The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion

The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion

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by William Gildea

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Many people came to Goldfield, Nevada, America's last gold-rush town, to seek their fortune. However, on a searing summer day in September 1906, they came not to strike it rich but to watch what would become the longest boxing match of the twentieth century--between Joe Gans, the first African American boxing champion, and "Battling" Nelson, a vicious and dirty


Many people came to Goldfield, Nevada, America's last gold-rush town, to seek their fortune. However, on a searing summer day in September 1906, they came not to strike it rich but to watch what would become the longest boxing match of the twentieth century--between Joe Gans, the first African American boxing champion, and "Battling" Nelson, a vicious and dirty brawler. It was a match billed as the battle of the races.

In The Longest Fight, the longtime Washington Post sports correspondent William Gildea tells the story of this epic match, which would stretch to forty-two rounds and last two hours and forty-eight minutes. A new rail line brought spectators from around the country, dozens of reporters came to file blow-by-blow accounts, and an entrepreneurial crew's film of the fight, shown in theaters shortly afterward, endures to this day.

The Longest Fight also recounts something much greater--the longer battle that Gans fought against prejudice as the premier black athlete of his time. It is a portrait of life in black America at the turn of the twentieth century, of what it was like to be the first black athlete to successfully cross the nation's gaping racial divide. Gans was smart, witty, trim, and handsome--with one-punch knockout power and groundbreaking defensive skills--and his courage despite discrimination prefigured the strife faced by many of America's finest athletes, including Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali.

Inside the ring and out, Gans took the first steps for the African American athletes who would follow, and yet his role in history was largely forgotten until now. The Longest Fight is a reminder of the damage caused by the bigotry that long outlived Gans, and the strength, courage, and will of those who fought to rise above.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
On a sweltering Labor Day in 1906, Joe Gans (1874–1910) went 42 rounds with a white bruiser, Oscar "Battling" Nelson, to retain his world lightweight championship. Sportswriter Gildea (Washington Post) details how nothing was easy for an African American boxer at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike the bombastic heavyweight Jack Johnson, who first became champion in 1908, Gans regularly won over white audiences with his cerebral fighting style and modest personality. But he still faced mistreatment from his white manager, white opponents, and newspapers that regularly referred to him using racial pejoratives. Four years after "the longest fight," Gans was dead of tuberculosis and, according to his manager, had said he would have given up all his fame for "a white boy's chance in the world." VERDICT Well researched and written, presenting Gans in historical context, this should be a winner with readers of either boxing or African American history.—Jim Burns, Jacksonville P.L., FL
Kirkus Reviews
A veteran sports journalist rehearses the story of Joe Gans (1874–1910), who in 1906 won a titanic 42-round boxing match, lasting nearly three hours, against a bruising white boxer. Gildea (Where the Game Matters Most: A Last Championship Season in Indiana High School Basketball, 1997, etc.), who wrote for the Washington Post for 40 years, begins and ends with the flickering footage of the fight now residing in the Library of Congress. The author devotes more than half of the text to an account of the fight with Oscar "Battling" Nelson in Goldfield, Nev., though he continually cuts away to tell about Gans' background, his several wives, the era's virulent racism, other fights and fighters, the history of Goldfield and numerous other asides intended both to provide context and increase suspense. Nelson emerges as a particularly crude specimen, so much so that the huge crowd--virtually all white--rooted enthusiastically for Gans and offered no protests when the referee awarded the victory to Gans because of a low blow; Nelson had been head-butting and committing other fouls throughout. (His gutter racism outside the ring was no improvement.) Whites in the East and South promptly terrorized blacks. The final section deals with Gans' post-fight celebrity and wealth and with his intransigent refusal to retire, even while tuberculosis was ravaging his body. The final scenes--the fading Gans trying to get home from Arizona to die--are moving. Writers Rex Beach and Jack London have cameos, as do other notables, and the author wonders if George Bellows might have used Gans as the model for the black fighter in Both Members of This Club. With fascinating period detail and skillful writing, the author highlights his subject's considerable appeal and symbolic significance but speaks a bit too gently about his flaws.
The Washington Post
…a gem of a book…In lean prose, Gildea gives us a blow-by-blow account of Gans's career.
—Timothy R. Smith

