Rosovsky's triumph over adversity warms the spirits

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The Independent Football

For the past few days I have paused along the way, not to sniff whatever flowers bloom in December or even the wine, but to search for a notable sports performer whose birthday approximately coincides with the one we are about to celebrate.

For the past few days I have paused along the way, not to sniff whatever flowers bloom in December or even the wine, but to search for a notable sports performer whose birthday approximately coincides with the one we are about to celebrate.

If nothing else this has prepared me for the quiz, an absolutely dependable feature of newspapers at jingle-bell time and conducted in our household under strict rules for stakes equivalent to the minimum set out by on-course bookmakers.

Diligent research brought me to Beryl David Rosofsky, who shares today's date as a birthday with, among others, Alexander I, Tsar of Russia (born 1777), "Lord" George Sanger, circus proprietor (1827), and Sir Richard Arkwright, who invented the spinning frame (1732).

Rosofsky was better known as Barney Ross, an outstanding fighter from the 1930s who became the lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight champion of the world. He fought such notables as Henry Armstrong, Jimmy McLarnin and Tony Canzoneri in the ring. He fought the Japanese at Guadalcanal and came out a decorated hero and a wreck, riddled with shrapnel and weak with malaria. They pumped in morphine and it became a habit, and his tussle with addiction was harrowingly recorded in a book, No Man Stands Alone, later made into a film starring Cameron Mitchell.

Ross died of cancer 32 years ago at 57, but his life remains a monument to triumph over adversity. These are difficult and often tragic times and Ross would have understood. He was a week less than 14 years old when his father was murdered by two men trying to rob the little family store on Jefferson Street, Chicago and from then on it was a battle.

On 31 May 1938, Ross was only 29 years old but he had been boxing 12 years and gone to his corner 81 times. Though wearied by those efforts Ross still felt he could take Henry Armstrong, the famed Homicide Hank, who was moving up two full weights from the featherweight division.

After five rounds Ross had nothing left in his legs. After 10 rounds his manager, Sam Pian, decided it was time to pull him out. Ross screamed at Pian and answered the bell. At the end of the 11th, the referee, Arthur Donovan, said, "Sorry, champ, I've got to stop it."

"Let me finish," Ross pleaded. "It's the last favour I'll ever ask of you. I'll never fight again." He was still on his feet at the final bell. "A champion has the right to choose how he goes out," Ross said.

In the end Beryl David Rosofsky, The Pride of the Ghetto, went before his time and towards the end he wanted to get some things. A friend suggested he should wait a while. "The Man's going to tap me on the shoulder any day," he replied. "How can I wait?"

As this week's appalling news from Venezuela has shown, Christmas can be the worst of times but memories of men like Barney Ross do much for the spirit.

On a lighter note, which champion fought on Christmas Day? Walker Smith Jnr, who knocked out Hans Stretz in Frankfurt, Germany on 25 December 1950. Less than two months later he stopped Jake LaMotta after 13 rounds to become world middleweight champion. For Walker Smith Jnr read Sugar Ray Robinson, pound for pound boxing's greatest champion and recently voted ahead of Muhammad Ali as fighter of the century.

Going back to when a full League programme, kicking off at 11am, was staged on Christmas morning (ceasing in the late 1960s), teams often made long journeys by rail to play each other again the next day.

I experienced some of that and despite the clanking travel, the meagre fare of sandwiches and beer served up in cheerless station buffets, we didn't think it so bad.

Not that a mood of goodwill was sure to prevail on the fields of English professional football. One hard case of my acquaintance whose aggressive nature was matched by remarkable patience used to say, "Wait on. Thy time will come".

One Christmas morning, on an icy pitch, he saw an opportunity to exact retribution. Struck in mid-air, the victim turned somersault and landed sickeningly on his head. It was 48 hours before he recovered consciousness.

The assailant visited him in hospital but remained indifferent to the Christmas spirit. "Glad to see you're all right," he said at the bedside. "But you should have known that I wouldn't forget. Christmas or no Christmas, I waited three years to put you there."

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