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Sat June 16, 2012
Rediscovering A Forgotten Boxer's 'Longest Fight'
Originally published on Sat June 16, 2012 2:22 pm
Just a couple of years before boxer Jack Johnson was lauded, reviled, and hounded as the world heavyweight champ — and decades before Muhammad Ali lost his title when he took a stand on Vietnam — a man named Joe Gans was the lightweight champion of the world. He reigned from 1902 to 1908 as the first African-American boxing champ in history, and a man who broke trails for the great fighters who followed.
William Gildea, a longtime sportswriter for the Washington Post, uncovers some of the Gans story in a new book, called The Longest Fight: In the Ring With Joe Gans, Boxing's First African-American Champion.
Gildea builds the book around that fight: a hot, brutal bout in September 1906 when Gans defended his title against a white boxer named Oscar "Battling" Nelson. They fought a jaw-dropping 42 rounds in the scorching, unshaded heat of Nevada mining town called Goldfield.
"This was a fight by the Queensberry Rules," Gildea says, "which essentially meant that they would fight with gloves, and they would fight three-minute rounds, and there would be a minute between rounds." But it was also a fight to the finish: it would go until one fighter could go no longer. "There hasn't been any fight of that length since then," Gildea says. Gans prevailed after close to three hours in the ring; the judges didn't like Nelson's repeated low blows. Boxing commissioners eventually banned fights to the finish, and championship fights today are generally limited to 12 rounds.
Gans won with guile and artistry. But his path to the battleground in Goldfield began in his home town of Baltimore, where he fought in the notorious "Battles Royal," staged fights in which a promoter would use several young African-American fighters. "And the last one left standing would be declared the winner, and he would get $2, $3, $4, $5, no more." Gildea calls the battles a shocking discovery.
"It wouldn't seem that this was a necessary ingredient to attract a crowd," Gildea says, "but white promoters used it, and it was just virtually futile for any young black man to think that he could spring from a battle royal to notoriety, to fame. But Gans did."
Gildea says Gans had not just natural ability, but luck. His on-the-job instructor at a Baltimore fish market happened to be an amateur boxing coach who helped him buy his first pair of gloves, and taught him the skills to succeed in the ring.
"Gans would fight two men at the same time, in order to fend off their blows and become a defensive fighter, and he let, almost always let his often-white opponent throw the first punch, and then he would counter," Gildea says. Gans would often let the white fighters go a few extra rounds against him, to not embarrass them.
So why isn't Joe Gans mentioned in the same breath today as Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson? "Number one, he was a lightweight and not a heavyweight," Gildea says. "But more importantly, I think white America was intent on punishing Jack Johnson for being the so-called 'uppity' black man that he was."
Johnson was the heavyweight champ who had two white wives and was frequently boastful about his successes in the ring. "And so, he was the opposite really of Gans, and the main reason why Gans dropped from sight," Gildea says.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now, a scene from U.S. history and boxing history that's often forgotten. Just a couple of years before Jack Johnson was lauded, reviled, and hounded as heavyweight champion of the world - and decades before Muhammad Ali became beloved after being divested of his championship for taking a stand - a man named Joe Gans was the lightweight champion of the world, from 1902 to 1908. He was the first African-American boxing champ in history, and a man who broke trails for African-American boxers who followed.
William Gildea, a longtime sports writer for the Washington Post, has a new book called, "The Longest Fight: In the Ring With Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion." He builds the book around pro boxing's longest championship fight ever - a hot, brutal bout September, 1906 between Joe Gans and a white boxer, Oscar "Battling" Nelson. They fought in the scorching, unshaded heat of a Nevada mining town called Goldfield.
WILLIAM GILDEA: This was a fight by the Queensbury rules, which essentially meant that they would fight with gloves and they would fight three-minute rounds and there would be a minute between rounds. This, however, was a fight to the finish, meaning that it would go on until one fighter couldn't go on any longer. And, of course, there hasn't been any fight of that length since then. And finally, all boxing commissions ruled a fight to the finish as absurd and outlawed it. And championship fights, as the century progressed, eventually settled into 15-rounders and then 12-rounders. And 12-rounders is what we have today. And it seems like a long, long way from the number of rounds that went on in Goldfield.
SIMON: How many rounds?
SIMON: "Battling" Nelson had tried to wear down Joe Gans even before the fight began by holding three weigh-ins on the day of the match, forcing Joe Gans, who had to lose weight, to meet the 133-pound limit not to eat or drink much. But Joe Gans prevailed after two hours and 48 minutes, winning after "Battling" Nelson struck with repeated low blows. Joe Gans won with guile and ring artistry. But his career began when he was a youngster, participating in notorious Battles Royal back in Baltimore.
GILDEA: They were staged fights in which a promoter would use - I think use is the right word - several black young fighters. And the last one left standing would be declared the winner and he would get two, three, four, five dollars, no more. This occurred in all the big cities. It was a stunning way and just one of the shocking discoveries to be made in researching Gans that something like this could go on. It was an added inducement to the crowd to come to the fights.
SIMON: It sounds like a kind of brutal burlesque act. We're talking about kids who would climb into the ring and essentially - forgive me - you know, beat the stuffing out of each other until one of them was left and could raise his hands.
GILDEA: That's right. In those days, a lot of the fights occurred in conjunction with stage shows. And it seems to me that when you had a double feature of a stage show and several boxing matches, there would be enough. It wouldn't seem that this was a necessary ingredient to attract a crowd, but white promoters used it. And it was just virtually futile for any young black man to think that he could spring from a Battle Royal to notoriety to fame. But Gans did.
GILDEA: Well, Gans had to have natural ability but he also had to have luck. And when he was working in one of the fish markets on the waterfront in Baltimore, Caleb Bond was his instructor. And Caleb Bond happened to be an amateur prizefighting coach. So, he and Gans together bought Gans' first pair of boxing gloves, and he taught Gans how to box. He brought in a couple of fighters to fight Gans, instilling in Gans the idea that to be successful he had to be, first and foremost, a defensive fighter. And because Gans was black, Caleb Bond taught him to be a great counterpuncher. Gans would fight two men at the same time in order to fend off their blows and become a defensive fighter. And he let - almost always - let his often-white opponent throw the first punch and then he would counter. He would also carry these white fighters extra rounds so as not to embarrass them. That was part of his problem as a black man.
SIMON: So, why isn't Joe Gans' name mentioned in the same breath today as Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson? William Gildea says...
GILDEA: I think two reasons. Number one, he was a lightweight and not a heavyweight. But more importantly, I think white America was intent when punishing Jack Johnson for being the so-called uppity black man that he was. He had two white wives. He liked white women. And he boasted about his success in the ring. And so, he was the opposite really of Gans and the main reason why Gans dropped from sight.
SIMON: William Gildea. His new book, "The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion." Thanks so much.
GILDEA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.