Ring of Solace, Part 5: Sparkling Debris

By Ted Spoon on October 22, 2014
Ring of Solace, Part 5: Sparkling Debris
Boxing said goodbye and prayed for another. Barney Ross took his hat and went home.

Many were polite but disconnected in their silence. Others shed a tear. The old geezers wore a private smile. And snuck back into the Garden…

“I guess I liked Tony so much because his life was so much like mine.”—Gino Martinelli (Wrestler)

“Doctors who predicted it would take Ross a year to be cured are little short of amazed. Four months!”—Charles Einstein on Barney’s malaria

“If it weren’t for the broken knuckles, you would take him for a guy who has been selling lingerie all his life…He’s almost an advertisement for a cruel sport.”—Jim Murray on an elderly McLarnin

It was rather generous of the powers that be to give Tony one last shot. Steadily improving Lou Ambers had no problem with this and little trouble with his jaded opponent. It was arguably a shutout, enough to persuade Canzoneri to take the longest break of his career. Not enough to quit.

Since winning that great trilogy Ross had put another coat of wax on his résumé. Two more defenses of the welterweight title were made against Izzy Jannazzo, and then a real tough fifteen-rounder against the bullish Ceferino Garcia. Seventy-six fights in and Barney had done splendidly, though his career was a chief example of the maxim that it’s harder to stay than become champion. In May of 1938 a Negro featherweight bobbed closer to the gold, not that many thought he would take it. 

The boxing world didn’t know what they were dealing with.

Henry Armstrong kept it on Barney in the worst possible way. Each round he sped up. The only reason there was a slight drop near the end was down to respect. Never had Barney soaked up such a beating. To make it worse he was entitled to, maybe, four rounds. “Easiest fight I ever had” boomed the new terror of 147 lbs. Barney called it a day and instantly saw the positives. “It’s a relief to know that you can stay up until 2 o’clock in the morning if you want to.” Doing so however would unearth new (old) demons.   

1939, the beginning of WWII and Tony resumed his schedule. Long Beach Stadium, Broadway Arena, Coney Island Velodrome, Woodcliff Park; this bold Italian played hopscotch all over New York. A return to the Garden meant serious business. The opponent was undefeated, typically a sign of fighting nobodies. Something everyone agreed on was this cats punching power.

In round three a hook dropped Canzoneri like a fumbling rookie. Down again and waived off by the referee, Tony’s super campaign had come to an end. The thunderous fists of Al “Bummy” Davis were to blame. 

A couple of years on and, following the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, it was time for this ex-boxer to join the queue but double vision in one of his eyes (no prizes for guessing where he picked it up) prevented Tony from passing the medical. He soon began to tip the scales at over 160 lbs. and craved something that would motivate him, just like a fight use to; a role in which he could entertain.

The solution came in teaming up with comedian Joey Adams as part of a Broadway duo. Some plastic surgery was in order to revamp Tony’s scarred mug, though he was said to have asked the Doc to “keep him a little ugly,” lest fans didn’t recognize him! Various parodies shaped the act with Tony often being at the brunt of jokes and receiving a slap. Eventually, much to the delight of everyone, Tony got his revenge before the curtain call. A wistful percentage attended purely to hear tales from the ring. That explosive rematch against Jack “Kid” Berg was the most frequently recited.

Afterwards Tony could sit down with a cigar and unwind.

Since retirement Barney’s life had gone from wild to dangerous as he traded nights of binge drinking for uniform. The ex-fighter was eager to fulfill his duty, but on Nov. 19, 1942, at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, death came knocking.

Barney and four others were carrying an injured troop when the Japanese ambushed them. They all dived into nearby shell-holes, after which Barney was the only one injury free. It was 4 pm. Right through till 7 am the next morning Ross crawled among his group, pinching every last scrap of ammo. His M-1 shot 100 rounds, his Springfield 80, and 21 hand grenades were thrown. When the dust had settled Barney was credited with killing 22 soldiers and received the Silver Star once he got back home the followed year.

During the conflict Ross was harmed by shrapnel but was “too busy to notice. I had malaria at the time, too.”

Treatment for these afflictions would lead to another battle as the war hero got hooked on morphine, and he began to part with hundreds of dollars per day. In between the highs Barney continued to puff on cigarettes and sup liquor. An addictive personality veered on the cusp of disaster, but one thing that never left was Barney’s will to win, and his demons were soon on the receiving end. Talks would be given on the perils of drug addiction.

