Two Boxers–One Muslim, One Jewish–Linked by a Higher Goal

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Boxing champion Muhammad Ali turned 65 on January 17, and was the subject of accolades throughout the sports world, including a feature story in the New York Times. January 17 also happened to be the 40th anniversary of the passing of another boxing legend, Barney Ross.

Ross, a Jew, and Ali, a Black Muslim, came from two completely different worlds–yet they were linked by their courageous willingness to risk their careers for the sake of their political and moral principles. That trait is all too rare among today’s athletes.

Ali’s legendary swagger irritated some, but even his critics came to grudgingly admire a boxer who not only ‘talked the talk’ but could so impressively ‘walk the walk.’ In his first three years as a professional fighter, he compiled an amazing 19-0 record, with fifteen knockouts.

Then, at the peak of his career, just ten days after winning the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1964, he announced that he had become a Muslim and was discarding his birth name, Cassius Clay. Ali’s pride in his newfound religious beliefs meant more to him than the possible negative reaction from the public and the risk to his professional future.

Two years later, Ali put his career on the line for the sake of his principles. He refused to be drafted into the United States army on the grounds that the Vietnam War conflicted with his religion. Ali made it clear that his view of Vietnam was shaped by his nationalism as well: “No Vietcong ever called me ‘nigger’,” he declared.

Ali paid a steep price: he spent the next three and a half years in prison. Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee often told him that nobody “ever saw you at your best,” which Dundee was convinced would have been during those years when Ali was in jail instead of in the ring.

Ironically, on the day in January 1942 when Ali was born, Barney Ross was preparing to enlist in the United States Marines.

The son of East European immigrants, Barnet Rasofsky learned to fight so he could defend himself and his friends from Irish, Italian, and Polish gangs on the rough-and-tumble streets of 1920s Chicago. When his father was murdered in a holdup, 14 year-old Barney turned to boxing to earn money for his mother and five siblings.

In an age when many inner-city Jewish boys turned to boxing, Ross became one of the all-time greats of the sport. He eventually won the lightweight, junior welterweight, and welterweight championships, in a career that saw him victorious in 77 of 81 bouts. As Douglas Century recounts in his recent biography of Ross, he became “the Pride of the Ghetto,” adored by American Jews who saw him as an antidote to the stereotypical image of Jews as physically unfit.

Ross, like Ali, enjoyed the wealth and fame that star athletes experience. Who wouldn’t? But he never discarded the bedrock moral principles that had been the foundation of his, and his family’s, life.

Instead of enjoying a quite retirement, Ross enlisted in the Marines shortly after Pearl Harbor even though, at age 32, he was way past draft age and could have avoided military service. In the battle of Guadalcanal, Ross was seriously wounded while rescuing injured comrades from a Japanese ambush. His battlefield heroics earned him a Silver Star.

Returning to the United States as a military hero, Ross could have taken advantage of his new fame by devoting himself to well-paid public appearances and product endorsements. Instead, he began devoting himself to a higher cause: rescuing Jews from the Holocaust and establishing a Jewish state.

Ross became a prominent supporter of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. This was not merely another worthy charity. For Ross to support the controversial Emergency Committee took political courage–the committee’s public criticism of the Allies’ apathy toward the Holocaust had infuriated government officials in Washington and London. The State Department repeatedly tried to have the Emergency Committee’s chairman, Peter Bergson, drafted or deported, while the FBI opened the group’s mail, planted informants in its ranks, and even scrutinized its trash.

Ross also became active in another of Bergson’s committees, the American League for a Free Palestine, which sought to rally American support for the creation of a Jewish State. He spoke at its public rallies and served as leader of its George Washington Legion, which recruited Americans to fight the British in Mandatory Palestine. One of the group’s newspaper ads featured a photo of Ross with this message from the boxing champ: “There is no such thing as a former fighter. We must all continue the fight.”

Ross and Ali, a Jew and a Black Muslim, both “continued the fight.” They were linked not merely by the coincidence of their dates of death and birth but, more importantly, by the courage of their beliefs. For this they deserve to be remembered, almost as much as for their athletic prowess.

January 2007