Robert Silva is back with his greatest lightweights in boxing list. We’re up to number three.
When people ask me who I feel is the father of the classic, modern boxer, my answer emphatically is always Joe Gans. “The Old Master” was an expert at using feints and counters to keep his opponents off guard. He was one of the first fighters to throw lightning fast combinations. His footwork was impeccable and in his prime, he never wasted his incredible footwork. He also was the first defensive wizard, setting a standard for the likes of Willie Pep, Pernell Whitaker and Floyd Mayweather. All of these attributes combined to make Joe Gans the third greatest 135-pound fighter of all-time.
Joe Gans was born on November 25, 1874 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gans’ father, unable to raise him because of failing health and Joe’s mother leaving them, had a fellow African American couple raise him. This was less than 10 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the early stages of Reconstruction. Baltimore, like many other large American urban cities, had become a haven for thousands of African Americans post slavery. As a result, Gans grew up in extreme poverty, resulting in him becoming a pro boxer in 1891 at the tender age of 16 with absolutely no amateur boxing experience. Gans taught himself how to fight and perfected the style that resulted in only losing three of his first 69 fights.
Going into 1900, there had been only one boxer of African descent to ever win a world title; Canadian native George Dixon. State and local commissions throughout the United States instituted a color line law prohibiting White fighters from engaging in sanctioned bouts with their Black brethren. Gans was able to overcome this blatant racism by being a gracious gentleman outside the ring. He always said the right thing to reporters and never bragged or boasted by his ability inside the ring. He also aligned himself with Baltimore restaurant and gym owner Al Hereford. Hereford also ran a gambling operation and allegedly had Gans throw a few fights in which he made and won huge wagers on. This helped secure Gans his first Lightweight title opportunity in 1900 against the champion Frank Erne. Gans suffered a nasty cut on his left eyelid which resulted in Gans quitting in the 12th round. Gans received a rematch two years later. This time, he wouldn’t be denied, as he blasted Erne in the first round to become the first African American World Champion.
For the next six years, Gans dominated the Lightweight division, successfully defending his title 14 times despite having to deal with racism, Jim Crow, and being swindled by Hereford. Gans’ greatest triumph occurred in his title defense on September 3, 1906 in Goldfield, Nevada against legendary brawler Battling Nelson. Gans overcame incredible barriers to prevail over Nelson.
Promoter Tex Rickard, Nelson, and his management put up several roadblocks in an attempt to manipulate the outcome of the fight. The day of the fight, Gans was forced to weigh-in three times, while Nelson only once. Gans also only received one-third of what Nelson made. It also didn’t help that unbeknownst to everyone, including himself, that Gans was in the early stages of battling tuberculosis. These obstacles, coupled with a rabid audience in attendance, made a Gans victory seem implausible.
Throughout the fight, Gans superior boxing skills kept the onrushing Nelson at bay. Gans deftly blocked Nelson’s wild charges and countered with combination after combination. Nelson had a legendary chin and combined with increasing low blows and head-butts, Nelson was trying to outlast “The Old Master.” For 42 rounds in the hot, desert Nevada sun, Gans displayed such poise and skill that the racist fans in attendance began to cheer him on. Finally, after a blatant and devastating low blow by Nelson caused Gans to collapse and unable to continue, referee George Siler did the correct thing and awarded Gans the victory by disqualification. Several fans in attendance actually booed and hurled objects at Nelson. Gans overcome incredible obstacles to win the biggest fight of his career.
Although the right decision was made by Siler, the result touched off racist, violent attacks by Whites against Blacks throughout America. Gans was depicted in cartoons by several newspapers the next day as a gorilla or animal that prevailed over his White opponent. This despite the fact that it was Nelson that behaved like a Neanderthal throughout the fight. In the infant stages of boxing, this was the first major event covered by the national media. It was also the first of many black eyes the sport would receive on a national basis.
Two years later, in his 15th title defense, Gans gave Nelson a rematch. Gans’ body was ravaged by full blown tuberculosis and he had no business fighting. On the fourth of July, 1908 in Colma, California, Nelson knocked out a virtual zombie in Gans midway through round 17. Two months later, Nelson once again battered a 33-year-old Gans in the 21st round. Less than two years later, at the tender age of 35, Gans succumbed to his illness. Another classic tragic tale of a great fighter.
Joe Gans was the father of modern boxing. He developed a style that became the dominating style among the greatest fighters of all time. He overcame death defying odds because of his superior skills and color of his skin. He dominated the 135-pound division and boxing despite being Black during the most racist time period in U.S. history. All of these attributes easily makes him the third greatest Lightweight of all-time.