Ring of Solace, Part 4: Collision

By Ted Spoon on October 14, 2014
Ring of Solace, Part 4: Collision
“It’s not the dough. And it’s not the big hello you get when you come down the aisle.”

Just eighteen days later saw the inevitable rubber match between McLarnin and Ross. It was back to the Polo Grounds…

“This hoodoo business is getting tiresome. You’d think ring titles were won and lost by walking under ladders, seeing pairs of black crows, finding four-leaf clovers and having black cats cross your path.”—Barney Ross

“It’s not the dough. And it’s not the big hello you get when you come down the aisle. It’s just something that gets you when the other guy is shooting for keeps and you see a clean tunnel to his jaw.”—Tony Canzoneri

“There’s nothing like married life to keep a fellow attending to business.”—Jimmy McLarnin

With the timekeeper poised, cheers slew conversation. 

Tony left his corner with a simple goal – crack that chin. Both men had disclosed tactics while the gloves were appointed. Barney was to maintain a fast pace against a guy who he believed was running low on petrol. As the champion jumped about he landed a few of those hard rights but Ross’ knack for ducking messed with his radar.

Most opponents were suckered in by Tony’s low-guard and got clobbered. “Do not be an imitation of a man like Canzoneri, at least not a bad imitation” instructed Benny Leonard, “…his tricks will probably die with him.” Ross didn’t bite. With slight advantages in height, reach and weight he remained conservative and stabbed that left.

Canzoneri was rarely the other half of a dud because he knew how to wedge himself into a fight. Punches to the mouth were swallowed like energy pills. A two-handed attack came at Ross who responded well and Chicago Stadium played its noisy part. During these vicious exchanges the neck and kidneys were also targeted. Things heated up in more ways than one as overhead lights raised the temperature uncomfortably high.

The final round came along in no time. With his precious family watching Ross may have had the last say in a very close fight. Both men were jubilant at the final bell. The announcer made his way to ring center. 

Referee Tommy Gilmore had it even.

Ed Hintz had it 52-48.

W.A. Battyle had it 53-47.

Both scores went to the winner AND NEW CHAMPION!

Boos filled the stadium while Tony “stood in his corner with a look of bewilderment on his face for fully two minutes.” Once he snapped out of it with a frown manager Goldman was already yapping. Robert Edgren believed Tony had “loafed” the last three. Referee Gilmore stated that a championship should not change hands on so slim a margin. Happy as anything, Ross agreed to a mouth-watering rematch in September.

His people were happy.

As part of Chicago’s “Century of Progress” exposition a Jewish Day was held on July 3, 1933. Over 150,000 came from all over the country, not so much to see the Romance of a People pageant but celebrate their rightful place in the United States. Struggling families left with a greater sense of belonging. Many grabbed a paper for the journey home, and flicked to the sports section. Once the festivities cooled Ross was left with a much debated victory; he would use it as inspiration. Both boxers prepared at remote areas in N.J. while fans enjoyed the build-up.

New York’s Polo Grounds were ideal for big events. This also meant Tony would enjoy home advantage. Ross could expect plenty of Jewish support though they would be soundly outnumbered. For many of the overworked in Little Italy, selling fruit or making pasta, a Canzoneri fight was like a national holiday.

Benny Leonard dropped by Tony’s training headquarters to offer his stately opinion. He concluded that the challenger needed to stick to his clever boxing, forget the knockout. In the champions’ digs the theme was if it ain’t broke don’t fix it; another quick pace would be set in the hope Tony would eventually drown. The biggest factor going into the rematch, unlike the original which ended at ten; this one was for fifteen. Though younger and fresher, Ross had never done this distance.

As fight night neared it was written that “The tremendous racial followings of each man have about offset each other in the wagering.” Boxing had another 50/50 bout, and that’s why 31,000 gathered before the first bell. “Phenomenal for these times” was the $100,000 gate.

The two picked up where they left off, hacking away at all targets. This persisted until the seventh when Barney’s fine jab gave him a clear edge. To make things worse for Tony he had been penalized for low blows (he would lose three rounds in total for repeating the foul). A bad spell changed in the ninth when that right made Ross grimace. In the eleventh he was briefly hurt. New Yorkers willed Tony on. Ross responded like the cheers were for him and got back in the driver’s seat. In the last round Tony made a wonderful finish, as he so often had, swooping in haymakers while advertising his jaw. The crowd loved it. Was it enough?

A split decision gave a fair indication of the action, but you’d have to say it went to the right man.

Barney’s hand was raised in unprecedented triumph!

Sarah was more than happy. A purse of $33,000 finally allowed her to buy a house since that terrible incident at the grocery store. Though Tony’s father had allegedly attempted to throw a stool at one of the judges, and the fact his son had bet $3,000 on himself, it was back to winning the following month.

At the turn of 1934 boxing’s welterweight champion discussed his options with Pop when the unexpected happened. Ross had done some discussing of his own and threw down the gauntlet. McLarnin put his name down for a fifteen-rounder, close to where it read “$35,000.”