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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5.86(w) x 8.32(h) x 0.89(d)

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The Longest Fight

In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion
By William Gildea

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 William Gildea
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374280970

He had an unmarked face except for a modest scar above the outer corner of each eye and a small amount of puffiness below the left—remarkable for someone approaching, at minimum, his 187th professional prizefight. He was trim, with broad, sloping shoulders, but stood just 5 feet 6½ inches and weighed about 140 pounds. A photograph of him taken in 1906 shows him shirtless, arms folded across his midsection, his upper body spectacularly muscled.
One August evening that year, Joe Gans rode a train deep into the Nevada desert. The newly built rail line extended south for twenty-six miles, the brief last leg of a trip that had taken him from San Francisco’s East Bay up the mountains to Reno, then to a seemingly endless journey to Tonopah, Nevada, and on toward a mining boomtown called Goldfield. A group of settlers had named it three years earlier after prospectors had come upon yellowed rocks that held the promise of a great gold strike.
In thirteen years as a professional boxer, Gans had crossed the country several times by train. On different occasions he had traveled from the East Coast to fight in Oregon, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. He had seen the desert. But it had never been his destination. And it never would have been except that he, like the prospectors aboard the train, was being lured across a wilderness of sand and sagebrush by a quest for wealth. They went for the gold. He went for the payday that came with defending his world lightweight championship. His glories in the ring notwithstanding, he was virtually broke.
The newspapers were predicting an epic encounter between him and Battling Nelson, a fighter succinctly and gruesomely described by Jack London as “the abysmal brute.” Gans and Nelson would meet on Labor Day afternoon, under the desert sun. There would be no scheduled end to the fight. It would be a fight to the finish, usually when one man dropped and stayed down until the count of ten. Fights with no prescribed end could feel, to a fighter, like an eternity. They left most scarred. More than once, a manager threw a towel into the ring because he had no doubt that the next blow would leave his fighter dead. Sometimes the towel landed too late.
Gans anticipated danger. It came with his business and his skin color. He was the first black American boxing champion, but that achievement brought him more peril than renown. The discrimination that black boxers faced reflected American life. In 1906 racial injustice was far worse than it had been three and a half decades earlier when Walt Whitman recognized the separation of races as one of the flaws that made the country’s future “as dark as it is vast.” Gans had received death threats throughout his career, and he wouldn’t be surprised to hear from someone betting for or against him at Goldfield that he had better win or lose as directed or risk not getting out of town alive.
No entourage accompanied him aboard the Tonopah and Goldfield train. It wasn’t his style to make himself the center of attention, even if a black man dared to. He passed the time in thought, knowing that trouble was coming, merely unsure what form it would take. Only recently—quite belatedly, out of misplaced loyalty—had he fired his manager, Abraham Lincoln Herford, known as Al. For years, this burly, cigar-smoking white man had treated him as a serf, pocketing most of his earnings while posing as his best hope.
What little Herford left him, Gans gambled away. He was bad at picking winners at the racetrack, and he was a loser at cards and dice. He always kept enough money, however, to maintain a fine wardrobe. He wore three-piece suits with a handkerchief jutting from the breast pocket, white shirts with starched collars, a diamond stickpin, a loop of gold watch chain across his chest, and a derby when he stepped out at night. One of his outfits was especially celebratory: a pale green suit, Alice blue socks, and yellow shoes. Daytimes, he preferred turtleneck jerseys or sweaters, slacks, and a cap.
Appearances aside, Gans was as poor in 1906 as in 1896, when he emerged from his native Baltimore to seek the lightweight championship. If the heavyweight division was boxing’s most prestigious, the lightweight ranks were its most competitive. A boxer could make good money as a lightweight. The division was filled with great fighters, and almost every one was vicious and unforgiving. Nelson, born in Copenhagen and nicknamed “the Durable Dane,” was a brawler who could withstand the hardest punches. If knocked down, he could be counted on to get up and keep swinging as though he hadn’t been touched. He hit below the belt, he held and hit, and he gouged eyes. There wasn’t a dirty tactic that he hadn’t tried.
Like prospectors out for gold, Gans would work with his hands, and his work, like theirs, would take time. It might punish and discourage him. The desert fed discouragement. So did Nelson, who was twenty-four and in his fighting prime.
Gans was thirty-one. He had been boxing almost half his life, and there were indications that his best days in the ring had passed. As he sought a divorce the previous year, The Washington Post paraphrased his testimony in Baltimore’s Circuit Court No. 2, saying that even Gans himself believed “the zenith of his success had been reached and that he was now on the backward track … that he was about all in as a professional scrapper.”
Gans’s wife demanded $200 to cover her lawyer’s fee and $25 a week in alimony pending the outcome of his suit. Gans explained that he was not only broke but also in debt to Herford for thousands of dollars with little hope of repaying him. No one could say that he was exaggerating his decline as a boxer and his capacity for earning money in the future, including the presiding judge, who awarded Gans’s wife a customary $25 for her lawyer’s work and $5 a week in alimony pending the court’s decision.
Herford had a reputation for paying his fighters next to nothing.
Boxing was a bettor’s province, and for years Herford had raked in money by betting heavily on Gans—not only that he would win, but when he would win—in what round. He often arranged to have Gans go easy on white fighters, enabling them to last a respectable amount of time so as not to embarrass them too badly. Gans had the talent to score a knockout in the round Herford ordained—and bet on. When Herford let him fight without restrictions, he was practically invincible. In time, Herford found fewer and fewer takers for his bets; almost no one wanted to bet against Gans. So he persuaded Gans to lose intentionally. One effect of this was to take money out of the pockets of poor blacks who bet on Gans religiously—and the thought tormented him. Six months before his trip into the desert, he admitted his folly to a newspaper reporter and vowed to fight honestly every time. Leaving Herford behind, Gans headed to Goldfield nagged by regret.

