Tuesday, August 14, 2012
All hail Joe Gans, the first African-American champion
By Michael Woods
The next time you see a fighter pull a No Mas, or gas out after the midway point of a championship scrap, please consider that Joe Gans, the first African American boxing titlist, had his hand raised after fighting Oscar "Battling" Nelson for 42 rounds, on Sept. 3, 1906, in Goldfield, Nevada.
42 rounds, friends. That tussle took 2 hours and 48 minutes to complete, and by the way, this was fought under modern rules, with each round lasting three minutes, with a minute rest period in between. Happily, my memory of this epic was refreshed, and fleshed out, compliments of the author William Gildea, who wrote a book called "The Longest Fight: In the Ring With Joe Gans, Boxing’s First African American Champion."
The Gans-Nelson event was put together by a figure central to New York, the ultra-crafty promoter Tex Rickard, founder of the NY Rangers hockey team, and the dealmaker figures prominently in the release. Gildea, who wrote for the Washington Post, told NYFightBlog that he considered writing about the trio of Rickard, Gans and Nelson, mostly because Tex was such a rich character, but decided to lay the spotlight on Gans because he is an underrated pugilist.
The writer told me he thinks Gans is in the same class as the best of the best. "I think he should be seen as the equal of Sugar Ray Robinson," said Gildea of the Baltimire native who left behind a 145-10-16 record upon dying from tuberculosis in 1910.
The marathon scrap, pitting the lightweight champion against a man who was favorite of the Klu Klux Klan, unfolded under a scorching sun and near hundred degrees temperature in the southern section of Nevada. Nelson liked to brag that "no colored man ever conquered me" but as Gildea notes, he wasn't too picky about the tactics he used to get the nod. He fouled Gans repeatedly, and was closer to a W when Gans broke his right hand on Nelson's head in round 33. To throw off Nelson, Gans started hopping, to indicate that he hurt his leg. When apprised of this trickeration, Rickard later commented, gleefully, that this ploy was the sneakiest he'd ever seen.
Ideally, Gildea would like a reader to gain respect for Gans and his legacy, his class as a competitor, his grace in handling vehement prejudice, and comprehend that his standing is likely affected by getting snagged in Jack Johnson's TMZ-type hubbub.
The writer isn't keen on looking back with eyes clouded by sentiment and a fan of nostalgia; he doesn't want to say that Gans was a better man than today's pugs because he fought at a time when more was expected. Bolstering the Gans legacy, though, is the tidbit that Gildea said he thinks it quite possible that TB was in his blood when he fought Nelson. "I think we can be impressed by the fact alone there were 42 rounds, and the action slowed down in the 30s," he said. Gildea's stance is solid, I think; who is to say that if Bernard Hopkins came of age in the Gans era, he would not have excelled to a similar degree?
Works such as Gildea's, for me, are useful to illustrate how in many ways, things were much tougher in decades and centuries past, and that is a useful and commendable endeavor to examine the past to give proper regard to titans whose import has dimmed more than is decent.