It’s going on half a century since I met my first sporting legend—and I’ll never forget the day.
As a young reporter with the London Jewish Chronicle, I was sent to interview Barney Ross, arguably the best Jewish boxer of all time.
The great man was holed up at the Dorchester Hotel, where he was staying as a guest of the Boxing Hall of Fame or some such organization.
The New York-born fighter’s amazing life was the stuff movies are made out of—which presumably is why Hollywood made the 1957 biographical film Monkey on My Back, with Cameron Mitchell playing Ross.
Yet for all his fame and bravery, I found that the real Barney was just a down-to-earth, ordinary Joe.
Ross’ time on this earth was tragically and heroically unique. Indeed, winning the world lightweight, light-welterweight and welterweight titles—and becoming the first man to hold two world crowns simultaneously—was just a part of an amazing life.
He lived in an era when Jewish fighters dominated much of the boxing scene. Between 1910 and 1940, there were no fewer than 26 Jewish world champions in the eight weight divisions that existed at the time.
Names like Benny Leonard, Jack "Kid" Berg, Ted "Kid" Lewis, "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom and Battling Levinsky remain legends of the sport to this day. But since American Mike Rossman lost his world light-heavyweight crown in 1979, successful Jewish fighters have been few and far between.
Hands trembling, Ross told me how he had been a bit of a street brawler as a kid, but his interest in boxing only took off after his father, a Talmudic scholar, was shot dead while resisting a robbery at his little grocery store.
Barney was just 13 and forced to become the family breadwinner, soon discovered that his fists were worth money.
He was so successful that he went on to win those three world titles—and then became an even greater hero after joining the US Marines during World War II and winning the Silver Star, one of America’s highest awards for bravery.
The downside was that after suffering horrendous wounds in killing 20 enemy soldiers at Guadalcanal, he was plied with large doses of morphine and became addicted to heroin.
But a loser he most definitely was not, and after battling his way through rehab, he decided to devote the rest of his life to helping addicts conquer drug abuse.
Still showing the effects of his drug nightmare with his shaky body movements, he relived his astonishing story before delivering his verdict on why there were so many great pre-War Jewish boxers—and very few since.
''In my day, we had to fight to live,'' he reflected. ''It was the only way we could survive. Today's fighters live to fight—and that's just not the Jewish way.''
Which perhaps explains why the likes of Dmitriy Salita and Yuri Foreman will never make the Boxing Hall of Fame. They may be decent fighters by modern standards, but when it comes to grit and determination, they lack the sheer drive to succeed epitomised by the Golden Greats of old.
For the likes of Barney Ross, becoming the best boxer in the business was literally a matter of life and death.
It saddened me immensely when I heard a few months later that the great man had died at the age of 57. But more than four decades later, that interview remains as vividly in my memory as if I was still talking to him that afternoon at the Dorchester in 1966.