Barney Ross/Yuri Foreman: “The Chosen”

By Norman Marcus on April 3, 2012
Barney Ross/Yuri Foreman: “The Chosen”
When Barney was fourteen, his father Isidore, a very religious man was killed in his grocery

Barney Ross ran errands for Al Capone and hustled for gamblers and pimps, but it was never enough…

Beryl Rasofsky was born in New York City on a cold day in December of 1909. When he was two years old his father moved the family to the Westside of Chicago, where a small grocery store was for sale on Maxwell Street. Now in those days the Westside was a catchall for immigrants from all over the world. Jews, Poles, Irish, Italians, you name it they were all there. Of course there was little political correctness in those days. You had to learn to fight if you were to survive. Beryl’s name changed several times in those years but finally it was Americanized to Barney Ross. He now had an American name but as an Orthodox Jew he still practiced his ancient faith. He wore his Tallit (prayer shawl) under his shirt and quietly studied the Talmud (Rabbinic writings) as required of him.

All these people wedged into such a small space can be described by only one term—a ghetto. The Jews like Barney concentrated around Maxwell Street. The other ethnic groups were in other areas on the Westside. They were all pushing for space to survive and succeed in America.

A surprising number not only survived but also made names for themselves in the years ahead. Kingfish Levinsky (real name Krakow) a heavyweight contender whose family owned a fish store, and Jackie Fields (real name Finkelstein) a latter day Welterweight Champion, son of the local butcher, were schooled on and around Maxwell Street.

When Barney was fourteen, his father Isidore, a very religious man was killed in his grocery. Two young toughs came in and demanded money, the old man refused. They shot him in the chest and fled. The breadwinner in the family was dead. Barney and his brother George went to stay with relatives but the three younger children were put in the Jewish Orphan’s Home. Young Ross wanted them out of there. He dropped out of school and took whatever jobs he could to save enough money to get the family back together. He ran errands for Al Capone and hustled for gamblers and pimps, but it was never enough.

One day he stumbled upon Kid Hayward’s Gym on the Southside of town. The boy began training to become a boxer. He felt it was the only way to make enough money to help his family. As an amateur Barney got no money for his fights. He was paid with watches, rings, shoes, and even bags of groceries which he promptly sold for cash. It wasn’t long before Barney turned pro. He switched over to George Trafton’s gym up in the Loop. He had two managers now, Arthur Winch and Sam Pian. Soon the rivalry between three great boxers in the lighter divisions—Barney Ross, Tony Canzoneri, and Jimmy McLarnin—would heat up. Ethnic pride was encouraged in those days among the fans. It was good for the gate, a packed house made a lot of money for all concerned.

The first fight between Ross and Canzoneri took place on June 23, 1933, in Chicago. Canzoneri a two-belt titleholder (lightweight and junior welterweight) was a 6 to 5 favorite that night. The fight was very close, fierce and lightning quick punches landed throughout the rounds. In the end it was a split decision for Ross. He was now a dual champion! Barney took his share of the gate and finally got his siblings out of the orphanage.

Three months later Ross gave Canzoneri his rematch at the Polo Grounds in New York. This match went the planned 15 rounds and was another slugfest. Both men landing at will with little or no defense on either side. At the end it was another split decision with referee Arthur Donovan casting the deciding vote for—Ross!

Barney decided to move up in class and take on the hard punching Jimmy McLarnin for bigger purses. Now Jimmy was known as the “Jew Beater” in the game, having never lost to a Jewish boxer. The bout took place on May 28, 1934, at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Queens, New York. Ross decided to mix it up with McLarnin that night to put to rest the myth that Jewish fighters were clever but lacked heart. The fight was a real slugfest, with Barney and Jimmy both scoring knock downs in the nint round. At the end of the 15th round announcer Joe Humphries reported “the winner and new…” The rest of his words were drowned out by the hysterical crowd. Barney was now the Welterweight Champion of the World.

