Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

August 15, 2012

After 42 Rounds in the Ring, a Legend Emerges

Joe Gans won the longest championship bout ever fought, then continued to battle outside the ring.

Michael Gluckstadt

Comparing sports legacies across different eras is a rich, if fruitless, thought exercise. Which is the better Dream Team? How would Babe Ruth hit against today's pitching? Nowhere is it more prevalent than in boxing, with its countless lists of pound-for-pound champs and "greatest ever" claims at every weight class. Here's a fun one: Is there any lightweight who could go 42 rounds with Joe Gans?

William Gildea. Photo by Jerry Bauer.
"It's hard to compare eras, but Gans would not be embarrassed today."

William Gildea. Photo by Jerry Bauer.

That's what "Battling" Nelson did back in 1906, in the subject of long-time Washington Post writer William Gildea's book, The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion. In the mining town of Goldfield, Nevada, Gans emerged victorious in the longest championship bout ever held with boxing gloves (there is, remarkably, footage of the fight on YouTube). This is only part of the remarkable legacy Gildea explores of a black athlete who in many ways paved the way for Jackie Robinson.

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and has been edited for length and clarity, Gildea tells Gelf about the challenges of covering a century-old subject, Gildea's trusting nature, and a time before cornervmen threw in the towel.

Gelf Magazine: Was Gans's fight against Nelson the last fight in which there was no limit to the number of rounds?

William Gildea: This, I find, is a tough question and one I can't answer with certainty. I believe it to be the last championship fight without a limit. It was fought with basically the same rules we know today; there were longer fights in the 19th century. "Battling" Nelson lost his title in 40 rounds in 1910 in California; the referee stopped the fight when Nelson mistook the ring post for his opponent, but even this was scheduled for 45 rounds, as were the last two Gans-Nelson fights. Forty-five rounds at that time was typical.

Gelf Magazine: How dangerous was that?

William Gildea: Dangerous. Neither Gans nor Nelson were the same after their fight in Goldfield. As corner men acquired more authority and cared for their fighter, they threw in the towel—as did Eddie Futch on behalf of Frazier against Ali. But Gans, at Goldfield, ordered his corner not to show any sign that the fight had ended.

Gelf Magazine: How did people who weren't there follow the fight? Was it broadcast on radio? Did word get around that such a long fight was going?

William Gildea: It wasn't on the radio. Most people were told in advance that they could get the results round-by-round outside their local newspaper. Word got around during the fight that it was a long fight and the crowds in the many cities increased and numbered in the hundreds if not thousands; for the most part they gathered outside the newspaper offices and were informed by large signs or unfurled rolls of paper attached to the side of the building; or by men who shouted what was going on, sometimes through a megaphone. San Francisco and New York apparently had huge crowds, but I'm unable to put a number on it.

Gelf Magazine: Was it a challenge to write about a subject so old that no living witnesses—to the fight, anyway—could be interviewed?

William Gildea: That was a big handicap, especially for a newspaper guy. It made for a research project, an immense departure from what I was familiar with. With Gans, little was written and bits of information were found here and there. For example, it took me at least two months to determine that he was in the San Francisco earthquake. I suppose that, as with any historical figure, there remain unanswered questions, and I have plenty about Gans. I slowly came to terms with that. I went on because this guy intrigued me—the prejudice he had to overcome, his personality, his overlooked place among the best American athletes.

Gelf Magazine: Did Gans and Jack Johnson meet? What did Gans think of Jack?

William Gildea: Gans and Johnson allegedly met several times, whenever he came to Baltimore. One meeting I feel confident about; Johnson came to Gans's saloon and hotel, which he named The Goldfield, to seek advice on his upcoming bout with James Jeffries. Gans liked Johnson, although I don't believe he ever saw Johnson fight. He did see Jeffries work out and warned publicly not to bet on him just because he was white; he didn't believe Jeffries could come back.

Gelf Magazine: Do you agree with the analogy drawn between Gans and Jackie Robinson?

William Gildea: More than ever, I think Gans was the early Jackie Robinson. Gans was easier-going; Robinson had a temper. Gans showed a temper only once, in my research, and it was during the Goldfield fight. I saw Jackie play in person three or four times. He played good, hard baseball. He was among the last, not the last, to quit on his own terms, which we like; Gans stayed on probably because he thought he was indestructible and because he wanted to leave something to his wife and children.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think they would have gotten along?

William Gildea: Yes. Politically, I think they were different but it didn't matter to Gans; he liked everybody. Gans even liked Nelson. He liked Nelson's manager, even though that man forced Gans to weigh in three times the day of the Goldfield fight. Gans liked his own manager, even though that man took most of Gans's money until the moment they broke off their business relationship. Gans liked people, probably his strongest point.

Gelf Magazine: The review of your book on leads with this comment: "The amount of corruption and injustice in any given era of American prizefighting has little to do with its popularity or ensuing longevity." Do you agree?

William Gildea: A qualified yes—except now we're in a valley. Boxing has always been corrupt. With two people, a match could be fixed easily. I think I covered a fight in which one fighter fixed it, but I have it on one source only, which isn't enough. In more recent times, it's usually been slightly more subtle, mostly with judges and mostly on undercard bouts, and most of those were with predictable outcomes to pad one fighter's record. If this were the era of Ali-Frazier or Marciano-Walcott, you couldn't keep people from paying a fortune to watch.

Gelf Magazine: Gans is still considered by some to be among the greatest lightweight fighters of all time. How do you think he would have fared in the sport today?

William Gildea: Hank Kaplan (I visited with him before he died) ranked Gans and Benny Leonard one-two among lightweights. It's hard to compare eras, but Gans would not be embarrassed today.

Gelf Magazine: What drew you to Gans as a subject?

William Gildea: He was from Baltimore; I'm from Baltimore.

Gelf Magazine: What is it about boxing among all sports that brings out such great stories and writing?

William Gildea: The struggle we all face is easily seen in boxing—in taking up the sport, in the training for a particular bout, in the bout itself. Boxing has a long tradition; the buildup to a bout is easy to write because there's plenty of color (a scene to capture) and speculation and mini-events that can't be foreseen that create different emotions. The disorganization of boxing gives the writer easy access to the fighter, and fighters and writers get along; the emotions can be genuine. The fact that there are only two people involved makes it basic. It's easily oversimplified. It makes no sense except on rare occasions, like Hagler-Leonard.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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