Joe Gans and Ernest Hemingway

By Norman Marcus on June 15, 2015
Joe Gans and Ernest Hemingway
He is tired of running. He welcomes the dumdum bullets that will blow his head apart.

“The Killers” brought together Ernest Hemingway, Burt Lancaster, Ingemar Johansson, Lee Marvin, Ronald Reagan and Joe Gans…

American author Ernest Hemingway used Joe Gans as a character in an early 1916 short story, “A Matter of Color.” In this story a fictional fighter, Montana Dan Morgan, was to fight Joe Gans for his lightweight title. Except Dan had a broken right hand that night and not much of a left. Morgan’s manager hired an immigrant boxer called The Swede, to stand behind a curtain and hit Gans on the head with a bat, as the two boxers moved about in the ring. (The curtain butted up against one side of the ring.) Problem was, the Swede mistakenly knocked out Morgan instead! Enraged, the Chicago mob, whose money was all on Morgan, put a contract out on the Swede’s life. The story seemed to end there. The reader was left to draw his own conclusion.

Now let’s find out exactly who Joe Gans was in the boxing world at that time. He was raised in Baltimore, Maryland. In the early part of the 20th century Joe was the lightweight champion of the world. He reigned from 1902 to 1908. He was good on defense and had heavy hands when necessary. He was a counterpuncher who would go to the body early and often end the bout with a well placed KO punch. Gans won 100 of his 145 professional fights this very way.

Gans was the first African American to hold a modern world boxing title. Nat Fleischer, editor of The Ring, rated Joe the greatest lightweight boxer of all time. John L. Sullivan, Bob Fitzsimmons, Benny Leonard and Sam Langford all agreed. His ring name, The Old Master, mirrored his fame in the ring.

His most famous fights were with Battling Nelson, aka the Durable Dane. Nelson grew up on the tough southeast side of Chicago. In the first of their three fights, on September 3, 1906, Gans hammered Nelson at the Casino Amphitheatre in Goldfield, Nevada. The bout was to be a fight to the finish, meaning an unlimited number of rounds. The midday sun beat down terribly on both fighters. Teddy Roosevelt’s son Kermit was seated ringside for this bout. The referee was George Siler. Gans gave Nelson a terrible beating that day, always one step ahead and hitting him at will. Referee Siler awarded the fight to Gans on a foul, after a low blow by Nelson. The Dane’s eyes were swollen and filled with blood by this time. It was probably hard for him to see where his punches landed. But they were way below the beltline. It was a DQ for Joe, in the 42nd round.

The champ met Nelson again at the Mission Street Arena in Colma, California, on July 4, 1908. Joe lost this one and his title to Nelson on a KO17. It was a left half scissors hook to Joe’s liver that lost him the title that night. Gans and Nelson met for the rubber match on September 9, 1908, again at the Mission Street Arena. The Durable Dane won it on a KO21. All three of their fights were terrific ring battles. Their last two fights were limited to a maximum of 45 rounds! Nelson had an iron jaw and midsection, as Terry McGovern, Young Corbett II and Jimmy Britt found out earlier.

He was indeed durable!

A bronze statue of Gans was placed in the lobby, near the entrance to the old Madison Square Garden. Boxers used to touch the statue for luck as they walked in before a bout. It stood there for more than fifty years. Unfortunately it was moved to a more obscure location in the new Madison Square Garden. Joe’s victories in the ring gave black Americans a feeling of pride in the earliest part of the 20th century. It was similar to their feelings for heavyweight champion Joe Louis in the 1930s and 1940s.

Joe Gans had a professional boxing record of 145-10-16 with 100 KOs.

Now Ernest Hemingway has always been known as a tough guy, who was ready to put on the gloves. He fancied himself a soldier of fortune and wrote about many of his real life adventures in his stories and novels.

“The Killers” was a short story written in 1927. It first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine. It later showed up in a collection of Hemingway’s works entitled “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” This one is about a boxer named Ole Andreson, again known as The Swede. The story is a continuation of the story line from “A Matter of Color.”

Ole is hiding out from the mob in a small town called Summit, just outside of Chicago. He has a job at the local gas station. He is told that two mob hit men are snooping around town looking for him. The Swede doesn’t seem to care anymore. He waits for them to find him in his rented room. As he lies there smoking in his bed, he seems at peace with himself. He is tired of running. He welcomes the dumdum bullets that will blow his head apart. The debt for his earlier blunder will be paid in blood, as it is in the ring.

This short story is one of Hemingway’s best.  Hollywood brought it to the screen several times. The first and most famous version was made in 1946 and starred Burt Lancaster (a former circus acrobat) and Ava Gardner. The second film in 1959 starred Ingemar Johansson (the heavyweight champion) and Diane Baker. The third adaption in 1963 starred Ronald Reagan (a B-movie hero), Lee Marvin (an ex-marine) and Angie Dickinson. This was Reagan’s last film role. The Gipper was later cast on the world stage as the President of the United States. He had an eight-year run at the White House.

So this story brought together Hemingway, Lancaster, Johansson, Marvin, Reagan and Gans, a half dozen tough guys that, in their own way, made the fight game a much richer place for its fans.

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The Killers - The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway - Full audiobook

Criterion Trailer 176.2: The Killers 1946

The Killers (1964) Trailer

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  1. Rpverlaine 01:43pm, 06/20/2015

    A fine article. I will say that Nelson repeatedly fouled Gans throughout the fight and should have been disqualified . He was no match for Gans who had to not only make the lightweight limit but weigh in on the day of the fight wearing boxing gloves and shoes. Gans lost the two rematches because he was dying due to consumption but wanted to leave his family well provided for and Nelson was the opponent that brought in the most money. William Gildea’s “the Longest Fight” does a great job covering these fights and Gans as well.