The rematch was set again at the Madison Square Garden Bowl on September 17, 1934. This time McLarnin won the split decision in 15 rounds and regained his belt. Of course a rubber match was needed to see who was the better man. It took place at the Polo Grounds on May 28, 1935. Jack Dempsey was the referee. The fight went the full 15 rounds with each fighter giving his all. It was a solid decision for Barney Ross.

Ross boxed for many more years, cleaning out the division. His last fight against Henry Armstrong on May 31, 1938, at the Madison Square Garden Bowl was a massacre. Armstrong, “The Human Windmill.” hit the champ with so many punches that it was a miracle that Ross stayed on his feet. Henry won the unanimous decision that night and Barney retired.

In 1942 at the age of thirty-three Barney enlisted in the Marine Corps. He volunteered for combat duty and won a silver star at Guadalcanal. He saved nine marine buddies while killing twenty Japanese soldiers. Later he was given morphine by the corpsmen for his wounds on the battlefield. So much so that he became addicted to the drug. In the end though, Barney Ross won that fight too.

In 1947 the boxing movie “Body and Soul” with John Garfield was released to the public. It was based on the life of Barney Ross. It is a classic.

Yuri Foreman was born on August 5, 1980, in Belarus, part of the former Soviet Union. The family lived in a two-room apartment. There were six people in that tiny space. In Belarus, seven-year-old Yuri was picked on and beaten by toughs at the local pool. His mother took him to a gym and eked out the money for boxing lessons. A few weeks of training and no one bothered Yuri again. He loved the gym and the strict training. For the next four years he trained and competed in bouts with the other boys. It was quite unusual for an Orthodox Jew to become a boxer.

In 1991 Yuri and his parents immigrated to Israel. They wound up in a one-room apartment in Haifa. Not knowing Hebrew yet was hard on him. His father worked as a house cleaner and Yuri helped him after school. He did manual labor when he could. The Arabs he worked with learned not to mess with the tough young Jew. He began to train at an Arab gym near his apartment. There was no Jewish gym close by. Yuri described his first day there this way. “First time I walked in I saw the stares. In their eyes there was a lot of hatred. But I needed to box and boy did they all want to box me. After a while the wall between us melted. It helped that I won almost all the time. And finally we became friends.” He began to pick up some amateur fights and finally landed a spot on the Israeli National Team. He won that championship three times.

He later decided it was time to go to America and try his luck there. Yuri wound up in Brooklyn, New York. Again he didn’t know the language. He got a job as a stevedore in the “Rag Trade” (women’s clothing), moving racks of clothes from place to place. He continued to train at night at the famous Gleason’s Gym where many a champion had started. He won the Golden Gloves Tournament at 156 pounds. He had gotten a lot of experience at Gleason’s Gym, sparring with a lot of real pros, like Zab Judah. He turned pro himself in 2002 and was taken on by Lou DiBella who promoted his next ten fights, all wins! He later signed on with Murray Wilson and Alan Cohen as his managers who hooked him up with Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions. Arum’s father had been a rabbi and there is a kinship felt between the two men. He trained under the supervision of Tommy Brooks and Joe Grier.

Foreman, who always fights with the Star of David on his trunks, was on his way up. On November 14, 2009, he defeated Daniel Santos in a decision for the WBA belt. Yuri was now a super welterweight champion. Yuri’s managers tried to get him a fight with Manny Pacquiao but they were turned down. His second choice was Miguel Cotto on June 5, 2010, at Yankee Stadium. A slip in the seventh round reinjured an already braced right knee and Yuri was fighting in extreme agony. (The knee had been damaged when Yuri was fifteen years old and never properly repaired.) It buckled on him several times during the fight. One of his managers, Murray Wilson threw in the towel midway through the eighth round but Yuri insisted on continuing. The contest was finally stopped in the ninth round with Cotto declared the winner. Miguel later stated that “He was working on one leg, but I kept fighting.”