Aside from hard work and belief a constant in Barney’s life was two helpings of spinach per day. E.C. Segar’s Popeye came to mind. McLarnin was also meticulous. When he wasn’t running he was sparring, and when he wasn’t sparring he was hitting the bag. For most boxers a heavy bag usually serves only one purpose but Jimmy had used it to charm his future wife. Sizeable crowds enjoyed the show.

Ross had a slight size advantage over Canzoneri. Against Jimmy it was the other way around plus the Irishman’s record against Jews pushed those superstitious buttons. Barney would again play the part of live underdog. 

The fight was schedule for May 28, 1934 in Queens’ Madison Square Garden Bowl. Come WWII this outdoor arena would be no more. A whopping 60,000 attended the biggest fight between two little ‘uns since Benny Leonard disarmed Lew Tendler in 1923. Alongside the waves of Jewish and Irish that rushed were casuals, taken by the current.

At the palpable moment Jimmy’s big shoulders raised his guard. Ross did the same, cutting a sleeker figure. Each had a look in the first before getting down to serious business, stepping in with the jab, drumming the body. It was frenetic. It was difficult to score. Most noteworthy was that McLarnin’s potent right could not land clean enough to trouble Barney. The smaller “raven-haired” Jew seemed to have the edge.

In round nine Jimmy’s left flipped the script and decked Ross. Up before a count, Barney then decked McLarnin who was slightly off balance. More than anything the exchange just highlighted how well matched they were, however, it was Jimmy’s round. Rounds ten to thirteen were probably his as well. Barney required more of a grandstand finish than against Tony. A glance across the ring pictured a very tired Irishman. Pop’s spiel kept his fighter going. It couldn’t access that extra gear.

Barney was just that little bit sharper, resourceful, and a split decision victory made comparisons with the great Bennah plausible. 

An emotional Jimmy left the ring.

Once the press had thoroughly interviewed the combatants and Barney traversed the Jewish ghettos, it warmed his heart to see pictures of him stuck on windows with the inscription “Our Barney.” In a move which would definitely have brought a smile to Isidore’s face, Barney then handed $1000 over to a local synagogue. 

There had to be a rematch. September 17, 1934 marked the date and it was to take place in the same venue which was spawning nicknames like the ‘Jinx Bowl’ and ‘The Graveyard of Champions.’ Reason being titles kept changing hands there. That Barney was the favorite could not expel this ghoul of a statistic.

Poor weather had postponed the bout not once, not twice, not three but four times. A Jewish holiday also interrupted Barney’s training; this was a contributing factor in the rematch not being as well attended. McLarnin had looked brilliant in training, often concluding workouts with handsprings and a knowing grin. Ross dismissed the jinx. The odds tightened up come fight night.

Another close, engaging fifteen rounds unfolded. Another split decision was read out…

…and the jinx continued!

A triumphant Jimmy and Pop did as they said they would and traveled back to Ireland. The fact the new champion couldn’t discern whether he came from Belfast or Dublin led to serious squawking amongst natives. Christmas was glorious.

1935. Fans looked around and saw Canzoneri still fighting. Surprising? No, but you did wonder when someone would drill him for keeps. A golden chance to regain Ross’ vacated lightweight crown presented itself against young contender Lou Ambers. His alias of “The Herkimer Hurricane” gave fans an idea of how he operated and Tony was odds on to crumble. 

Following an interesting start Lou was briefly floored in the third. No doubt he would make Tony pay for this but down he went again. From here the old dog boxed a wonderfully measured fight. His style never worked better as tempted leads ran into heavy counters. One more knockdown in the fifteenth gave Tony’s loyal fan base a victory to savor. Dropping a round on a low blow couldn’t threaten this unanimous decision. 

Just eighteen days later saw the inevitable rubber match between McLarnin and Ross. It was back to the Polo Grounds.

Reporter Ron Broom figured that the ideal procedure for this night would be to watch the bout “and then drift into Dempsey’s place for a toasted hamburger sandwich at 75 cents.” Before then possible customers would see the old Mauler – he was the referee, a fact of which Pop was not happy about.

One last time these two combatants had it out in front of 35,000. With their chemistry well established they produced another thrilling fifteen-rounder. Such a bout could work up quite the appetite; luckily there were walking vendors offering sandwiches, peanuts and tootsie rolls. McLarnin was credited with fighting a “smarter” fight than in the previous two. Barney’s round, cheerful face picked up more scarring than usual. Still, Ross had done enough body lashing to make it an even fight after twelve, and then, as before, a little more venom came from him in the closing stages to pinch a unanimous decision.

Controversy came with the fact Dempsey scored seven rounds even. Celebrated reporter John Lardner didn’t believe that there was “such a thing as an even round,” but he did believe that this rivalry had “gone far enough.”

After venting their anger, Pop and his boy agreed on retirement.

