Commentary

Remembering the Old Master

Think of African-American athletes who broke down barriers and names like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe immediately come to mind. Joe Gans was as much a civil rights trailblazer as any athlete -- and as good an athlete as the sports world has ever seen as well.

Originally Published: January 31, 2008
By William Dettloff | Special to ESPN.com

It is instructive today to recall one of the more memorable stories concerning the great black lightweight Joe Gans, who dominated his weight class for much of the two decades that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries.

In March 1900, in his first title fight, Gans was stopped in New York by the swift-punching champion Frank Erne, who possessed, in the eyes of the majority of critics of the day, the best left jab in the business. Gans simply couldn't get past it and Erne battered him until Gans himself, cut hideously around the left eye, probably from a head butt, asked for the fight to be stopped in the 12th round. The referee complied and Gans, a highly touted 26-year-old contender, went about the hard business of earning a rematch.

Two years later, the return was signed for Ontario, and Gans, recalling the difficulty he'd had with Erne's jab, tried to show his sparring partners how to jab like Erne did so that he could learn a way around it. They couldn't pick it up, quite expectedly, so Gans took to shadow boxing in front of the mirror for desperately long intervals, first playing the part of Erne, jabbing and feinting like Erne did, then switching back to himself and trying to devise a counter to it.

The rematch came and in the first round Erne started a jab. Gans countered with a right and it was all over at 1:40 of the round.

That was the genius of Joe Gans who, as a young man, was called "The Old Master" for his profound ring intellect and acuity. He ended up holding the lightweight title from 1902 to 1904 and from 1904 to 1908 and made 13 defenses, along the way establishing himself as one of boxing's true immortals: a classy, cerebral, quick-fisted boxer-puncher decades ahead of his time.

[+] EnlargeGanswalcott
Antiquities of the Prize RingJoe Gans was called "The Old Master" for his ability to out-think, as well as out-punch, his opponents.
Gans was widely considered the best lightweight ever before Benny Leonard came along in the 1920s, and even then, historian Nat Fleischer called him the greatest ever at the weight as late as 1958. In 2001, The Ring magazine ranked him fourth among all lightweights, behind only Roberto Duran, Leonard and Pernell Whitaker, none of whom, it should be noted, approached Gans' record of 120-8-10 (85) with 18 no-decisions.

The fact that he was the first American-born black man to win a world title should not be lost on those who came after him and who today owe a debt to his singular brilliance. Whitaker and Floyd Mayweather, recent and modern-day versions of Gans, come to mind.

Gans was "discovered" by manager Al Herford, who first saw him at the Monumental Theater in Baltimore, Gans' hometown, where he had won a so-called battle royal, a contest in which a ring full of young men, typically black, battered one another until just one remained conscious. Impressed with his tenacity, Herford convinced Gans he could make more money fighting than he could shucking oysters on the city's waterfront, which is how Gans -- born Joseph Gaines in 1874 -- had been making a living and helping to support his family.

Gans subsequently turned pro in 1891 in Baltimore, an important boxing city at the time, and over the balance of the decade went 58-3-6 with two no-decisions. It was an enviable record indeed, considering the tone of the day. It was not at all uncommon for black fighters, even those as talented and popular as Gans was, to fight well beneath their abilities against white opponents -- that meant carrying them a certain number of rounds, and, in some cases, losing to them.

"Poor Gans had to do what he was told by the white managers," former lightweight champion (1912-1914) Willie Ritchie told author Peter Heller in 1970. "They were crooks, they framed fights, and being [black], the poor guy had to follow orders, otherwise he'd have starved to death. They wouldn't give him any work."

This hard reality almost certainly accounted for Gans' shocking, second-round knockout loss to featherweight champion Terry McGovern in Chicago in December 1900. McGovern, a ferocious and powerful but amateurish puncher, was given hardly a chance against Gans, who was recognized as one of the best in the world. But he was enormously popular and when Gans fell four times in two rounds it was so obviously a fix -- several newspaper reports claimed McGovern failed to land a single telling blow -- boxing was outlawed in the city until well into the next decade.

It was almost eight years before Gans lost again and such was his dominance during this period that white challengers chose to face one another rather than he. Jimmy Britt claimed the "white lightweight championship" by stopping Erne in seven rounds in November 1902 and defended six times before Gans beat him in 1907.

The loss to McGovern, such as it was, didn't detract from Gans' reputation or his ambition. Older and having trouble making the 133-pound weight limit, in 1904 he relinquished the lightweight title and turned his sights on bigger, stronger fighters. He dropped a 15-round decision to the legendary Sam Langford in Boston in 1903 (Langford regularly faced heavyweights) and the following year faced another star in "Barbados" Joe Walcott for the welterweight title, and fought him to a draw.

Gans subsequently returned to lightweight and in 1906, at 32 and past his prime, agreed to fight the aggressive, tough Battling Nelson in the gold prospecting town of Goldfield, Nev., for the lightweight title. It was the first major promotion for Tex Rickard, who later would become world famous for guiding Jack Dempsey to the boxing pantheon.

Rickard created a nationwide stir when he displayed $30,000 of the purse for the fight in stacks of $20 gold pieces. That got the newspaper reporters out to the fight, along with 8,000 fans. The gate produced $90,000, the richest in history, but it didn't make Gans a rich man; Nelson and Rickard dictated the terms and although Gans was far more popular and accomplished, he received just $11,000 to Nelson's $23,000.

Gans boxed Nelson silly from the start, even under the blazing Nevada sun, until he broke his right hand in the 33rd round. He fought on with the left until Nelson was disqualified in the 42nd for low blows.

Afterward, Gans wired his mother in Baltimore that he was "bringing home the bacon with lots of gravy on it." It was his last great performance.

Gans made four more title defenses before Nelson knocked him out in their rematch and then once again in Gans' next-to-last fight. By this time, he was already in the throes of what was then called "consumption" (now known as tuberculosis). After retiring in 1909, he moved to Arizona in the hope that the dry air would slow the progression of his disease, but it did not. Upon realizing this, he took the train home to Baltimore, where he died on Aug. 10, 1910, at 36 years old.

Gans is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, the oldest owned and operated African-American cemetery in Baltimore, where, one strains to hope, he rests peacefully, his genius long acknowledged and his important work done.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.