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RSR Looks Back at Joe Gans

By Geoff “The Professor” Poundes


Such was the force of Jack Johnson’s impact upon the world of boxing, that one could be forgiven for thinking that he was its foremost black pioneer, who cleared the path for others to follow behind him. Of course Johnson, who won the World’s Heavyweight Championship in 1908, was operating in the flagship division and was as famous for his fondness for white women as he was for his abilities in the ring.

But he wasn’t the first American-born black to win a World Title. That distinction resides with Joe Gans, “The Ol’ Master,” who took the Lightweight crown from Frank Erne in 1902. There were striking similarities between Gans and Johnson in fighting styles – both were noted for their fast footwork and their ability to block and feint, but Gans was a very different character when the gloves were off. Johnson acknowledged Gans’ qualities when he said “Joe moved around the ring like he was on wheels.”

Things were very different in professional boxing in the early years of the twentieth century, particularly for black fighters. Johnson’s autobiography suggests that he was seldom involved in a fight that wasn’t tampered with in some way, and was often asked to take a dive or agree to a fix – Johnson even claims that as Champion he held some of his opponents up so that the fight films would be long enough to attract a cinema audience (moving pictures were in their infancy back then). Johnson’s contests with Stanley Ketchel, Jim Jeffries and Jess Willard all had a whiff of deceit about them, and Gans undoubtedly took the money on occasion. Willie Ritchie, who followed Gans as Lightweight Champion, said after Gans’ death:

“Gans had to do as he was told by the white managers. They were crooks. They framed fights, and being a Negro the poor guy had to follow orders, otherwise he’d have starved to death.”

It’s not surprising therefore that Joe Gans, a far less public figure, was involved in some shady dealings. As a black fighter making a living in the deep South in the 1900’s you played along or you didn’t eat. Gans’ first recorded professional contest was in 1893, but it’s probable that he began fighting as a 16 year old a couple of years earlier. He progressed quickly, often fighting and beating much bigger men just to put food on the table, and in 1900 he was matched with Frank Erne for the World Lightweight Title. Gans lost that one when he pulled out with what has been described as a cut eye, and seemed to confirm the prevailing view at the time that black fighters lacked heart. In fact, Gans’ eye had popped out and was resting on his cheek: “The Baltimore man’s eye was dislodged from its socket by a head on collision.” Quoted The Chicago Times-Herald.

Undaunted, Gans worked his way into a second title shot against Erne, and this time, in May 1902, he knocked the Champion out in a single round. Gans would go on to defend the title 14 times, and annex the World Welterweight Title along the way by knocking out Mike “Twin” O’Sullivan in 1906.

Along the way, he fitted in some spectacular contests – he gave Sam Langford all he could handle in 1903 (yes, the same Sam Langford who would go on to box the ears off heavyweights) and in 1904 fought a draw with the great Joe Walcott in San Francisco. The fight was seen as one of the finest of it’s era: The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a grand battle as fast and furious as any ever held in a San Francisco ring.”

But Gans’ most famous hour came in September 1906, when he and Battling Nelson contested the World Lightweight Title in Goldfield, Nevada. The fight went 42 rounds in the searing heat (still the longest gloved match ever recorded), before Nelson fouled Gans to bring an end to the contest. Nelson was battered and beaten and found the easy way out. Said one observer: “It looks as though Nelson, who was a very badly beaten man, took an easy way to quit.”

The battle took a great deal out of Gans, and many thought the debilitating heat, coupled with a sustained period of dehydration to make the weight, ushered in the tuberculosis that would eventually end his life. Certainly, by the time Gans and Nelson met in the re-match two years later, the Champion was ravaged by the disease. Prophetically, the San Francisco Chronicle noted before the fight that Gans looked unwell: “Joe looks weakened and dull in the eyes”, and afterwards, when Joe had collapsed from exhaustion in the 17th round, the paper acknowledged that all was not well: “It was clear that it was a different Gans than the one who had fought at Goldfield. After the twelfth round Gans was suffering terribly. His skin turned a dull gray and he was shivering as though from ague”.

Amazingly, they fought again two months later, and Gans this time went into the 21st round, taking a terrible beating along the way. By this time he was ravaged with tuberculosis, but still managed one more fight, before succumbing to his illness.

He died in his mother’s arms, aged 36, in 1910 – a month after Jack Johnson smashed Jim Jeffries to finally cement the black man’s entitlement to fistic equality. Joe weighed 84 pounds at his death.

Nat Fleischer, as sound a barometer as any in evaluating fighters from different eras, was unequivocal about Joe Gans’ qualities, rating him as the best Lightweight to have ever lived. In all, he lost only 11 fights in 188 outings – and we know that he threw at least three of those.

Tad Dorgan, who commentated boxing and wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Journal, and who was privileged to see  all the early greats from James J. Corbett to Gene Tunney, rated Joe Gans as the greatest pound for pound fighter he ever saw.

He wrote in 1904: “Those who have watched Gans go through his work every day are amazed at his wonderful agility, his speed and his clean hitting ability.”

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