Nearly a year passed when Jimmy got restless and liked the idea of tackling Canzoneri. The beloved New Yorker had just reversed an old defeat against Johnny Jadick though few liked Tony’s chances in this one. Smaller, worn and hittable were not the attributes you wanted to bring into the ring against Jimmy. Round one said it all.

Many thousands watched Tony get thumped from pillar to post. They may have recalled poor old Benny. The Italian’s short pins just about carried him to his stool. A lot of shaking heads watched on. Not too groggy to set himself, Canzoneri fired his own right, landing on McLarnin’s chin, and everyone went crazy as “the floor came up to meet him.”

In a blink Tony rediscovered that mischievous rhythm, the one that brought a smile to Pete Herman many years ago, dancing about minus a guard before winging in bombs. McLarnin lost more than the tactical battle as he thought the ninth round was the third. A ten-round unanimous decision gave Tony perhaps his most memorable victory. Superb technician Tommy Loughran said it was eye candy. 

The next day Pop let out the statement that Jimmy “took a lot of rights to the jaw last night. Too many of them are not good for you.” Retirement stared at them again. Jimmy trusted his instincts and signed for a rematch. Meanwhile Tony’s lightweight crown had fallen back into the hands of Ambers. Less than a month later he was facing Jimmy again.

The Irishman got his tactics spot on this time. Waiting for the openings, Tony was floored in the second and ate a classy left hand for the duration, the one that Pop had drilled into Jimmy as a teenager. Cuts on the mouth, eyes and a recently fixed schnozz echoed Jimmy’s accuracy. The following month he fought similar against 135 lbs. champ Lou Ambers in a non-title bout and looked brilliant. It corroborated Barney’s remark that he had a “hundred” fights left in him, but this financially secure veteran could feel the hunger dying. 

With hall of famer number 12 beaten, Jimmy strolled into permanent retirement.

Knowing he didn’t have to get serious come New Year meant lots of turkey. Good food and company was in surplus. Occasionally he could hear the faint roar of the crowd, detect cigar smoke. Observing his wife and children stifled the desire to return, though the clincher may have been that he could now pick up a golf club without Pop whinging.

Smart move.

Tony and Barney continued on their separate warpaths, to the same destination… 

Ring of Solace: Introduction
Ring of Solace, Part 1: Jimmy & Pop 
Ring of Solace, Part 2: Born to Fight
Ring of Solace, Part 3: Faith in Violence 
Ring of Solace, Part 4: Collision 
Ring of Solace, Part 5: Sparkling Debris

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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Jimmy McLarnin vs Tony Canzoneri I (Highlights)

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  1. Clarence George 05:32am, 10/16/2014

    I’m reminded of when She Who Must Be Obeyed and I went to Nathan’s at Coney Island, and she asked the counterman, “What kind of meat is in your hamburger sandwiches?”  I’m surprised she didn’t pull out a lorgnette.  What kind of meat did she think was in there, wild boar?  It’s Nathan’s!  But it makes me wonder what was in Dempsey’s now infamous burger.  A soupçon of Jess Willard, perhaps?

  2. Clarence George 03:12am, 10/15/2014

    Eric:  That same pack will cost you an obscene $14 today, but that’s more taxation than inflation.

    Eric J.:  I took the liberty of finding an enlarged version of the image you kindly provided (see link below).  I can’t say I find the fare particularly appealing, and I’m surprised at how high the prices were.  But I wasn’t surprised by the inclusion of sherbert, which today has been replaced by “sorbet.”  By the way, your childhood era is the same as mine.  I knew that as soon as I saw the menu’s illustrations—a dead giveaway for the early 1960s.


    Here’s a ‘60s menu from my favorite restaurant, Manero’s (now gone).  Four dollars for a complete filet mignon dinner, which is about $30 today.


  3. Eric Jorgensen 04:14pm, 10/14/2014

    Speaking of old-time menu prices, check this out from the Disneyland of my childhood:


  4. Eric 09:35am, 10/14/2014

    You could buy a pack of Marlboro Reds for less than 65-cents back in those days too.

  5. Clarence George 09:18am, 10/14/2014

    A Jackson Hole burger (seven ounces) some 40 years ago was around 85 cents; I would have thought that a burger in the ‘30s would have been a nickel.  But, hey, any hamburger on the receiving end of Jack Dempsey’s coveted imprimatur is all right with me.

  6. Eric 09:04am, 10/14/2014

    I can remember getting a hamburger steak, baked potato, small salad, and large piece of Texas toast for $1.99 back in the mid ‘70’s. T-Bone with potato, salad, and Texas toast was $3.69, not including the price of your drink.  Not a fancy steakhouse, but not too bad, probably on par with, or slightly below Outback of today. Paying 75 cents for a hamburger back during the Depression was damn steep. Must have been a helluva hamburger.

  7. Clarence George 08:14am, 10/14/2014

    Seventy-five cents for a burger in 1935 was pretty hefty, even at Dempsey’s; that’s about $10 in today’s money.

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