  2. Jackson Reyes 11:50am, 06/20/2015

    Another great read offered up by Mr. Marcus/ not to be confused with the black porn star Mr. Marcus (two different people) / I have a feeling the adult film star cannot write in such a way.  Although I’m sure he’d love Ava Gardner and that my friends is no pigment of my imagination /  crazy bunch on here

  3. bikermike 07:42pm, 06/19/2015

    Mr Marcus…great article!!

  4. bikermike 07:39pm, 06/19/2015

    ..and that is with no disrespect to Ms Angie Dickinson…herself quite a cougar in her own right..

    Both played the part well….in ‘THE KILLERS’...

    I just kind of liked Ava…maybe it’s an age thing

  5. bikermike 07:31pm, 06/19/2015

    James Earl Jones…..apologies He played Jack Johnson in Great White Hope….and did it well

  6. Bikermike 07:23pm, 06/19/2015

    Joe Gans fought a lot….and too much of that was when eye damage impaired his vision

    One of the best ...JOE GANS

  7. bikermike 07:21pm, 06/19/2015

    That ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’ wasn’t just a line from Wizard of OZ

    Movie called HARD TIMES ...with Charles Bronson and James Coburn..tried to capture prize fighting…non sanctioned….

    In the movie Great White Hope…‘Jack Johnson’ (who is forever my image of Jack , played by James Earl Ray)...told his lady about the same move..
    crowd him into the curtain side of the make shift ring..and somebody would pound hm with an two by four
    Boxing hasn’t come much futher….CHEATO….Morrison…Klitschko vs Lewis….Efforts to get rid of Big George Foreman….(second career)
    ...catch weights for Titles…(who can forget..hopefully on an empty stomach…where leonard claimed to win the Lt Heavy Weight Championship of the World…when he made Donny Lalonde weigh in at 168)

    Prima donnas are only good for Boxing..when they fight against real opponents.. Ali…dodged some…but he fought the tuff guys who deserved it…
    Norton three times..(fuk..once should have been enough)..Frazier..same thng…should have dodged those battles….but he didn’t ..and he managed to find a way to beat Foreman…Ali was in the best condition of his career..for that one
    Today…courage is not a measure…just bucks…....and I too paid a C note to watch the most expensive imitation of paint drying in Boxing history

  8. bikermike 06:57pm, 06/19/2015

    Ernest Hemingway could write like a sonofabitch!!!!
    ..AND ,as a high profile ..well known author/personality…..I welcome his support for Boxing…

    But a more featherfisted , glass jaw was hard to find….

    Lots of barfights….but most damage from falling

  9. bikermike 06:53pm, 06/19/2015

    I go along with Irish Frankie….re Ava Gardner…in the ‘46 Killers/with Burt Lancaster…

    Sinatra said a private moment…..after his fling with Ava Gardner..’..I’m not sure who was fucking who….but my eyes rolled back a lot..;’

    She was the original COUGAR….and a very classy lady…...for every cocktail waitress Frank and the boys nailed….she was like a SPIDER..with bull fighters

    No woman before or since ....had such a presence…. for the black white rave…..not so much

  10. NYIrish 04:28pm, 06/16/2015

    As a writer Hemingway was a puncher.
    Angie Dickinson was a work of art.

  11. nicolas 10:40am, 06/16/2015

    The story that is described in “The Matter of Color”, seems kind of silly to me. a man behind a curtain is supposed to hit Joe Gans in the head with a bat, and therefore ensure victory for a boxer named Morgan? Sounds almost like it would be a Charlie Chaplin type comedy.

  12. beaujack 07:44pm, 06/15/2015

    I recall very much the larger than life bronze statue of Joe Gans in the
    lobby of the old MSG on 8th Ave, between 49th and 50th St, NYC.
    A tribute to “The Old Master Joe Gans who died in 1910…As to who was the greater lightweight Joe Gans or Benny Leonard, it is all conjecture but the great Welterweight Jack Britton who as a youngster sparred with Joe Gans several times, and of course fought Benny Leonard 3 times, chose Benny Leonard to beat Joe Gans were they to have met, for what it’s worth…

  13. Eric 10:56am, 06/15/2015

    KB….Angie was definitely hawt. Gotza to agree.

  14. Eric 10:53am, 06/15/2015

    Irish…What about the “white girl” heading up the Spokane chapter of the NAACP? We now have transracial to go along with transgender. Looks like the “white girl” had to step down because the whole charade was a pigment of her imagination. teehee. I would have thought she would have been awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage trophy like Caitlyn Jenner.

  15. Norm Marcus 10:15am, 06/15/2015

    Irish Frankie: You seem to be full of a lot of inner aggression. Better not let the PC Police get on your trail.
    Thats why I basically write about the 1920s and 30s, seemed more like the America I grew up in and knew.
    Mores the pity!

  16. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:26am, 06/15/2015

    This should be of interest to the boxing writers here….maybe not…professor in Kalifornia says Shakespeare is a waste of time for her predominately minority class because he’s old and white. Another says white men shouldn’t bother writing poetry because who gives a fuk what they think any Goddamned way. Sounds about right to me….for my part I feel that all of the players in the NBA should be black….no token whites… European or otherwise….all the coaches should be black and all the owners as well….and oh yes every single Goddamned fan should be black!

  17. Kid Blast 07:22am, 06/15/2015

    Angie = wow!

  18. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:19am, 06/15/2015

    I enjoyed this article very much. Ava Gardner in the ‘46 noir classic…..Hubba Hubba!

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