fights as an amateur and more than 20 as a professional, Ross’s big break came in 1933, when he fought “Tough Tony” Canzoneri in Chicago for the world lightweight title. Ross won by a split decision. To prove that his victory was no fluke, Ross agreed to a rematch in Canzoneri’s hometown, New York City. In front of a pro-Canzoneri crowd of 60,000, Ross won a unanimous decision. Never a powerful puncher, Ross showed unflinching courage by counter punching when hit hard and always staying on his feet, a formula that served him throughout his life.
Ross entered the ranks of the boxing greats in a brutal series of fights welterweight championship fights against Jimmy McLarnin, who outweighed Ross by several pounds, was a harder puncher and had a reputation for beating Jewish boxers. In their first and bloodiest battle, Ross defeated McLarnin by a split decision. Ross offered McLarnin a rematch five months later and McLarnin avenged the defeat in a vicious battle, the only fight in which Ross suffered a knockdown. When they met for the third time, Ross took the rematch in a fight that showed his clear superiority as a boxer.
Ross’s most courageous prizefight was his last, in 1938, against Henry Armstrong, the only man to hold the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight crowns. Although only 28 years old by the time he fought Armstrong, Ross had fought almost 300 times. Although he started strong, Ross tired 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 refused. After the twelfth, the referee approached Ross’s 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’s wish to end his career without ever failing 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 the 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, who at 32 was beyond draft age, received permission to join the Marines. Assigned to serve as a boxing instructor, Ross instead asked for combat duty and was shipped to Guadalcanal, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific. On patrol one night, a superior force of Japanese troops attacked Ross and three comrades. All three comrades were wounded. Ross gathered them in a shell crater and defended them through the night by firing over 400 rifle rounds. When he ran out of bullets, Ross threw twenty-two 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, out of ammunition and wounded in the leg and foot himself, the 140-pound Ross picked up his 230-pound surviving comrade and carried him to safety. Ross, whose helmet had more than thirty 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 requested. When released from the hospital, Ross toured military plants to raise morale among workers but couldn’t shake his need for morphine. When his habit began costing him $500 per week and his wife left him, Ross checked into a drug treatment facility. While few gave him much chance of succeeding, Ross went “cold turkey” and, after much withdrawal agony, 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 our against drug abuse. Hollywood later turned Ross’s autobiographical account of his addiction into a movie, “Monkey on My Back.”
In his autobiography, 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. While not perfect, in the end Barney Ross did not let the rabbi or his people down. Of all the things Ross achieved in his life and all the obstacles he overcame, however, the one that meant the most to him was having earned enough money in the first Canzoneri fight to reunite his mother at home with her three youngest children who had been placed in an orphanage.