JOE GANS was known as “The Old Master” for good reason. He was a master boxer, upright and clever, with a stiff punch in both hands. He was able to make opponents miss by moving his head a fraction and employed pin-point accuracy with his own retaliatory punches.

Joe Gans was the first native-born black American to win a world title, but, because of the attitude towards black boxers in the years he boxed (from 1891 to 1909), he often had to “know his place”. This meant that he often had to refrain from knocking out white opponents, accept the short end of the purse and sometimes deliberately lose. However, Gans was able to transcend all this and become one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters when he won the world lightweight title by knocking out Frank Erne in the first round.

Born Joe Gant in Baltimore, Maryland (his actual date of birth is unknown) to a dirt-poor family, he hardly went to school and was soon out on the oyster wharves earning a few cents fighting off the competition of the other boys his age. He learned to fight and was eager to box in the clubs to earn more. His earliest boxing experience was in a “battle royal” at the Monumental Theatre in Baltimore where several boxers were thrown into the ring together and the last one standing got the money. Gans’ dominance of these brutal set-tos attracted the attention of manager Al Herford, who turned him professional in 1891.

By the time he was 26 he had earned a world lightweight title chance against Frank Erne in New York. He was stopped by Erne in the 12th round because of an eye injury and had to wait more than two years for another chance. That same year, 1900, he was involved in an infamous match with world featherweight champion “Terrible” Terry McGovern in Chicago. The wild-swinging McGovern floored him four times before knocking him out in the second round, causing the jeering crowd to throw cigar butts into the ring. Gans later admitted that he had taken a dive. The city of Chicago authorities were so incensed they banned the sport.

After gaining revenge over Erne and winning the world lightweight title on May 12 1902, Gans remained champion for six years. He took on the best challengers available and with eight successful defences lost only to another legend in Sam Langford over 15 rounds in Boston in a non-title bout at welterweight.

Three years later Langford was fighting heavyweights like future champion Jack Johnson and Joe Jeannette.

In September 1903 Gans stepped up to welterweight to take on highly-regarded “Barbados” Joe Walcott. The amazing Gans forced a draw over 20 rounds and was even deemed unlucky not to get the decision by reporters.

In 1906 he twice knocked out Mike “Twin” Sullivan to claim the welterweight title before agreeing to defend against the “Durable Dane” Battling Nelson at lightweight. The fight was promoted by Tex Rickard and he and Nelson exploited the fact that Gans was black to offer him a poor purse. They also insisted he boil down to 133lbs, forcing him to weigh in three times on the day of the fight.

It was announced as a fight to the finish and Gans boxed superbly, dropping Nelson in the 15th round, cutting his mouth and drawing blood from his nose and ear. The strong Nelson employed some rough tactics as usual, punching low continually.

Finally, in the 42nd round, Gans was floored by a punch to the groin and Nelson was disqualified. The fight proved to be the beginning of the end for his career and his life. In the return two years later Gans, weakened by weight making and ill from tuberculosis, was knocked out in the 17th round, hitting the canvas nine times.

He was knocked out again by the rampant Nelson two months later in 21 rounds and had only one more fight. He died from tuberculosis in 1910 at the early age of 35.

Admired by Fitzsimmons

FORMER world heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons said of Gans, “He is the cleverest fighter, big or little, that ever put on the gloves. He is also a hard hitter. He uses one hand as equally well as the other and can score a knockout with either”.

Famous phrases, big fights

WHEN the young Gans was helping to provide for his family one of the luxuries they enjoyed was bacon. The story goes that later in his career he would let his mother know that he had won a contest by sending her a telegram that read: “I am bringing home the bacon”.

Gans fought a ‘who’s who’ of great fighters throughout his career. As well as Langford, Walcott, McGovern and Nelson, men like Australian great Young Griffo, Jack Blackburn (later Joe Louis’ trainer), Jimmy Britt and George “Elbows” McFadden adorn his statistics.

Fight manager George Blake, who worked with Fidel LaBarba and seconded Packey McFarland, once said of Gans: “I was very impressed with the way his brain worked. One day, he said to me, ‘If you hit a man in a place that hurts, that is the place to hit him again. You only have to hit him half as hard there as any other place to finish him’.”


Born November 25, 1874 in Baltimore, Maryland Died August 10, 1910 Wins 120 Knockouts 85 Losses 8 Draws 9 Newspaper Decisions 18 Best win Frank Erne (II) w ko 1 Worst loss Terry McGovern l ko 2 Pros Skilled, experienced, stamina Cons Opportunities restricted