Boxing by the Book: The Longest Fight
“You may think I am vicious when I am in the ring with a white man, but you should see me when I am fighting a negro…”
The fight game can be physically cruel, but history can be cruel in a different way. Joe Gans was one of the greatest pugilists of all time and the first African-American champion. He was once a legend and a national celebrity—he was known as “The Old Master”—but is now largely forgotten. William Gildea’s masterly biography, “The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing’s First African American Champion” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 245 pages, $26), snatches the lightweight king back from oblivion.
Gans was born in Baltimore in 1874. As a boy he worked in the harbor fish markets, but it became apparent, after a couple of appearances in amateur bouts and in street corner dust-ups, that Gans had preternatural reflexes and powerful mitts. He began boxing professionally in 1891 and won the lightweight title with a knockout victory of Frank Erne on May 12, 1902.
Mr. Gildea’s narrative is structured around an epic contest between Gans and Oscar “Battling” Nelson. The bout, carefully followed on the wires throughout the nation, took place on Sept. 3, 1906, in the mining town of Goldfield, Nevada. It was one of the last “finish fights”—that is, a boxing match that avoids all the controversies surrounding decisions and can only conclude when one of the combatants is either counted out or runs up the white flag.
By the time of their meeting, Gans was in his early 30s. Mr. Gildea, a former reporter and columnist for the Washington Post, offers this word-portrait of the champion: “He had an unmarked face except for a modest scar above the outer corner of each eye and a small puffiness below the left…He was trim, with broad sloping shoulders…A photograph of him taken in 1906 shows him shirtless, arms folded across his midsection, his upper body spectacularly muscled.”
Already a veteran of well over 100 fights, Gans was on the south side of his career when he fought Nelson. One of the most durable, determined and dirty pugs to ever toe the line, Nelson was, Mr. Gildea tells us, “gruesomely described by Jack London as the abysmal brute.” Like Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries or Ali vs. Frazier, the Gans-Nelson matchup was a classic boxer vs. brawler contest.
At the time of the Nelson fight, Gans was sorely in need of a payday. Over the years, he had been fleeced by his manager, Al Herford, and impoverished by his own gambling habits. As an African American, he had little negotiating power in the boxing business. Though the reigning champion, he was compelled to agree to bizarre terms just to guarantee that the bout with Nelson would come off. At 32, Gans was having trouble making weight, so the Nelson camp insisted that there be three weigh-ins, the last being just a half-hour before the fight and in full battle togs. This demand was an attempt to sap The Old Master’s strength by getting him dehydrated and making him starve himself up to the time of the bell. What is more, Gans was paid less than half of Nelson’s fee for fighting.
The brutal back-and-forth battle lasted 42 rounds and ended when Nelson, after his umpteenth flagrant foul, was finally disqualified. It is hard to grasp how any two men could go at it for so many rounds in the oven-like conditions of the desert. You might imagine that the pace was slower than the limited-round fights we have today, but if you take a look at YouTube footage of Gans in the ring—there is even some footage of a Gans vs. Nelson bout (a later one, apparently, after Goldfield)—you see a quick pace and lots of action.
Mr. Gildea presents riveting round-by-round descriptions of the fight itself. In the 13th round, he tells us, a deliberate Nelson punch after the bell caused fans to jump to their feet and boo: “Someone called for three cheers for Gans—and the crowd responded, making for a rare scene in America, a predominantly white crowd cheering for a black man.” Nelson spent much of the 32nd round “with his head lowered, propelling himself like a missile.” Mr. Gildea weaves scenes from the Nevada fight with smooth switchbacks to earlier sequences in Gans’ career, including stories of fixed fights in which Gans would lie down on cue. Gans later repented that there were many times when he was in such deep debt to his manager that he had no choice but to do whatever Herford commanded.
Many boxing books see the sport as a window on American cultural history, and “The Longest Fight” is no exception, emphasizing the racial subtext to what was ostensibly a sporting event. A Los Angeles Times headline before the bout read: “White and Negro Await Hour of Bitter Struggle.” After the fight, the Salt Lake Herald, using a derogatory term of the day, declared: “Goldfield Has Picked Dinge as Winner of Today’s Battle.” Mr. Gildea notes that Nelson, a hero of the Ku Klux Klan, once crowed: “You may think I am vicious when I am in the ring with a white man, but you should see me when I am fighting a negro.” Gans was a broadly admired figure, but mixed-race bouts were always a tinderbox of racial tension. His manager “allowed him to defeat whites but not too easily, so he often pulled his punches and carried them extra rounds.”
In one of his many biographical vignettes, Mr. Gildea describes Gans’s education in the art of boxing. Early on, Gans had a number of sparring sessions with three-division world champion Bob Fitzsimmons. At a mere 156 pounds, Fitzsimmons had KO’d James J. Corbett to win the heavyweight title in 1897. Like Corbett, whom he had carefully studied, Fitzsimmons was a thinking man’s fighter who knew how to block punches and find openings in his opponent’s defenses. The lithe former blacksmith also packed a devastating solar plexus punch that put many of his heftier opponents down for the count and one in the grave. When Fitzsimmons came to Baltimore in 1893, he tutored the developing Gans.
Gans soon learned the art of lateral movement and of punching from angles. Mr. Gildea aptly quotes Henry Lenny, a Gans sparring partner: “Joe never threw a punch unless he was sure it would land on a vital spot…he had the spots picked out, mentally marked in big red circles on his opponent’s body: the temple, the point of the chin, the bridge of the nose, the liver, the spleen, the solar plexus.” Like Fitzsimmons, Gans understood that the most potent punches are those that travel only a few inches and that the opponent does not see developing. Many of Gans’s victories came at the end of a short left hook or jolting right uppercut.
The ease with which Gans worked in the ring did not transfer to life outside it. In addition to constant money woes, there was a brutal divorce. Another tragic figure of the manly art, Sonny Liston, once quipped: “Someday they’re gonna write a blues for fighters. It’ll just be for slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.” Gans’ brief life was a subject for the blues. He would die of tuberculosis at age 35, within four years of his victory over Nelson. Worse yet, because of the financial blows he had absorbed, he was compelled to continue campaigning in the ring up until a little over a year before his death.
A professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, Gordon Marino writes on boxing for the Wall Street Journal. He is on the board and works with boxers at the Circle of Discipline in Minneapolis, as well as at the Basement Gym in Northfield, MN. You can follow him on Twitter @GordonMarino
(Special thanks to The Wall Street Journal)