Hard-hitting book chronicles career of first black boxing champ

Joe Gans fought an estimated 196 times. A new book by William Gildea describes Gans' historic bout with Battling Nelson in 1906.
Joe Gans fought an estimated 196 times. A new book by William Gildea describes Gans' historic bout with Battling Nelson in 1906.
Posted: July 16, 2012

Joe Gans fought Battling Nelson for 42 rounds under a scorching sun in godforsaken Goldfield, Nev. This was 1906 and they brawled in a snug ring, hastily built at the intersection of greed and despair.

Gans was declared the winner while sprawled on the canvas, writhing in pain. Nelson had put him there, viciously punching him below the waist not once, not twice, but three times.

Referee George Siler, who had seen enough of Nelson's brutal tactics, helped Gans to his feet, raised his right arm in triumph. Few grumbled.

Bill Gildea describes that historic bout in his terrific new book, "The Longest Fight."

Longest fight because it lasted 42 agonizing rounds, because they scuffled under that scorching sun for 2 hours, 48 minutes. Longest fight because Gans was black and Nelson was white, and because the struggle against bigotry and discrimination has trudged on into the next century.

"Gans is from Baltimore, and I'm from Baltimore," Gildea said the other day. "It was a labor of love. I wrote it, because Gans deserved to be remembered. And as a reminder that the gulf still exists."

Gans was the first black champion. He fought an estimated 196 times. He was skilled, he was soft-spoken, he knocked guys down and then picked them back up, a gesture he learned from Bob Fitzsimmons.

"He was a lightweight," Gildea explained. "And soon after, here came Jack Johnson, a heavyweight, a polarizing figure. People wanted to punish Johnson for his swagger, for dating white women, for his fancy cars. They forgot about Gans.

“Gans encountered his share of prejudice. One time, they hauled him before a judge, accused him of hitting a police officer. There were no marks or scratches on the cop's face.

“Why no marks, the judge asked. Because he missed me, the cop said. Gans then said, I'm a professional fighter and if I'd thrown a punch I would not have missed.

“The judge said, ‘Guilty anyway, $5 fine.'?"

Gans was Jackie Robinson 41 years before Jackie Robinson. If he turned the other cheek, the other guy would have bashed it with a left hook. But he had to hide whatever bitterness he felt, when his manager robbed him, when he constantly got the short end of the promoter's stick.

He had knockout power, which nullified biased judges. He fought all comers, sometimes for peanuts, sometimes for shells.

"When he fought the original Joe Walcott," Gildea explained, "it was a 20-round draw, with most people thinking Gans had won. Attendance was minuscule. And then he fought Jimmy Britt, a white fighter, in San Francisco, and drew 40,000 people."

Nelson's manager dictated the harsh terms of that historic fight in Goldfield. Gans had to weigh in three times the day of the fight. Not once, not twice, but three times. Third time was a half-hour before the fight. Made the 133-pound limit each time.

The ring was snug to muffle Gans' advantage in speed and elusiveness. Gans used his fists to erase all the devious maneuvering. And then he had just one fist. He fought the last nine rounds with a busted hand. Faked a muscle cramp and limped back to his corner after Round 33 to disguise the real injury.

Gildea, who wrote with distinction for the Washington Post for 40 years, was appalled by what he found in the archives.

"Newspapers casually stereotyped him," Gildea writes. "The San Francisco Chronicle said he was ‘so well muscled that he resembled a carving of the perfect man in ebony.'?"

Gildea believes that Gans fought that unforgettable fight with the early stages of tuberculosis gnawing at his insides.

"He had the germ," Gildea said, "but it wasn't full-blown, which is what it was when they fought the second time.

“He kept on fighting, because he wanted to leave something for his fourth wife, his true love. And, because he felt he was indestructible."

Gans weighed 84 pounds when he died in 1910.

"Ernest Hemingway wrote about him," Gildea said. "Paul Muni put on blackface and played him in a movie. Mike Tyson visited his gravesite. Sixty-seven boxers took the name Joe Gans."

And now, at last, he has a book, written with love. It is slick, it is fast-paced, it is hard-hitting. A lot like Joe Gans, the fighter.

Contact Stan Hochman at stanrhoch@comcast.net.

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