One of the earliest black American fighters to really turn the boxing world on its ear was Joe Gans. Fighting as a lightweight throughout his eighteen years career at the turn of the 20ths century, Gans won his first title championship in 1902 by knockout against Frankie Erne, a man who defeated him in his first professional fight. Also notable about this fighter is that he holds the record for length and endurance for fighting 42 rounds in a single match to come out victorious against Oscar Nielsen.
Born Joseph Gant in 1874 in Baltimore, his name was surreptitiously changed through the error of a sports reporter, and Gans simply let it stand assuming the new moniker. He earned many nicknames over the years as was deemed the master and a near superman by those who watched and discussed his fighting styles.
Gans time in boxing was truly one of the most remarkable periods for the sport, gaining much attention and popularity early in the century and many fighters began to emerge, vying for a chance to get in the ring. Some true stars were born through that age of boxing and Gans was among them, showing up to meet one opponent after another even in the same night.
It was hardly an easy road for Gans, being a man of colour and having to contend with the politics of his skin as well as the brawn of his rivals. He was backed into corners by authority and at one point, was threatened into taking a deliberate fall in a match against Terry McGovern that was a champion at the time. The commission reacted to the deceipt by banning boxing in the city of Chicago for the next quarter of a century that followed. Gans had a number of enemies in officials, other fighters and fans and there was frequently a push to get him to leave the sport.
His manager used him to throw fights for his own personal gain and Gans was between a rock and hard place if he wanted to continue to compete as a fighter. He has little power and had to behave cautiously so that his superior prowess was not too obvious, even in the fights that he won.
When Gans earned a match with Battling Nelson that would go down in history in a number of ways. It was considered to be the first “Battle of the Century”, he broke records for length and endurance and a telegram from his mother prior to the fight served the catalyst for coining the phrase “bringing home the bacon”.
Gans was thought to be rather strategic in his fighting skills, relying on talent and planning and not brute strength and his methods set the stage for more intelligent boxing in the future. His style, his moves and his footwork parlayed the sport into more of an artistic craft than a brawl. His savvy style earned him the nickname “Old Master”. He was truly a shining example of skill and grace and writer, Ernest Hemingway, used him as a character in one of his short stories in the early 1900’s.
With his fighting spoils, Gans bought a jazz club and hotel which featured some of the great names of the genre but sadly, he would not get to enjoy it through a long retirement as Gans died in 1910 from tuberculosis related issues.
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