Copyright © 2012 by William Gildea


Excerpted from The Longest Fight by William Gildea Copyright © 2012 by William Gildea. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

William Gildea was a writer for The Washington Post from 1965 through 2005. He has covered the Olympic Games (four times), the World Cup (four times), and about fifty championship or major fights, principally in Las Vegas. Many of his pieces have appeared in Best Sports Stories and The Best American Sports Writing. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife, Mary Fran.

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The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
PUGILIST4LIFE More than 1 year ago
If you happened to stumble upon this book because you were interested in purchasing a biography of Joe Gans, the great Negro boxer and Hall of Fame inductee, then DO NOT make the horrible mistake of buying this pathetic excuse of a book! Just because a hack newspaper reporter tries to cross over into the "book" writing realm, doesn't mean that they are capable of making the successful transition from stringing a few paragraphs together for a newspaper story, to writing a full-length tome. This book unfortunately demonstrates that this "would-be" author is completely devoid of the skills necessary to pen a book length volume, and in fact, rarely has a semi-major publisher made a bigger blunder by polluting the universe with the mistaken publication of this book. Luckily for boxing fans and historians alike, there is already a superior extremely well-written & well-researched biography of Joe Gans available from all major bookstores written by Colleen Ayecock & Mark Scott, that is entitled "Joe Gans: A Biography of the First African American World Boxing Champion." Take my advise and buy the Ayecock/Scott Joe Gans biography, and bypass this inferior product completely, and I guarantee that you will be glad you did!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just dropping in because I really enjoyed this book, and it would be a real shame if the unglued, hostile review that's listed first on this page actually causes anyone not to buy it. This book's a wonderful snapshot of a certain time and place in American history, tying together the settling of the Wild West, race relations, and sports' place in society in the early 20th century. Sure, maybe if you're looking for a strict technical boxing book, you might fly into an inexplicable blind rage like the other poster here, but if you want an engaging read on a subject which deserves the attention, then I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written - precise, candid, and revealing! A fitting memorial to boxing's pound for pound greatest