Why did Yuri fight Cotto when he knew he was having trouble with the knee? He has told friends that it was a huge payday for him and would make him financially secure. He thought that the brace would do the job. Yuri has since had his torn ACL and meniscus repaired and the knee is now fine. Asked why he didn’t quit earlier in the fight Yuri said, “I’m a world champion… You don’t just quit.”

Yuri is now married to Leyla Leidecker, an immigrant from Hungary. They met at Gleason’s Gym where she also trained as an amateur boxer. Right now Foreman spends his time reading the Talmud in the morning, trains in the gym during the afternoon and studies to be a rabbi at night. He is the first Orthodox Jew in 70 years to hold a world championship. The last one was Barney Ross.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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Barney Ross vs Billy Petrolle 1934

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Barney Ross v Tony Canzoneri

Barney Ross

Monkey on My Back (1957) True Story of Barney Ross Boxing Film André De Toth Directed

Yuri Foreman vs Daniel Santos WBA Super welterweight world Champion יורי פורמן

Miguel Cotto vs Yuri Foreman 1/3

Miguel Cotto vs Yuri Foreman 2/3

Miguel Cotto vs Yuri Foreman 3/3

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  1. the thresher 05:50pm, 04/06/2012

    I’ve done the belt. Too much competition. I’m now doing drum roll stuff in small towns throught norther New Hampshire. :)

  2. Norman Marcus 11:46am, 04/05/2012

    Thresher: you’re a pretty funny guy! Do you have a manager? I only take 10%. I could book you big time up in the Borscht Belt this summer. What’s not to like?

  3. the thresher 11:17am, 04/05/2012

    Oy Vey

  4. mike schmidt 10:04am, 04/04/2012

    Great write up and LOVED Garfield in Body and Soul. The tradition continues—last month at the Roseland- Ran Nakash of Israel, last weekend in a fight that had the whole rocking room on its feet my very own ( I say with biased pride) Danny “Silent” Netzer of Tel Aviv, Isarel, out at the grand old Paramount Theater in Gerry Cooney, Angelina Jolie, Christie Brinkley, Billy Joel stomping grounds of Huntington, New York and on the same card, landing a body shot for the ages, “The Hebrew Hammer” Cletus Seldon—great tradition, great write up—move to follow on the above from Dear Old Schmidty—BOXING.COM WRITING ON TRADITION AND CREATING TRADITION—LOVE IT GUYS KEEP UP THE GOOD…..

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 09:38am, 04/04/2012

    Barney’s photo above should appear in the dictionary along with the definition of the word “fighter”.

  6. Norman Marcus 05:48am, 04/04/2012

    I am just following your lead Thresher, and all the other staff writers.  Mark Twain once said, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.” Twain was right on the money. Love this job!
    No other site comes close to our quality.

  7. DannytheRebbi 05:40am, 04/04/2012

    What a great write up. Barney Ross has a tremendous life story, and Body and Soul is an all time classic. Foreman hasn’t been around much lately, hope to see him again soon, back in the mix…

  8. Jim Crue 05:40am, 04/04/2012

    The Barney Ross movie, Monkey On My Back, was not an accurate portrait of his life. I believe Barney was successful in having the movie pulled from release and it has not been shown on TV in years. I am from Chicago and remember when Barney died. His trainers/managers Sam Pian and Art Winch were the same men who managed the great Tony Zale.
    My dad was in the 2nd Marine Division and on Guadalcanal with Barney. He was a gentleman.
    Yuri Foreman may be of the same faith as Barney but he is not much of a fighter. His management matched him right and knew his religious background would draw some good gates.

  9. the thresher 05:18am, 04/04/2012

    Holy hell, Norman is still another fine writer on Damn if we have not emerged as the best site in boxing. Great work here Mr. Marcus.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 07:52pm, 04/03/2012

    A storyteller yet….what’s not to like….Isaac Bashevis Singer is smiling down on you!

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