The horizon looked clear for the ex-boxers. A strong economy and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll helped overthrow conversations about the war. Families were tighter. That bond between Pop and Jimmy stayed as it always had, until 1956. Jimmy received his own prime example that all good things must come to an end when Pop (aged 82) drew his last. He was bequeathed $280,000; helpful sure, but no consolation. A selfless soul was put to rest.   

With his spouse no longer around thanks to a divorce, Tony’s life wasn’t picturesque, but through stints at the night club and a few extra bob for showing his face at the restaurant which used his name, life had stability. In December ’59 concern grew as he didn’t attend the restaurant as expected. A trip to the Hotel Bryant followed and a “DO NOT DISTURB” sign hung from his door. After repeated calls there was no answer, they gained entry, and there lay Tony’s body sprawled across the bed. 

That big heart had given out.

On the day of the funeral Joey Adams delivered the last rites. Jimmy and Barney were two of the celebrated pallbearers; two men who knew Tony better than anyone. They had exchanged Christmas cards since retirement but the loss brought them closer. Boxing said goodbye and prayed for another. Ross took his hat and went home.

Because notes flew out rather than lined his pockets, Barney’s ring earnings had dried up. There was enough for a constant supply of cigarettes and he went through them like he went through the ranks. It was Lou Ambers who had warned Canzoneri about the dangers of puffing away but in ’66 Barney received the bitter news that he had developed throat cancer. 

For a time it looked as if he was victorious again. Doctors had stopped the spread and friends began to dig deep for coin. Sadly, this episode was merely a prelude and things got much worse the following year. On January 17, 1967 the Rosofsky’s “Little Bear” was finished by his condition.

“A champion doesn’t quit” Barney once said. Wife Catherine and his four brothers confirmed that he was a man of his word.

As Jimmy played heaps of golf, often with singer Bing Crosby, there were many opportunities to look back and feel grateful. Every now and then, perhaps Jimmy contemplated when his race would be up.

1989

The world had changed dramatically. Jimmy had changed a little but that boyish streak is still evident, and when the mood strikes him he’s off his chair to shadowbox. Walking is a favorite pass time. Everyday Jimmy ventured off two miles for some less rigorous exercise. Ambling with the seasons, he eventually came back to an empty house; Pop no longer there to reminisce, Lillian no longer there to embrace, his four children living elsewhere as adults. 

Later in the year reporter Jim Murray visited and saw how able Jimmy was at an age when most ex-boxers are “stuffed from a lifetime of hemorrhaging…their handshakes or their voice trembles.” Still, nothing stops the world from spinning, altering fortune, straining relationships. Life itself was becoming foreign. 

The little octogenarian reclaimed good cheer by moving to Seattle with his lone daughter. A handful of years passed in tranquility. In 2002, at the grand age of 94, he moved to Richland, Washington to be near his son, not all that far from where he used to shift newspapers. Come winter and the scenery tried to ignite something. 

Memories were dissolving like puddle-bound snowflakes.

The moment soon came when all that remained were the core lessons. Two years on, and as the leaves began to take on those rustic hues, Jimmy meditated on what made sense; it wasn’t long before he was eternally reunited with Tony, Barney and the many thousand who paid their wages. At 96, on October 28, 2004, the belting Irishman left this world as smoothly as he used to turn a handspring. 

Los Angeles’ Forest Lawn Memorial Park put him in good company – Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Sammy Davis Jr.; just a sprinkle of the big names resting there.

A varied group made Jimmy’s burial. Once more, the last rites…

Many were polite but disconnected in their silence. Others shed a tear. 

The old geezers wore a private smile.       

And snuck back into the Garden.   

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

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  1. andrew 07:36pm, 10/24/2014

    Armstrong looks like he would be a betting favourite against today’s greats.

  2. Clarence George 04:41am, 10/22/2014

    Ted Spoon (known as “The Utensil” to the Krays) mentions Clark Gable.  I’m reminded of a story, which I’m happy to relate (no, gentlemen, I insist):  A comely lady of my acquaintance recently told me that I bore a slight resemblance to “The King.”  I was very pleased, especially because I was once told by another female that I would do well in gangster roles.  “You mean the debonair villain?” I said, smugly stroking my mustache.  “No,” she said.  “The dumb muscle waiting around to hurt people.”  Who am I, William Bendix?  What gross impertinence!  Thank you, gentlemen, for your kind attention.

  3. Matt McGrain 04:08am, 10/22/2014

    Ace.

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